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Good As Gold?

With sales of $165 million in 2003, Honma is a boutique compared with companies such as Callaway and TaylorMade-Adidas (with 2003 sales of $814 million and $800 million, respectively). Yet it offers more current club lines than either. Leaf through the forty-two-page Honma catalog and your head will swim; it features eight different titanium drivers, six of them available as fairway woods in at least four different lofts, ten different sets of irons, two styles of wedges and eleven different putters.

That's to say nothing of shafts, which many consider Honma's strong suit. The Sakata plant makes eighteen types of graphite or composite shafts. Some have dual kick points; others are stabilized with parallel titanium threads running the length of the shaft (a concept Honma patented in the U.S. in 1991). The latest innovation, called ARMRQ (pronounced "R-mark"), braces the shaft with carbon fibers running in four directions, interlocking in a way Honma engineers liken to the joints in a stalk of bamboo.

None of this comes cheap, but not all of it is off the charts. Honma's least expensive lines, which include its Tour World clubs for low handicappers, range from about $1,700 to $2,500 for ten irons (three-iron through sand wedge, which Honma calls the eleven-iron). From there you enter the rarefied air of the five-star rating system, introduced in 1991. As you ascend through one-star, two-star and three-star models, the clubheads stay functionally the same but gain gilding, while the shafts ratchet up in technological sophistication.

A single four-star iron, its cavity back plated in twenty-four-karat gold, with two gold hosel rings, retails for about $1,200. Take the same club, further Midas-ize it and add two platinum hosel rings, and you have the ultimate five-star stick. Price per iron: $2,455.

Five-star clubs look perfectly normal at address. There's nothing to distract you from hitting a good shot, though as you follow through, your playing partners may be temporarily blinded by sun glinting off the hosel rings. Actually, the rings are fairly subtle. A jeweler would appreciate them, and his loupe would come in handy for viewing. The five-star has five narrow rings: a platinum and a gold side by side, and another platinum sandwiched between two gold. Each ring is composed of tiny rectangular facets. If you hold the club almost under your nose and turn it slowly in your fingers, you will find the insignia 24K on the gold rings and PT1000 on the platinum rings.

That is the micro experience. The macro achieves full splendiferousness when all fourteen clubs are massed in the tooled leather Honma staff bag (a mere $1,975). With the tops of the woods and the cavity backs of the irons plated in gold, platinum hosels glistening, the black mouth of the bag begins to suggest the entrance to King Solomon's mines. Stand back, ye mortals, and lower your gaze.

If you're thinking that a five-star cannot possibly play $1,300 better than a four-star—let alone $2,225 better than the same club in one-star dress—you're missing the point. "You gotta understand where Honma originated," says Kenton Ferguson, a former architect who last year joined Honma Golf Direct as its director of marketing. "In Japan, if they see somebody with a set of five-star Honma irons and woods, they say, 'Hey, this guy's the big cheese.'"

Joe Czika, Honma Direct's logistics manager, breaks down the pecking order like this: "CEOs play five-star. Senior vice presidents and directors have four-star. Middle management plays three-star. White-collar workers have two-star or one-star." Honma is said to be the weapon of choice when a yakuza (a Soprano-san) takes to the links. Whichever side of the law you're on, as Ferguson puts it, "Over there, if you play Honma, you're somebody."

Furthermore, price doesn't resonate with Japanese the same way it does with Americans. Here, the greatest shame is to pay full retail; there, people are ashamed not to. This is nowhere more striking than in the way the Japanese give gifts. "You would never buy a gift at a discount store," says Richard C. Helmstetter, "because the recipient would be insulted that you didn't think enough of him to pay full price." Helmstetter, Callaway Golf's senior executive vice president for development, lived in Japan from 1968 to 1986.

How would the recipient know how much the giver paid, or necessarily where he purchased it?"In Japan you don't use gift wrap per se. You present the gift in the packaging of the store where you bought it," Helmstetter explains. "There is a saving grace in that. If you bought the driver at the most expensive store on the Ginza, it could be unplayable, but that won't matter because you showed your regard for the guy by buying it at the right place."

Connoisseurship and attention to detail are also deeply ingrained in the Japanese character. "It's difficult to describe the premium they put on education and information in particular," says Michael Norman, an observer of Japanese culture and the author of a forthcoming book on the Bataan Death March of World War II. "They appreciate thoroughness. One need only look at the Japanese stone garden or sand garden, the hours and hours they spend raking those grains of sand until they're perfect. Think about the pruning of a bonsai tree. This meticulousness, this fastidiousness, is cultural."

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