In the great words of Dr Bob Rotella (a leading sports psychologist), golf is not a game of perfect. There is no perfect swing, no perfect technique, shot or decision, just the best we can do. However, Japanese club makers Honma (for over 50 years) do their utmost to defy this statement. They continue to strive for perfection from their clubs, and by using the best materials possible and arduous dedication to their craft, they get pretty damn close.
I wanted to fully discover why Honma clubs are held in such high esteem and why it took some time to find any information about how they make their equipment. I started at their main centre of operations, a factory based in Sakata (in northern Japan, just north of Shonai airport).
Honma employs around 500 staff at different levels ranging from Assistant to Master Crafter. Club making is an elite profession in northern Japan, its workers extremely devoted to maintaining their own high standards and doing so with unprecedented pride. To be accepted into the industry, particularly by such a company as Honma, is a great honour. People join as young apprentices and plan to stay there and hone their skills for life hoping one day to be titled a master.
The skills of the master craftsman are honed to such an extent that the difference between his level of ability and that of an apprentice starting out appears vast. The most impressive skill that the apprentices are expected to develop on their journey to master craftsman is an ability to, as they say, “feel” the club. A master is able to hold a club, close his eyes, make a few swings and actually feel the club striking a ball. He can feel the imperfections and faults in the club and thus rectify them. This coupled with rigorous testing using the most modern and efficient tools produces some truly magnificent clubs.
Honma are also surprisingly advanced in their construction of shafts. When I first looked into their methods, I believed them to be traditionalists who refuse to use modern technologies but insist on hand crafting everything, contrary to that, they have been at the leading edge of shaft technology ever since the composition of carbon and titanium shafts. This means that not only are their club heads at a high standard, but they set the standards
These clubs are made from the finest materials available. Gold, Copper, Brass, Titanium, Graphite, Boron, Persimmon, and a multitude of other materials are incorporated into the production of clubs that some consider to be the finest in the World.
Every Honma iron head is individually cast using the wax loss method. A replica of the head made entirely from wax is placed into a mix of ceramic and sand which, when left to dry, forms the ceramic mold. The wax is then melted within the ceramic mold, which continues to harden, leaving it ready for pouring.
Next the mold is filled with molten steel formula to produce the head. Over 150 steps are carried out in the process of producing each individual club head, each one performed with care and attention to improve the quality of the finished product.
This process does differ slightly depending on what star level the customer has purchased. They work on a 5 star basis, 2 being the most basic yet still above any other make in quality, and 5 being the grandest, most impressive grade. Only the Senior Master Crafters at the Sakata factory are allowed, or even able, to make the 5 star as they require such extreme skill and precision. The Master Crafters make the 3 star and the 4 star and the apprentices produce the 2 star.
When asked “What do Honma give its customers that’s better than other companies and do the clubs justify their cost?” Michael O’Rourke a professional from Worplesdon Golf club a qualified PGA instructor and custom fitter of Honma golf clubs answered:
“Look, I love it when someone comes to me asking for a Honma custom fitting, it means I’m about to make someone very happy. To watch them hit a Honma club for the first time is a real privilege, they are very easy to hit and they look great. The materials they use are the best and as long as they can afford them, I love to suggest them. In terms of justifying their cost, with Honma, you’re getting one of a kind, that’s something the mass produced clubs of other companies cannot contend with.”
When I read more and more into what Honma clubs deliver, it seems apparent that people fall in love with them the moment they hit their first ball. Words often used to describe them are powerful, crisp, pure and forgiving. It’s difficult to imagine a club to be so expensive, in Japan, to own a set of Honma clubs is far more prestigious than any car. The confidence this then provides is an outstanding feeling and to Honma, this is paramount for their customers.
This high level of attention to their products and the promise they make to their customers, that being to produce the very best you can buy with no compromises, creates some truly magnificent clubs. Clubs that are not simply a stick with an end to hit a ball with, but a piece of art, passion and precision to truly make the best of your performance.