Like many of its Asian neighbours, Thailand
is hoping to become a golf power. Unlike
the other countries, the country’s pace is
manageable and the prevailing attitude one
of serenity. James A. Frank reports
During the cultural revolution, the mantra on the
streets of Beijing was “The East is Red.” Four decades later,
Mao must be spinning in his tomb because with golf spreading
through Asia, today “The East is Green.”
Japan and Korea have long been golf-mad. China is muscling
in on the golf market as vigorously as the currency market.
Vietnam has beaten its swords into bunker rakes, there are
courses near the temples of Angkor Wat, and rumour has it that
Burma’s generals are driving Titleists instead of tanks.
And then there’s Thailand. Peaceful, friendly, non-confrontational
Thailand, a delightful amalgam of great food, beautiful
beaches, exemplary service, and the ability to satisfy almost
any non-prurient interest – all at very affordable prices. There
is culture – temples, palaces, museums – but it’s downplayed
so the emphasis can be put on enjoyment: watching the sun
set, getting a massage, riding an elephant, snorkeling, drinking,
lazing. Thailand is a playground for adults, the “anti-Asia.”
tastes in golf are more
than catered for at the
stunning Blue Canyon
Country Club, where there
are two tough 18-holers
“It all stems from the Buddhist religion,” explains Mark Siegel, managing director of tour operator Golfasian, an
American who has lived in Bangkok for 20 years. “The Thais
hate conflict. You can see it in the fact that they never take
sides, have never been colonized, and have not been involved
in any recent wars. It makes them great hosts, but is also the
reason nothing ever gets resolved here.”
Maybe so, but someone resolved to make golf a major ingredient
of Thailand tourism, and as a result there now are more than
250 courses. Admittedly most are nowhere near Western standards,
but a few dozen make the long trip well worth taking.
The courses are as different as the geography. Up north, in
the “Golden Triangle” where Thailand meets Burma and Laos,
the terrain is mountainous and the fairways wide. In the middle
of the country, around Bangkok and the resort cities that
lap up against the Gulf of Thailand, the designs range from
classic to excitingly modern. On the southern island of
Phuket, the golf has a resort feel: Rounds are longer, hotter,
and more expensive.
For a taste of old Siam, go north to Chiang Mai, the country’s
capital 800 years ago. The original city – a maze of winding
streets, wats (temples), and markets – is girded by walls
and a moat; the new city that surrounds it is filled with hotels,
shops, and restaurants. About half an hour into the nearby
mountains is five-year-old Chiang Mai Highlands, a well-maintained
course of broad expanses, dramatic changes in elevation,
and enough water and sand to put real risk into the many
Chiang Rai, another former capital, is a few hours to the east
and deeper into the triangle. Drugs are still smuggled through
the mountains, but visitors likely won’t see any evidence unless
they visit the House of Opium, a museum dedicated to the longtime
cash crop. The museum is across the road from one of the
area’s finest resorts, the Anantara Golden Triangle Chiang Rai,
which operates its own elephant camp: Asian elephants aren’t as
big as their Indian or African cousins, but they’re not small;
they’re also natural comedians and put on quite a show during
their late-afternoon bath in the Mekong River.
Nearby Santiburi Country Club is a big ballpark with plenty
of water and movement both side to side and up and down.
Both northern courses are cooled by mountain breezes, a welcome
characteristic that does not make the trip south. Chiang
Rai is also about an hour from Mae Sai, a border crossing into
Burma, which turns out to be little more than a street market
of cheap knock-offs, everything from sunglasses and DVDs to
Viagra and cigarettes.
from Chiang Rai,
the Santiburi Country
Club is a Robert Trent
Jones Jr. design – and
one that maximises the
natural elevation of its
Bangkok deserves a day or two of palaces, museums, and markets. For all the crowds, cars, and
cacophony, the capital flows with its own
serene choreography and is much less
manic that other Asian megacities. And as
is true throughout Thailand, it’s hard to
get a bad meal (although Westerners
might be wary of food carts on the street).
Less than an hour from downtown, the
Thai Country Club is traditional in both
design and amenities. The parkland course
is not long, but tightened with water and
sand. It’s perhaps best known for hosting
the 1997 Asian Honda Classic, when Tiger
Woods – visiting his mother’s home country
– drove the 360-yard par-four 10th hole
and then three-putted. Angrily.
Putting can be a challenge on most Thai
courses due to the strong grain and subtle
breaks. Most of the fairways and rough
consist of wiry, Bermuda-like grasses that
thrive in high heat and humidity. An
umbrella is a must, occasionally for protection from the rain
but more often from the sun.
Thai Country Club is one of many clubs with an excellent
caddie corps, young women who can earn more outdoors than
in an office. Covered head to toe – sporting a tan is tantamount
to admitting one works on a farm– the caddie is truly the
golfer’s best friend, offering yardages in serviceable English,
driving the cart, running to the shack for cold drinks, even giving
an impromptu back rub. They’re also delightful companions
who will gladly talk about their lives, teach a little of the language,
and make a badly played round enjoyable.
Pattaya, on the gulf three hours east of Bangkok, has many
massage parlors (both legitimate and not so), nightclubs, and
tourists frequenting the first two. The nearby Siam Country
Club has two fine courses that couldn’t be more different. The
nearly 40-year-old Old Course was the country’s first privately
owned layout: It is flat, lined with trees, and features rolling
greens, diabolical chipping areas, and a tough final four holes.
Just up the road, the two-year-old Plantation course is the wild
younger sister, 27 holes of big drops, uphill shots, acres of
sand (27 bunkers on one par-five hole alone!), and Himalayan
greens. Carved through fields of pineapple, tapioca, and sugar
cane, Plantation is usually the visitors’ preference; taken
together, the two courses offer stark contrasts and great fun.
Ocean views are
par for the course at
Phuket’s Mission Hills
Resort & Spa, a new
and challenging layout
from Nicklaus Design
Three hours west from Bangkok is Hua Hin, a quieter, family-
friendly gulf village. In town, the principal site is the summer
palace of King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-serving head of
state and a revered presence throughout the country. Just out
of town is one of the country’s newest and most highly regarded
courses, Banyan Golf Club.
The year-old Banyan was designed by a local architect who
whittled through fields of pineapple along a gently sloping hillside.
Perfectly maintained – the zoysia grass is lusher and easier
to play from than what’s found most everywhere else –
Banyan is beautiful and deceiving, demands the ability to move
the ball, and remains memorable months later. There are also
alluring views over the gulf, an ultra-modern clubhouse, and a
residential village in town that packages golf with modern
accommodations. Not far from Hua Hin, Black Mountain Golf
Club is another modern design, with streams and rock monoliths
strategically placed for challenge and excitement, a bit of
Trump-like eccentricity up and down the hillside.
Phuket is all about fun, all the time. It’s ringed with beaches,
offers every manner of hotel from backpacker-spartan to ultra luxurious
– the Anantara Phuket, near the island’s north end, is
regularly named one of the world’s top hideaways – and creature
comforts tend to be slightly more expensive than elsewhere
in Thailand. A cab ride away is Phuket City, where any
hedonistic itch can be scratched.
Tops among Phuket’s many golf alternatives is the Canyon course at Blue Canyon Country Club, which plays around and
down into a big hole with two lakes at the bottom. Hard and
long, Canyon is walking-only: Take it slow, drink plenty of fluids,
and listen to the caddie. The next-door Lakes course is easier,
more straightforward, and allows carts.
Built in the
remains of a former
tin mine, the Blue
Mountain course in
Phuket is routed
to take advantage of a
variety of landforms
Before scaling the Canyon, warm-up on the Banyan Tree
course at Laguna Phuket resort, which is also walking-only but
blessedly flat; it’s a good test for higher-handicappers if they
can avoid the lakes and survive the two long par-fives at the
finish. Another rehearsal in a similarly canyonesque vein is scenic
Red Mountain Golf Club, built in an abandoned tin mine;
it’s difficult, but has the good sense to permit carts.
Thailand’s courses are best explored with the help of an experienced
tour operator, and there’s none better than GolfAsian
(golfasian.com). The staff can arrange golf, hotels, meals, sightseeing…
you name it. Check out their website as well as golfinakingdom
com, a consortium of golf properties countrywide.
Hotels come in all price ranges. Consider staying in at least
one Anantara Resort, located in Phuket, Hua Hin, near Chiang
Rai, and elsewhere in Thailand; they’re expensive but among
the world’s finest. Bangkok has all the big hotels: The Westin
Grande is conveniently located in the busy Sukhumvit district;
Marriott operates the only resort in the city, one of many elegant
choices on the Chao Phraya River (with its own motor
launch from midtown). In Chiang Mai, a number of small, cozy
hotels sit inside the old walled city, notably the lovely De Naga.
The Banyan Course
at Laguna Phuket Resort
offers a wealth of scenic
lagoons, coconut groves
and undulating fairways
In Pattaya, the wild bar scene is at the south end of town so
consider staying north at the modern Woodlands Resort.
English is spoken almost everywhere, and most restaurants
menus are translated. Food is uniformly fresh and, away from
the big hotels, reasonably priced. The local beers are cheap and
good; wine is expensive.
It’s safe to walk around the cities at night, but taxis and tuktuks
(motorized three-wheel cabs) cost almost nothing. Foreign
currency is not accepted, ATMs are everywhere.
At the golf clubs, caddies are usually mandatory, but should
cost no more than 10 euros, including tip. Good clubs, shoes,
even umbrellas are rentable everywhere. Bring plenty of balls,
they’re ridiculously expensive.
Probably the most important decision is when to go. Very
close to the Equator, Thailand is always hot, with the winter
months the most temperate. Summer is rainy and humid.
Drink plenty of bottled water (beer isn’t very good for hydration,
sorry). The dress code is extremely casual, but some
palaces and temples deny entry to visitors in shorts or short
skirts, so pack accordingly.
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine