Japan may be the only country in the world that insures golfers in the event they hit a hole-in-one during a round of golf.
■ A Cinderella story outta nowhere
They say the odds of hitting a hole-in-one in golf is around 12,000 to 1 which is somewhere around the probability of finding a pearl in an oyster. And if your unlikely shot happens in Japan, you may be wishing for that pearl. That’s because upon sinking one, the player is morally obligated to hold and pay for a party in their own honor comparable to a mini-wedding.
We’re talking food, drinks, entertainment, and even souvenirs for all the guests, commemorating this special moment in casual sports. Depending on your financial situation, this may turn out to be a huge burden on your bank account. Luckily, insurance companies are here to help.
■ Hole-in-one insurance
Something known as “hole-in-one insurance” exists in a lot of countries as a type of prize indemnity insurance that covers tournament organizers.
Let’s say you want to hold a golf tournament and, as a special draw for participants, you offer a Lamborghini as a bonus prize for anyone who hits a hole-in-one. As we already saw, with the odds of hitting such a shot, it’s a reasonable risk for a sexy promotion…but you never know.
So, instead the organizers will buy some insurance at a much lower cost to cover the price of a high performance sports car in the rare chance that it’s needed.
In Japan, however, hole-in-one insurance is quite the opposite thing. Let’s take a look at an example of such a policy from a major company MS&AD Insurance Group.
Image: MS&AD Insurance Group (pdf)
In a nutshell it says that as long as you hit a hole-in-one or albatross (hole-in-two on a par-five hole) on Japanese soil with a witness, then you are eligible for coverage. The minimum witness is an employee of the golf course, most likely a caddy, but a combination of fellow players and other unrelated players waiting for their turn are acceptable.
Coverage includes the cost of the party, commemorative souvenirs for the guests, a commemorative tree planting on the course, a tip for the caddy (who just happens to be a key witness), and a philanthropic donation to the golf course itself up to a certain amount. Depending on the package, coverage can extend to one million yen (US$9,400)
■ Gentleman’s game
After reading that, if you’re cripplingly cynical like myself, you’re probably wondering what’s to stop people from defrauding hole-in-one insurance left right and center.
I asked that of an acquaintance who has golfed on some of the finest courses in Japan and abroad and who has heard a few tales of hole-in-one parties. He said, “Golf is generally considered a gentleman’s game. It’s not in the character of the players to do such a thing. Besides, if they got caught it would ruin their reputation.”
▼ Gentlemen Richard Nixon and Bob Hope taking a moment for some ashtray golf in the oval office
I then asked a friend who is an executive for an insurance company the same thing. She told me, “Of course, it’s easy to defraud. To investigate we can only interview witnesses, but even if someone says a hole-in-one wasn’t made, that’s not enough evidence to prove a fraudulent claim.”
This begs the question: Why are insurance companies in their right mind allowing such freewheeling coverage? The answer to that likely lies in the history of the custom.
■ Capitalism at its purest
Reading around about hole-in-one parties, the common reason given is that in Asian culture, when a great stroke of luck occurs, one ought to pay it forward as much as possible to avoid any misfortune down the road. While that may be true for Asian culture, it doesn’t really explain why only Japan has this particular ritual.
The Kyoei Fire and Marine Insurance company claims to have been the first to offer hole-in-one insurance back in 1982. At that time golf courses were luxuries only for the highly wealthy in a country with very limited space. It was also around this time that the Japanese economy was seeing a great deal of growth.
So it would seem likely that, around this time, some golfers with massive bank accounts and egos to match began this extravagant tradition. And insurance companies keenly saw an opportunity to woo them. It was kind of brilliant in that only people who could make use of hole-in-one insurance were pretty much guaranteed to require extensive coverage in general.
Fraudulent or not, giving away a free party is a small price to pay when it means a client is guaranteed to have loads of property to insure. Meanwhile, a caddy gets a nice payday, a golf course ends up with a nice chunk of change, and, most importantly, the client gets to soak in the honor of hitting a ball into a tiny hole from really far away. Everyone’s a winner!
However, those days led to an economic bubble which burst long ago. Also, golfing in Japan has become much more affordable in recent years and it’s not just a pastime of the elite. It will be interesting to see if hole-in-one parties and their insurance can continue much longer.
In the meantime though, if you happen to be in Japan and pull off a hole-in-one, you might want to keep it to yourself.