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Amazing Thailand - Golf in Thailand
Charles Briscoe-Knight

The logo for Thai Tourist Authority over the last couple of years has read "Amazing Thailand", and everyone who has visited the country for the first time has echoed that sentiment vociferously. And now golfers making the journey for the first time are addict­ ed to a new Holy Grail. From tentative early steps around the turn of the century, when the game was played on a nine-hole course within the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, to the present establishment over 200 courses, the Thai golf experience has grown relentlessly.

Designs by Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Peter Thomson and Robert Trent Jones Jnr are all to be found here, representing a pedigree of enormous breadth, and so, too, are courses by Asian designers that lack nothing either on the drawing board or in their execution.

This is your eastern promise. You will not be short­ changed on quality by golf in Thailand.

Mention of change also prompts me to make the point that the cost of all this will not set you back a king's ransom. Far from it. With the Far Eastern economic upheavals in the last couple of years, the local currency, the baht, is at a level which, generally speaking, will offer you two rounds for the price of one in Florida.

After the green fee, the next call on your wallet will be more pleasurable - the hiring of a caddie. Generally, they are all young females, with inexhaustible smiles. If the heat is your problem, you can have a caddie for a brolly and wet towel, a caddie for your bag, and share one as a forecaddie for your drinks. The banter with your caddie, albeit in pidgin English, will make for a wonderful day's golf. Be prepared, though, for a lot of giggles if you hit into a lake. Water and surlyn seem to provoke unmitigated mirth.

My first port of call was a Faldo design about 40 minutes east of Bangkok - Windmill Park Country Club. A testing layout in three loops of six holes around copious amounts of water, one of the features of the facility are the stadium lights for night golf. In recent times these have not been used, but as the economy picks up, so will the demand for golf at all hours. Jet lag and my first exposure to Thai heat combined to ensure an unremarkable score, but I want to return at a later date to do justice to this terrific track.

The Lam Luk Ka Country ClubThe Lam Luk Ka Country Club lies 18 miles east of Bangkok Airport. Although only established in 1994, this Roger Packard design has a feeling of longevity that belies its youth. There are plenty of trees and water to negotiate, along with tight fair­ ways and greens. Accuracy should be favoured to power.

If you journey for about a couple of hours to the west and slightly north of Bangkok, you enter the Kanchanaburi region of the country. This is an area steeped in Second World War history, as its major tourist attraction is the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai. Still attracting millions of sightseers each year, the area now has several golf clubs to keep you in the region after paying your respects to the war dead at the local cemetery.

Mission Hills Golf & Country Club was designed by Jack Nicklaus when he was apparently in one of his more forgiving moods. Opened in 1991, it is, however, still quite a test for the average player. Nicklaus's use of 'waste areas' - sand deemed not to be a hazard, but simply an area to be avoided - etch out this layout and make it both a pleasure and a pain. Pleasure to view, pain if you strike it wrong.

Further up the road, alongside the River Kwai, is the grand resort development of Nichigo Country Club. Voted by an international panel last year as one of Asia's top-five courses, it has three separate nines, each over 3,500 yards, par 36.

Now, how many of you have arrived on the first tee all lathered up and in a sweat because your car's broken down? A nice touch at Nichigo, to relieve you of all this tension, is that the journey from the clubhouse to the first tee is by elephant. Quickly, one gets into its lazy rhythm and acquires the feeling that the gentle Thai lifestyle can be easily adopted and is beneficial to both the soul and the swing.

Three hours drive south from the Kanchanaburi region we stayed in the Cha Am/Hua Hin resort area. This is a traditional beach and holiday area and has been the favourite summer vacation spot of the Thai royal family since the 1920s, when HM King Rama VI built the Klai Kangwon Palace. The small town is littered with traditional Thai seafood restaurants, bars and clubs. Living is truly easy.

When we pitched up at the Majestic Creek Club near Cha Am, it seemed like a thousand cad­ dies appeared as if from nowhere. Mine was at my side for the whole day and, with perfect manners, had everything ready exactly when it was needed. Her name was Eh and my partner's caddie was called No, so you can perhaps imagine the confusion that ensued during the round day. All we needed was another one called Yea.

Majestic Creek turned out to be a really good test of shot-making, and the 15th, with which we opened in a shotgun start, turned out to be one devilish hole - a dogleg protected by five fairway traps, a green surrounded by yet more sand and severely sloping left-to-right.

The first championship-standard golf course in Thailand was also one that received royal patronage in the 1920s. Opened in 1924, Royal Hua Hin was commissioned by HRH Prince Kampaengpetch. He called upon a Scottish railway engineer, one A.O. Robins, to create the course, which he did with considerable elan, and to this day it retains its original charm. At many famous old courses in the UK, railway lines and golf clubs are inseparable, and so it is in Thailand. Royal Hua Hin has a station right outside its main entrance and the king has his own (elaborate) waiting room on the platform.

The day I played was a bank holiday and several Bangkok businessmen were down for some fun. I teamed up with Viraj Chiensong, an 18-handicapper who turned out to be the president of the TTM Football Club (the Fulham of Thailand). He just could not stop recalling how the Thai national team had just last week put four goals past that famously awe­some Arsenal defence and beaten them 4-3. Still, we managed to redress the balance on the course, and I thumped him rather handily by an emphatic 6&5.

While the course might not be of the same standards of specification as the more modern Thai layouts, the terrain and lush grass made the length seem considerable and the sloping greens reminded me of a Donald Ross design - Royal Dornoch, no less. Interspersed among the wooded surrounds were several Buddhist temples, and monks were frequently seen wandering the course.

Before I moved on to the eastern seaboard, I was able to visit briefly three other courses in the area. The Springfield Royal Country Club is another Nicklaus design that sits proudly in a natural basin at the side of the surrounding hills. At 7,863 yards with a $2 million irrigation system and a teaching academy styled after an award-winning school in Chicago, this is truly a USGA-standard club.

Further up the road lies another tremendous facility. The Imperial Lake View Hotel and Golf Club is set in 1,200 acres of the foothills dividing Thailand from Burma. It has 27 holes of golf. The first 18 were designed by Roger Packard. It has Bermuda-grass greens and fairways
and is truly beautiful. The new nine is designated the Desert Course and does indeed resemble a course you'd expect to see in Arizona or Palm Springs. It was designed not by any great named architect but by the resorts general manager. He is wasted behind that type of desk. Palm Hills Golf Resort has a great location and a super clubhouse but its condition does
not currently does not compare well with the competition.

To get from the western seaboard to the eastern region of Chonburi and Pattaya by road takes a good five hours. It's quicker and healthier to fix a speed boat taxi that will ferry your party across the northern end of the Gulf of Thailand, ideally straight to one of the many hotels dotted on this, the "Entertainment Capital of the Kingdom".

The beaches of Pattaya and the associated nightlife are world famous, and now the golf courses are becoming similarly praised. This area boasts some of the best courses in Thailand, and are all located within 50 minutes drive of downtown. But a word of advice - don't do it yourself. The advantages of having a driver will outweigh all the pleasures of independence. That said, even my driver, a local who worked for a tour travel company, got lost several times, such is the nature of the road system.

For my first game in this region, we journeyed out to the Great Lake Golf Club, which was opened in 1995 and was designed by Nick Faldo. Measuring 6,981 yards from the very back tees, Nick has produced a gem that ranks alongside his work at Chart Hills in Kent. However, he has obviously fallen in love with the design of the 18th on the King's Course at Gleneagles, as the vista from the 17th tee here bears an uncanny resemblance to its Scottish brother. Perhaps the toughest hole comes a bit too early in the round. The 4th is 466 yards. It has water awaiting the sliced drive and water all down the left, up to and beyond the green, which has bunkers at the front right.

Faldo, of course, has won three Open Championships. Personally, I love links golf - all aspects of it. A man who has won five Opens, Australia's Peter Thomson, has designed an absolute peach of an 'inland links' at Noble Place. Thomson has designed several courses in Thailand, but I'd wager that he hasn't built one as good as this. The guide to the course describes it rising up like a "fauna covered lunar landscape", and that is pretty well it to a tee. If you can imagine all those links-style bunkers and rolling run-off areas around the greens that you find at the likes of Turnberry, Troon and Ballybunion, you get the picture of this course here in Thailand.

As with all good books and stories, I have left the best until last. At roughly the same time that Nick Faldo was opening Great Lake, Jack Nicklaus was signing off on what might well be Thailand's No.1 course.

Laem Chabang International Country Club is everything that a top-quality golf club should be. It has 27 holes, split into three nines, each requiring 36 strokes of perfection to match the par. The practice putting area is a remarkable piece of design around small rocky outcrops right by the clubhouse, and the driving range is a short cart ride away. The clubhouse is lavish in its appointment. Golfers can be entertained all day watching the antics of their peers as they wend their way home over the tough finishing holes. I managed to go out in one over par and eventually put together my best round of the trip, handing in a card reading seven over. If only I hadn't tried for the 200-yard carry over water on the 15th and made a nasty seven. But then, isn't that just the game all over the world?

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