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Sunday, Feb. 9, 2003

Hole in one: Hole in pocket

Staff writer

All golfers dream that -- be it only once in their lifetime -- they might, miraculously, achieve a hole in one.

Outside the lofty realm of pros and single-digit handicaps, of course, a dream is exactly what that ambition remains for the vast majority of golfers. So, should it happen -- by dint of skill, or as a fluke -- it's sure to be an unforgettable event in a golfer's life . . . though in Japan, it can be painfully unforgettable.

Businessman Shin Sato's dream came true last November when he scored an ace for the first time in 35 years of playing golf. But then, he also discovered firsthand just what a costly dream it was -- as he ended up shelling out more than 500,000 yen.

Sato's serendipity came at the 15th hole of a course in Chiba Prefecture. The wind was pushing, and he chose a 7 iron for his tee shot at the 158-yard hole. He knew he struck the ball well in terms of its direction and carry. Then, as he stood there jaw agape, he saw it drop on the green, bounce -- and roll into the cup. Sato was at once swamped with applause and congratulations from the other players and caddies.

"I couldn't believe it," Sato says. "The excitement came later, gradually. I think I was just lucky."

But at the same time, Sato, a steelmaking company executive who plays golf about 60 times a year mainly with business partners, knew what awaited him after the initial euphoria had subsided.

It began immediately, in fact, as the seven other players in his group -- mostly business associates -- gave him 5,000 yen each as a congratulatory gift. To thank them, Sato was supposed to organize a special dinner for them all. Next, though, he had to give serious thought to the gifts he would present -- and to whom -- to commemorate his hole in one.

There was no escaping the iron grip of convention, so Sato had to share his good fortune with all his golf partners -- more than 100 of them, that is.

In Britain, where golf began, or in the United States, usually the one who scores an ace is congratulated by his or her partners and friends. In Japan, however, you are considered stingy and ignorant of etiquette if you don't distribute mementos commemorating the event among your friends.

A hole in one can be such an expensive ambition to realize that insurance companies even offer cover against the expenses incurred. One such policy, offered by Tokio Marine and Fire Insurance Co., for example, gives 300,000 yen cover against hole-in-one expenses for an annual premium of 7,000 yen.

Fortunately for Sato, even though he'd never expected to require it, he had just such a policy in place, and so was able to fund his 500,000 yen outlay from that insurance. That allowed him to send a gift -- a copper beer mug -- to 130 people in all, including colleagues in his company, business associates and his private golfing friends.

Now, two months after the dreamlike episode, he says: "It was a really happy event. But I find the custom a little strange. I've heard that some people even try to hide the fact that they scored an ace for fear of the consequences.

"That's a great shame considering that a hole in one is like a miracle that golfers should be very proud of."

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