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Golf in Thailand - Pattaya & Koh Samui

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 ‘rustic’,
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 was newish.

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 adjacent jungle.

Not only do the local caddies brighten up your round, most of them
can play a bit, too.

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

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