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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Thai Golf: The Buddy Trip Writ Large


Strolling down the main drag in Pattaya, Thailand, the local clocks ticking toward 11 p.m., I am reminded of the golf destinations we North Americans regard as desirable.

Front and center is the golf component, of course. Normally it’s the primary factor in determining quality or desirability. But there’s no denying that packs of (primarily) male golfers generally prize golfing locales for their nightlife, too. Any gaggle of 8-12 golfing buddies will include a few lads determined to rip it up each night, though their desires are often offset by a few compatriots who’d just as soon play poker in the condo. And so there is equilibrium. However, still, it seems the destination must offer some degree of lascivious attraction — if only to get the hard-partying faction on the plane. Think Myrtle Beach and its strip of nightclubs and bars. Think Vegas and its many diversions.

I consider the different buddy trips I’ve experienced, in these very locales, and I laugh to myself as another sultry Thai evening obliges me to wipe the beads from my perspiring brow. The Walking Street in Pattaya, ground zero for the city’s famously over-the-top nightlife, frankly makes an evening in Vegas look like a night in Amish Country.

Blocked to vehicular traffic (save a series of small open-air trucks that continuously circle the downtown area, picking up patrons and dropping them off, for a dollar), Pattaya’s Walking Street stretches several kilometers along the beachfront. Either side of this thoroughfare is fairly well riddled with some of the craziest nightclub scenes you can possibly imagine. If you’ve never been to Thailand, you will have to imagine it — because you’ve surely never seen anything like it.

This is the primary take-away from my 10 days golfing across Thailand: There is such a breadth of experiences to be had that, after a point, all comparisons tend to pale.

For starters, it’s a big country — from Chiang Mai in the north to Phuket in the south it’s some 750 miles, or about the distance from Boston to Myrtle Beach. In other words, it’s too big to be climatically or culturally monolithic. This explains the striking contrast between the cool-highlands of mountainous Chiang Rai, hard by the Burmese and Lao borders, and the utterly tropical environs of Koh Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand’s tendril-like southern reach, in the Gulf of Siam. Chiang Mai feels loose and slightly bohemian, like an overgrown backpacker haven, while Bangkok is the picture of a glittering, modern, bustling, gargantuan metropolis; Hua Hin is a quiet, gracious, retiring, seaside retreat while Pattaya… isn’t.

You’ll never rake a bunker in Thailand. In the Kingdom, that’s a caddie’s job and it’s but one benefit of the country’s utter reliance on 80- to 115-pound loopers. Yes, they’re all female and they’re a constant at every course in Thailand. Take a cart? They’ll drive it. Feel like driving? They’ll ride on the back. Walking? They’ll pull the trolley. All of this is done with unfailing courtesy and a solid understanding of the course. Club selection? I’d handle that yourself — but that’s my feeling toward all caddies.

In a place like Thailand, with its walking streets and massage parlors, the whole caddie phenomenon tends to elicit raised eyebrows from the uninitiated, but trust me: There is absolutely nothing sexual about the Thai caddie experience. For starters, despite the heat, they are completely swathed in clothing from head to toe, complete with long sleeves and gloves. Such is the standard of female beauty in Thailand: Tans are not fashionable for women, at all, and caddies go to great lengths to avoid them. Second, they are all business.  In most cases they are far too busy fixing ball marks, putting sand in divots and raking bunkers to flirt with you.

Some of the best caddies we experienced were served up back in Bangkok at the sporty Muang Kaew Golf Club, where conditions included near-100 degree temperatures and not a breath of wind. Our caddies never wavered — until we did. My two playing partners and I ditched the back nine, paid full caddie fees, and made three friends for life. Then we went for a massage in the clubhouse, a typically sterling facility in a country where they hew to a very high standard.

Asian clubhouses in general make their American counterparts look downright dowdy. Yet because Thai clubhouses cater to so many Asian golfing tourists, they are borderline palatial — how else to impress the Japanese or Korean who is used to merely opulent clubhouses back home? Massage rooms are standard fare in Thai clubhouses. Locker rooms are cavernous, as each golfer is assigned a locker at no charge, as a matter of course. After the round one is expected to shower, don a change of clothes, and kick back for several hours in the bar or restaurant. It’s a damned fine ethic, if you ask me.

It’s the organic quality of the golf culture here that resonates, we decide. Unlike some Asian nations where golf is nothing but a modern development gambit, or others where a colonial overlord foisted golf on the culture, Thailand came to the game on its own. The Thais really do love their golf. We decide they have every right to feel that way: We love it, too.

Ed: Great article on golf in Thailand at the A Position. The above is an extract but if you like your golf, it's worth reading the full article.

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