Golf in Southeast Asia: Thailand Sets the Bar

Golf in Southeast Asia: Thailand Sets the Bar
With a self-proclaimed tagline "Golf Capital of Asia," one would be led to believe Thailand's hubris is simply hype. Not at all. Thailand has become the major axis with feeder spokes to nearby neighbors such as Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore. In such a condensed time frame Thailand has been the leading force in demonstrating how golf course development can move rapidly when key players, and economic circumstances worldwide, align on the same page.

Part of that good fortune has been the downward slide in terms of golf development in other areas of the globe -- namely America and parts of Europe. That dip, caused by the nature of the world recession that took hold in 2007 was also impacted by an oversupply of courses and a stagnant number of new players. Southeast Asia, with Thailand leading the way, ramped up various course construction projects. In sum – those involved in the course construction business have seen the writing on the wall and simply gravitated to locations where opportunities are clearly beckoning for their time and talents.

Thailand templePhoto courtesy of Maureen A. Vaccaro

One of Thailand's virtues is blending so subtly the interesting dimensions of east and west. Golf has been around in Thailand for roughly 100 years but the recent course explosion has clearly shown a continuing appetite for a game that only has 200,000 or so natives playing from a total population of nearly 70 million.

Even with a small golf population -- the total number of courses exceeds 250 and continues growing. The driving force? Upper income Thais have quickly adopted golf in providing a top tier networking vehicle for personal enjoyment and business success. Golf is not modest entertainment for the general masses so it also helps that 400,000+ people annually come to the country from a range of foreign destinations. Not all come with golf as the first item on the agenda -- but given the constant and sophisticated promotion – check out the efforts of -- many now view Thailand's diverse golf options as another meaningful dimension whether the visit is business or pure pleasure.

After arrival in Bangkok I ventured roughly 90 minutes to the seaside city of Pattaya. The success of Pattaya as a golf haven is bolstered by playing host to the best women professional golfer since 2006. The Honda LPGA Thailand is annually played in the February time slot and has been a major source of pride in showcasing what the country provides.

Thailand golfSiam Country Club

Siam CC is a fascinating golf mecca – the facility will have no less than 63 total holes when the newest 18-hole layout – called The Waterside Course – opens sometime in 2014. How good is Waterside? Judging from just reviewing the projected plans and walking the site the potential is there to be among the very elite designs in Thailand. Playing to a max of 7,400 yards / par-72 and with a significant amount of H20 the key for players will be avoiding an array of pesky water hazards on numerous holes.

The female professionals annually test their medal on the 6,528-yard / par-72 Old Course which can stretch to a max of just over 7,000 yards. The Old Course opened in 1971 but the 2007 renovation from American architect Lee Schmidt of Curley & Schmidt Design, Inc., brought to life the fascinating character of this enchanting parks land layout. The Old demands precise shotmaking -- trees flank many of the holes and a deft ability to steer tee shots into the correct position is a constant requirement. The Old is also blessed with quality turf and the greensites are among the most baffling you'll encounter in Thailand as they provide a range of subtle twists and turns. Hiring the right caddie can be a huge advantage when playing there.

Thailand golfSiam Country Club Plantation Club House

The nearby 27-hole Plantation Course, the brainchild of architect Schmidt, does have a number of holes of note -- especially on the Pineapple Nine but far too often in order to engender variety Schmidt has taken the extreme position by inserting of plethora of bunkers to the point of overkill. Have to wonder whether the sheer number of bunkers were the thought process of Schmidt or from the client.

Sometimes the adage of "less is more" can make for a more powerful overall presentation. Schmidt has done well in a number of cases when relying heavily on bunker placements in specific instances -- layouts such as Marriott's Shadow Ridge in Palm Desert, CA and Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, AZ -- are winning examples of his talents when strategically and smartly added.

Thailand golfThai Country Club Spirit House

After my time in Pattaya I headed back to the immediate Bangkok area. Thai Country Club is well worth a visit. The course opened in December 1996 and works extremely well with its surroundings. The grounds are impeccable groomed and the service levels are second to none. Be sure to be fully engaged in your game. Holes #5 thru #9 are quite good –especially the highly touted and rigorously demanding par-3 6th.

Roughly 45 minutes from downtown Bangkok is -- Suwan Golf & Country Club. The par-72 / 7,100-yard layout is a very capable design where sensible execution plays huge dividends. Water intersects a number of holes but fortunately the design allows for alternate routes for those less gifted. There's not much terrain movement -- Suwan is reminiscent of many courses in southeast Florida – relying heavily on water as a strategic element.

Thailand golfHua Hin elephant trekking

Go-go capitalism is at the heart of Bangkok. When people say New York City, London or even Hong Kong are cities that never sleep -- Bangkok must have been missed when that title was bestowed. With a general population of 15 million in its immediate core vicinity -- Bangkok is 24/7 frantic -- exhilaration bordering on outright pandemonium. Be mindful when stepping off any curb within the confines of Bangkok - there's always a vehicle -- auto, truck, moped, bicycle -- rushing about in a frenzied state.

When you get tired of the constant buzz and incessant pulse Bangkok produces -- head 120 miles south along the coastline to the resort hub of Hua Hin. The trip takes slightly more than two hours but it's a good way to begin the decompressing process.

Hua Hin is an enclave of upscale resorts and boutique lodging getaways with golf clearly on the agenda here. Two of Thailand's highly touted layouts are in the immediate area -- Banyan Golf Club and Black Mountain Resort & Country Club.

Thailand golfBanyan

Banyan opened in 2008 and its most distinctive dimension is the character of the terrain. Gentle rolling terrain captivates the senses as soon as you arrive on the property. The par-72 layout can be stretched over 7,300 yards and only the most skilled or foolish should venture for such a challenge. The uphill par-4 10th is Banyan's finest hole requiring the perfect marriage of length and position. Most notably, the Thai architecture clubhouse is truly distinctive and caps off a fine day in grand style.

Black Mountain is more spread out acreage wise than Banyan and touts a muscular design -- 7,500 plus yards from the tips with a par-72 layout. The design style is reminiscent of the heyday when Robert Trent Jones, Sr. was the world's most prolific architect. Large squared-off tee boxes are stacked one after the other, with massive flanking bunkers and even more sprawling putting surfaces.

Thailand golfBlack Mountain

Black Mountain opened in 2007 and from time to time you'll need to deal with various water hazards that make their presence known when shot execution falters. Overall, Black Mountain is well conditioned, however, the brawny design is fairly redundant -- plunging downhill at times and then climbing abruptly. Black Mountain is muscular golf -- which is since fallen out of fashion as top tier layouts now are returning more to the roots of golf's classical design period of the 1920's.

Thailand golf in general terms is similar to what you find in Hawaii -- functional and, at certain select moments, quite good -- but no person should trek the long distance on the belief the overall top tier layouts is equal, at this point, to what you find at the best golf courses worldwide.

Southeast Asia is still bringing forward golf designs -- fortunately Thailand's involvement in golf -- further along than other countries in the region --means an opportunity to provide distinctive designs going beyond overly long courses with repetitive super-sized features. For those owners interested in providing clear differences within Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia I'd suggest securing a plane ticket to the UK and Ireland and seeing firsthand what the grand old masters used so well among the legendary courses there.

You go to Thailand for a range of reasons -- the incredible "buzz" that permeates Bangkok -- hospitable people -- fascinating food -- stunning architecture and incredible scenery from mountains to urban centers to the soft sands of enchanting coastal areas. The golf side is an element within that total package -- but it doesn't stand apart -- not yet anyway -- as its most noteworthy dimension. The opportunity for improvement is certainly there - whether it happens or not will be the key challenge not only Thailand faces but for much of Southeast Asia.

The Peninsula Bangkok boat on riverThe Peninsula Bangkok boat on Chao Phraya river


The Politics of Thailand – The ongoing conflict between government and insurgent groups within the immediate Bangkok area bears watching, but has not impacted, thus far, bookings to the major tourism facilities and golf resorts.

Intense sun and humidity - be forewarned and prepare. The sun's rays -- coupled with daily high humidity -- means being proactive and smart in protecting your skin. Wearing a hat is a must and liberally applying effective sunscreen is no less important and should never be discounted.

Female caddies are the norm - A number of female caddies are mere bystanders and often lack the total repertoire of a truly effective caddie. Take the time to request a knowledgeable caddie because the involvement can prove invaluable in dealing with new courses. Your time and day will only be better for it. One final aspect -- if the service is exemplary be sure to tip at 50% or more of the base rate.

Through March 31, 2014 - The Peninsula Bangkok – one of Bangkok's premier lodgings is offering a one-night package with a Deluxe Room overlooking the Chao Phraya River. The package includes 18-holes for two with caddie -- gratuity extra -- at Thai Country Club. Daily buffet breakfast for two is offered as well. If one person opts out of golf -- you can substitute a 1 hour 50 minute Thai massage. There's round trip van service to/from the hotel to the course and a late checkout of 6:00 PM (subject to availability). Total cost weekdays is roughly $385 -- on weekends the cost is $458. Hotel and local taxes not included.

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