With a selfless dedication to duty that has become his
trademark, and under a highly-convincing disguise as a
mid-handicap hacker, Clive Agran jetted to Bangkok for a
tour of the finest courses Pattaya has to offer, and followed
that with an excursion to Koh Samui
Mention to your mates that you’re going
to Thailand and it’s all nudges and
winks. Women, on the other hand,
react rather differently and politely ask
if you’re taking your wife.Well, a friend
of mine took his better half to Bangkok
and ended up having to pay corkage! Before you ask how
much, I should perhaps explain that that was a joke, albeit
an appallingly sexist one.
To find out the naked truth about Thailand I took a 12-
hour flight from Heathrow and landed some time the next
day at the shiny new Bangkok Airport. If the rumours are
to be believed, there’s enough corruption and scandal surrounding
the construction of this airport to keep a dozen
investigative journalists going until the Open returns to
Carnoustie, but that’s not what interests me.
Instead, I whizzed up the almost completed motorway to
Pattaya. Although technically a seaside town, to describe it as
such would appear to bracket it with Skegness and
Bournemouth whereas it more properly belongs alongside
Soho and Montmartre as it boasts one of the highest concentrations
of discos, bars,massage parlours, gay clubs, brothels
and assorted decadent nightspots in the world. Although
there was a time when such a dazzling assortment of
debauchery might have aroused my interest, nowadays my
pulse is more likely to be quickened by a pretty par-three.
However, I recognise that man does not live by golf alone
and sense that some readers might, for whatever
respectable reason, be interested in a more thorough
examination of what Thailand has to offer. Therefore, purely
for the purpose of research, I overcame my instinctive
disapproval to venture forth into the fleshpots of Pattaya.
My principal problem with pole dancing was managing to
maintain an intelligent conversation, never easy at the best
of times, while half-a-dozen nubile nymphs were gyrating just
over the left shoulder of the bloke I was chatting to. Roger,
who was trying to talk me into starting a new life in Thailand.
Having recently acquired a very beautiful and rather young
Thai wife, he listed the benefits. Apart from the obvious, they
were: tropical climate, remarkably cheap housing, beautiful
beaches, wonderful cuisine, low cost of living, free premiership
football live on television and superb golf courses. Only
the last named was of real interest. But in this hedonistic
haven, even the Royal & Ancient game had sexual overtones
in the cute shape of female caddies.
Ever the consummate professional, I set out to uncover
the truth about Thai caddies and, disguised as an average
hacker, I first visited Burapha, one of the 20 or so courses
strewn around Pattaya. Unlike the girls in the bar the night
before, the caddies could hardly have been less scantily
clad. With matching jumpsuits, hats and wraparound
scarves, it was as well that they were numbered otherwise
it would have been hard to tell them apart. Mine was 102
and named ‘La’, presumably after the French definite article.
Given the number of ‘ladyboys’ there are in Thailand,
had she been called ‘Le’, I would have been suspicious. Out
of the 350 caddies at Burapha, only six are fellas who, one
imagines, are much in demand when a gay golf society rolls
up the luscious drive.
There are four nines at Burapha – American Wood,
British Links, Crystal and Dune, which abbreviates to A, B,
C and D. A and B go together as do C and D. I tackled the
former pairing and was most impressed. Both nines are
pretty open, well maintained, user friendly and very pretty.
‘A’ is fairly flat with mounding either side of the fairways
while ‘B’ is a lot hillier and more challenging. La did everything
you might reasonably expect of a caddie. She gave
me accurate yardages, the line on putts, advised on club
selection, repaired divots and pitch marks, cleaned the
clubs, kept score, said ‘good shot,’ albeit infrequently, and
did her best to suppress a giggle. Her reward was a 300 Baht tip which, although only about £4, was the upper limit
of what was recommended.
A second night of painstaking research in downtown
Pattaya merely reinforced my earlier impression that it’s
no place for an innocent journalist. With another tough
day in prospect, therefore, I made my excuses, retired to
my hotel room alone and vowed to focus my energies on
my short game.
With that sort of dedication, one might reasonably have
expected me to have reaped a rich reward around the
Emerald course the next day. My caddie was called ‘Oi,’
which made me feel rather ill-mannered. “Oi, my 7-iron,” is
never going to sound nice.
According to the plaque in the clubhouse, this is a Nick
Foldo (sic) design. Rumour has it that England’s six-times
major winner was never paid, so maybe his name was
deliberately misspelt for legal reasons. Another clubhouse
notice warns that no more than five should play in a group.
Leaving aside what affect that would have had on, say,
‘Madness’, it’s designed to discourage the Thai tendency to
play in large numbers.
The course can perhaps best be described as rustic. Far
from a slur, that’s a genuine attempt to describe the rather
wild and natural feel that it exudes. Although clearly not
manicured, it’s in fine shape, which is how your game
should be to enjoy the tight and testing examination that it
presents. Two and three-tiered greens, elevated tees, very
few flat lies, the ever menacing presence of impenetrable
jungle and a wonderful set of par-threes all add to the fun.
Best described as
the Nick Foldo (sic)
designed Emerald course
Back to Bangkok airport and then an hour’s hop to the
idyllic tropical island of Koh Samui.With tropical fish tanks
in the toilets, complimentary beverages and free internet
access in the lounge, this is the nicest airport in the world.
After such a glorious introduction, the island – which is
two-thirds of the way down Thailand’s east coast – could
easily have been an anti-climax, but it wasn’t. In fact, it’s
heavenly. Upmarket of Phuket and awash with rumours
that the Beckhams have bought a house there, it oozes
class and quality. As well as spectacular beaches, there’s a
training school where monkeys learn to shin up the palm
trees and pluck the ripe coconuts. The next thing they
should teach them is to retrieve golf balls because Lon, my
caddy at Santiburi Samui Country Club, was understandably reluctant to risk a snake bite even when the ball concerned
Santiburi is spectacular and surely draws a gasp of admiration
from ever intrepid golfer who ventures up the mountainside
and on to the clubhouse terrace to enjoy the
panoramic view over the bay. And the immaculately presented
course is equally impressive. Carved out of coconut
groves and clinging to the mountain, it’s a cross between a
helter-skelter and a roller-coaster with rapid changes in elevation,
precariously perched tee boxes, dramatic drops and
Not only do the
most of them
can play a bit,
Reluctant though I was to leave Lon and this lovely island,
at least my departure provided another opportunity to experience
Koh Samui airport. A connecting flight at Bangkok
carried me to the most northerly town in Thailand, Chang
Rai from where you can explore the infamous ‘Golden
Triangle’ and look in Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
Call me a philistine but, from an interest point of view, a
quality golf course comfortably beats a Buddhist temple
every time. And the Santiburi Golf Club is one such classy
creature. At its hub is a modern clubhouse from which the
1st, 9th, 10th and 18th radiate like the spokes of a wheel.
Opened in 1992, it’s a Robert Trent Jones Jnr creation that
has hosted a number of pro tournaments. Gently undulating,
it’s an exotic variant on a classic English parkland course
and is eminently walkable. Fabulously maintained, with
beautifully shaped and well-defined fairways, attractive lakes
and manageable rough, it provides plenty of room and a very
fair challenge with the problems clearly displayed. Despite a
negative name, my caddie, No, was extremely encouraging
and on the frequent occasions when I hit a wayward shot,
she would look at me with real sadness and say: “So very
sorry.” In return, I put the assessment slip she handed me at
the end of the round into the ‘Excellent’ box.
The course at Santiburi Samui Country
Club is a cross between a helter-skelter
and a rollercoaster – the glorious
greenery typical of Thailand
Back to Bangkok for one last hurrah. A congested capital,
it is a curious combination of jams and jasmine. Waterways
offer one escape from the motorised mayhem while the
underground provides another. Golf is a good antidote to the inevitable urban stress and is thus a popular pastime
amongst the movers and shakers of Thai society.
Not a great distance from Bangkok, but still two hours’
drive away, is Wangjuntr. If you’re playing the new
Highland course rather than the older Valley course, you
had better add another ten minutes to drive to the first tee.
It’ll be a lot closer when the new clubhouse is finished.
The first half of the Highland opened a little over a year
ago while the second nine was only recently completed.
Consequently the course is still bedding in but there’s still
plenty to ponder and much to admire about its curious
and quirky layout.
Confusion commences on the first tee, where two distances
are given. Noot, my caddie, explained that one is to
the green on the left while the other is to the green on the
right. Yes, there’s either a double green or two separate
greens on every hole. Quite why is hard to fathom because
the maintenance costs must double as well. But as well as
the curiosity value it does provide more options when setting
up the course. Rather than mix and match, which
might be too confusing, the policy is to alternate between
the left and right greens daily.
Stunning panoramas are
only part of the package
when you play the Santiburi
Samui Country Club
Also a little confusing are the fairway yardage markers,
until you twig that the ones on the left are to the left green
and the ones on the right are to the right green. Other oddball
features on this eccentric course are vast grass
bunkers, scattered boulders, bunkers and ponds in the
middle of greens (a local rule allows you a free drop where
you’re prevented from putting straight at the hole).
Although clearly not a place for purists, the course has
appeal beyond its oddity, not least because of the spectacular
scenery. Another 18 holes are under construction and
it will be interesting to see what they look like.
Although I doubt that it had been deliberately planned
that way, the prettiest caddie and course had been saved
to last. The fact that the latter has left a longer-lasting
impression speaks volumes about me and my middle-aged
priorities. Sorry, Boo. The Thai Country Club is one of
those super-smart establishments that make you feel
ridiculously privileged just to be there. With acres of
flower-beds and a locker room the size of Chertsey, it’s no
wonder that Bangkok bankers feel at home here.
The pretty parkland course is so perfectly manicured
that you might hesitate to take a divot. Just walking on the
lush turf is a joy and there’s no need for a buggy because
the hills are hardly worthy of the name. Elevation is perhaps
all it lacks but that didn’t bother Tiger Woods when
he played here and it shouldn’t worry you. Like Thailand,
it’s a perfectly pleasurable experience.
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine