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Good As Gold?

Once a day a UPS van pulls up to a nondescript two-story office building in Raleigh, North Carolina, and parks by a side door whose black glass obscures the interior but lets the occupants see who is outside. There is no sign by the door or, for that matter, by the road. The driver presents himself, and he's buzzed in.

A security camera gazes down on the reception area. Farther into the suite, where all doors are kept locked, other cameras keep watch as the company's three employees carefully pack merchandise in long, thin, plain cardboard boxes. Before each piece of equipment is placed in a box, its serial number is photographed. For security reasons, the company's name appears only on the return address of the shipping labels. The UPS driver carries the packages out to the truck, the black door of the building latching securely behind him, and he returns to the depot, where, until the items are sent out, they are held in a locked cage reserved for the most valuable cargo.

All these precautions may seem excessive, given that the goods are just golf clubs. But these are not ordinary clubs. They are Honmas—by a wide margin the most expensive golf clubs in the world. Honma's entry-level irons begin hundreds of dollars above where top-of-the-line sets by leading manufacturers like Titleist, Callaway and TaylorMade leave off. From there they climb into an exalted realm where a single club can cost more than you have ever dreamed of spending on everything in your bag. At the top of the bean stalk, at what the company calls its five-star level, a set of ten irons, three woods, a putter and a staff bag will set you back more than $36,000.

If you haven't heard of Honma, don't feel bad. Neither had Donald Trump, that well-known connoisseur of all that glitters. When I told him that a set of five-star irons comes with inlays of twenty-four-karat gold and PT1000 platinum and costs $22,000, he barked into the phone, "Have them send me some irons and I'll tell you whether they're worth it." (Later I learned the set actually cost $24,500.) Honma's American distributor convinced the home office in Japan to do just that. Trump was probably one of the first Americans to try out Honma's newest irons, the TM-504; he was also sent a 420RF titanium driver ($1,435) to put to the megamogul test.

A few weeks after they'd arrived, Trump called me. "I think they're great," he said. "I find they play very, very well. They're very beautiful clubs, nicer than any I've seen."

The main reason you and most of the Western hemisphere might squint at the name Honma—change the m to a d and you have one of the most recognizable brand names on earth—is because up to now, the company has been content to rely on the fanatical loyalty of its core customers, affluent Asians. "It's a company of true craftsmen," says Chris Lannom, president of Honma Golf Direct, which distributes Honma in the U.S. (minus California and Oregon) from that black-windowed suite in Raleigh. "What it's not is a marketing company, or you would have known about them long ago."

In Japan, where golf revolves around status—it's not the people's game it is in Scotland, or even here—the precious materials in the clubs and the eye-popping prices they command convey enormous prestige. At the same time, the clubs perform. As a result, the name Honma is spoken with reverence there, especially by golfers whose fathers and grandfathers may have played clubs designed by the founder himself, Hiro Honma, the Karsten Solheim of Japan.

The Honma phenomenon is not that hard to understand, even putting aside the Japanese cultural angle. A $30 Timex thrums just as steadily as a $35,000 diamond-and-platinum Rolex, but function is the least of what a luxury purchase is about. So it isn't surprising that celebrities have recently picked up on the Honma mystique. Last year the Grammy-winning pop star Marc Anthony bought a set of five-star irons, explaining, "Fame is addictive. Money is addictive. Attention is addictive. But golf is second to none." Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens, a six-handicapper as well as a future Hall of Famer, was introduced to Honma during a trip to Japan last fall. He liked what he saw and ordered a set of clubs. Notes his agent, Jim Murray, "He says he's hitting the heck out of the driver."

Intriguingly, Honma is now making a push into the U.S. market. At the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Florida, in January, the company rented a 1,500-square-foot booth in a prime location near the entrance to the main exhibit hall. It even sent a high-level delegation from Japan. At PGA shows past, Lannom, whose company is not a subsidiary of Honma, would rent a little booth in Siberia on his own dime. And if he wanted to meet with Honma brass, he was the one who had to get on a plane.

Perhaps Honma is on to something with its fastidious attention to detail and its tiers of artful embellishment. Is it possible—now that the USGA has slapped a limit on clubhead size, trampoline effect and other performance-enhancing aspects of design—that the next frontier will be aesthetic?

Ever since Hiro Honma started repairing golf clubs in 1958 at the driving range he and his brothers owned in Yokohama, Japan, customers have found their way to him. In 1959 he began designing and building his own clubs. In 1962, with his brothers, Yukihiro and Hisazumi, he launched what would become Honma Golf Co. Ltd. with the first of several shapely, long-hitting persimmon drivers. "Back in the day when we all played persimmon," says teaching pro Butch Harmon, "Honma made them about as good as anybody."

Hiro Honma's philosophy was quintessentially Japanese: He wanted to craft an instrument, lovely to behold, from precious materials he felt would bestow on the owner a sense of confidence and grace. At the same time he wanted his customers to blister the ball, so as early as 1973 he began selling woods with graphite shafts. The company started making its own graphite shafts in 1978 and went on to embrace titanium, composite materials and computer-assisted design.

Yet Honma has never bowed to automation. On its web site and in brochures, it touts the meticulous process involving dozens of steps by which senior craftsmen produce its top-of-the-line clubheads. (Though Honma does make forged titanium woods, all its irons are cast.) At one time, the company employed 2,100 people at its vaunted facility in Sakata, nestled on 124 acres north of Tokyo in the foothills of Mount Chokai. These days the number is down to 425, but Honma continues to make on-site all its heads, grips and graphite shafts—everything except steel shafts, which it buys from Nippon Steel and Dynamic Gold.

Honma has its own way of doing just about everything. Every club comes with a lifetime warranty: free repair for as long as you own it. Honma keeps older designs in production years longer than other companies. Yet it introduces new models at a dizzying pace, partly because fans tend to snatch up the latest numbers like so many Beanie Babies.

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