Golf of Siam
It’s only 7 a.m., but sweat is already trickling down my face as I tee off on the first hole of one of Asia’s toughest courses at the Laem Chabang International Country Club, laemchabanggolf.com, two hours east of Bangkok. It’s not because of the heat, but the pressure: a 200-yard tunnel of bushes leaves no room for a hook or a slice; farther on, the gaping mouths of four hungry sand traps guard a tiny, fast green. And I’ve been grouped with three aces who fly in every year from Japan to be humbled by this obstacle course of bunkers, lakes and foliage designed by Jack Nicklaus to keep balls out of holes and golfers returning for more. “Jai yen, jai yen,” whispers my caddy, Sawat, in Thai. “Keep a cool heart.”
Sawat’s advice seems to have little effect as I drive the ball 200 yards — mostly straight up — while my adversaries launch towering 250-yard blasts. They reach the 339-yard par 4 in two; I chop through jungle and sand to land in four. But I still have a chance to catch up on the green. I’m zenning over my putt when Sawat surprises me by picking up the ball. She lines up the putt then draws an imaginary arc where I’m supposed to roll it. “Left to right,” she says, pulling the flag to pinpoint the target five feet left of the hole. “Downhill putt.”
No way, I’m thinking. That’s way too far left. What could Sawat, a village girl from northeastern Buriram province, know about putting? Caddies are mandatory in Thailand even if you opt for a golf cart, and I am happy for the assistance, but what I really need is a grizzled expert, not a polite servant. A two-stroke penalty for that line of thought: my putt curves like she said it would and plops in for a bogey, matching the Japanese who three-putt. As I learn on ensuing holes, Sawat knows what clubs to select, measures distances like a surveyor and reads the contours of greens as if they’re her personal rice paddy. While my rivals drive heroically only to narrowly miss putts, I revel in rough and hunker in bunkers — and then drain epic putts thanks to my guru Sawat.
Sawat does everything for me but swing the club. She drives the cart, gardens divots, keeps score, and when my last ball plunks into a lake, she finds others in the bushes. Six years at Laem Chabang, where caddies must pass three months of training and testing, has made her fluent in golf.
Despite droughts, floods, snakes (another good reason to have a caddy) and 40 C heat, Thailand attracts thousands of golfers from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Europe each year. They come for the plentiful venues — more than 100 links across the country — and the low green fees: $14 for a cart, $12 for rental clubs and $8-$60 for 18 holes.
For those living in Asia, Thailand makes for a great golf weekend. A Friday flight will get you in for a late afternoon round near Bangkok, then a three-hour train ride the next morning to Hua Hin will have you teeing off at the Royal Hua Hin, tel: (66-3) 2530 675, Thailand’s oldest course, a mere 60-foot putt from the train station. World-class greens at Lakeview and Springfield lie minutes down the road. If you prefer to fly, Phuket’s Blue Canyon Country Club, golforient.com/phuket/blue.htm, is a half-hour dogleg from Bangkok. Out of bounds specialists should try the 557-yard par 5 number 10 at the Phuket Country Club, phuketcountryclub.com, where an errant 240-yard slice over water might reach the green in one. North of Phuket, the final hole at the Thai Muang Beach Golf Course has something of a water hazard — the Andaman Sea.
But you don’t even have to leave Bangkok for some choice courses. You can stay downtown, and play downtown, if you’re invited by a member of the Bangkok Sports Club — a 3-iron from the Rajadamri skytrain station between Siam Square shopping centers and Silom office towers. Some golfers never leave the airport area. Hole one of the Kantarat, the Thai air-force course, stretches between runways. It used to be open to anyone, but since the November 2002 attempted rocket attack on a plane in Kenya, the runway links have been closed to nonmembers to keep terrorists from pulling a surface-to-air missile from their golf bag. With the right caddy, they might not miss.