Surrounded by red fountain grass and giggly women caddies, Mukund Padmanabhan makes his way around some distractingly beautiful golf courses in Thailand.
Golf begins on a disastrous note in Thailand. At the first hole on the Siam Country Club Pattaya Plantation, I choose the high-risk route, or the so-called Tiger line, to the green that is much further than it seems and fiercely guarded by a battery of gaping bunkers. I land on the lip of a really precipitous one and find the ball at shoulder level when I get into the sand.
Three strokes that resemble three high tennis forehands, all of them shanks (misses). Then a modest tap out followed by a surprisingly good chip on the green and a lucky long single putt.
“Great par,” says Spencer Robinson, the Singapore-based managing editor of the Asian Golf Monthly, who hasn’t seen the mess I made along the way. “More like three over,” I reply.
We are part of a group from a few countries in Asia on a most unusual junket — designed for journalists who actually play golf as opposed to those who merely write about it. The idea is to take them around some of the best golf courses in the country and show them what Thailand — already a major golf tourism destination worth US $ 2 billion — has to offer.
The Pattaya Plantation, a sister course of the Siam Country Club (Old Course), is the first privately owned golf course in Thailand. The 27-hole new course, opened only in 2008, has each nine-hole stretch named after the traditional plantations in the area: Tapioca, Sugar Cane, Pineapple. Undulating and with views, the course seems to follow the natural lie of the land, and offers great views of the surrounding countryside that, in some places, stretch as far as Pattaya city and the ocean. Patches of red fountain grass, a native of Thailand that is used in a number of courses, grow like rocky outcrops, adding a nice touch of ochre to the surrounding green.
It isn’t until the remarkable fifth hole, which seems designed as much for the eye as for the game, that I manage to make my first bogey. A terrifying necklace of bunkers is strung up the hill on the left, inviting the golfer to either go way left of them or take the risky shortcut over the water to the right. My game gets better as I get used to the conditions but I still lose the 100 baht bet to Spencer; I will lose once more to him during the trip.
“You can find good golf courses pretty much anywhere in the world,” says Prasertchai Phornprapha, managing director of the two Siam Country Club courses. “But what I and others can offer you here is a certain experience.”
About three per cent of the estimated 20 million tourists that will visit Thailand next year will look for this experience in one of the country’s five major golf regions — Bangkok, Pattaya, Hua Hin, Chang Mai and Phuket.
So what exactly is this experience? According to Mark Siegel, who owns and runs Golfasian, a leading operator for golf package tours in Thailand as well as Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia (www.golfasian.com), it lies in a number of things — many of which lie outside the golf course, such as cheaper accommodation, cheaper green fees, great food, golf-friendly weather round the year, and — yes — the caddies. (Over 90 per cent of Thailand’s caddies are women, a statistic for which I couldn’t find a satisfying explanation.) “They are Thailand’s secret weapon,” Mark quips. “They have fun and really like their jobs.”
Golf is relatively new to Thailand. In 1906, it began being played at the Bangkok Sports Club, and in 1924, the King granted permission for the construction of a course in Hua Hin. Most of its 270 courses were built in the 10 years after 1985. With the anticipated growth of inbound tourist arrivals, expected to touch 30 million by 2015, Thailand hopes to grab a larger share of the US $ 17 billion golf tourism industry with its value-for-money golf packages.
At Laem Chabang International Country Club, the next golf stop between Pattaya and Bangkok, I am ferried around in the buggy by a plump and genial woman nicknamed ‘On’, who breaks into giggling fits at the slightest provocation. As the round wears on, her nickname would become the nucleus for some of her humour. Example: “On?” I would ask her to check whether a ball I had hit had reached a blind green. “Yes, Mr. Mookun?” she would reply innocently.
Set on a sprawling 700-acre property, the kind of size that dwarfs most of our golf courses, the Jack Nicklaus-designed 27-hole Laem Chabang offers three kinds of 9-hole terrains — Mountain, Valley and Lake. It’s a wet overcast day, making the light softer, the grass greener, and the course, with its fairways that swell and heave along the mountains, much lovelier.
Final round at the Muang Kaew Golf Club, which describes itself as a golfing oasis in Bangkok. There are places on this course where you feel you could be in the middle of the country — the lovely 12th hole has a slim water body that snakes all the way on the left from the tee box to the green. Here and there — as when you buggy under a towering flyover — there are reminders that you are after all in a city course.
On one hole, we wait at the tee box as a gaggle of colourful ducks make their noisy and languorous bottom-shifting waddle across the fairway. It is moments like these that remind you why golf is so special, how different it is depending on where you play it, and how distractingly beautiful the experience can be.
(The writer was in Thailand at the invitation of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.)