Thailand boasts some of Asia’s best courses, as non-player John Borthwick finds out in the lead up to a major event.
Few golf course deals can equal the one hatched on the Royal Hua Hin course in 1932. In the middle of a game, Siam’s King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) learned that a powerful alliance of bureaucrats and soldiers in Bangkok were demanding he replace his country’s 700-year old absolute monarchy with a constitutional one. The King reportedly said to his golfing partners “I told you so” and played on. And thus began Siam- Thailand’s sometimes-rocky journey towards democracy.
Golf is still the hottest game in town, with Hua Hin regularly hosting major local and Asian tournaments. It all began when Thailand’s first golf course, Royal Hua Hin, opened here in the 1920s (legend has it that the caddies first had to chase tigers off the fairways). Today there are nine quality courses along the stretch of the Gulf of Thailand between Cha-am, 20km to the north, and Hua Hin, making this virtually the Gulf of Golf.
In mid-June Hua Hin will host the Centara World Masters Golf Championship, the biggest event of its kind in Asia, with an anticipated 700 competitors, including a huge Australian contingent. I’ve come to check out the participating clubs, however I’m a non-golfer. When I make this admission at several clubs, people are terribly polite and don’t make a fuss about this curious deficiency of character.
Black Mountain Golf in Hua Hin. Picture: John Borthwick
Hua Hin’s fame as a resort and subsequent golfing mecca began in 1910 when Prince Chakrabongse “discovered” what was then a quiet fishing village while he was on a tiger hunt. His enthusiasm prompted King Rama VII to build a summer palace here, calling it Klai Kangwon (Far From Worries). And perhaps the place really is that, because the current king, Rama IX, still spends much of his year there. You can tell when he’s “at home” by the presence of several navy boats parked offshore.
By the 1920s, Hua Hin was in vogue with Siam’s royal court and Bangkok society, and a railway was pushed through from the capital, some 200km to the north. The exotic little Royal Waiting Room constructed for the king still stands on the Hua Hin platform, a uniquely Thai structure that looks like a cross between a temple and a ticket office.
Because of its long association with the Thai royals, the town has been spared the excessive “success” of the country’s other famous playgrounds. The most distinguished resort here is still the Centara Grand Beach, formerly the Railway Hotel built in 1922 by Prince Purachatra. Its seafront grounds, breezy pavilions, palatial balconies, white louvres, teak floors and ceiling fans are an analogue of a more gracious time — and a simple reminder that they don’t make hotels like this anymore.
The resort’s historic Colonial Wing was one of the main sets in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, in which its elegant open-air lounge, today known as The Museum, doubled as Phnom Penh’s French embassy, a fact that I learn while loading up there on delicate sangers and maccaroons during afternoon high tea.
The real scene-stealer here, however, is the topiary in the resort’s grounds: a wondrous, albeit motionless, stampede of green elephants, random deer and giant rabbits. As seen before, not after, I head to the Elephant Bar.
Golfers at Hua Hin encounter a wondrous stampede of topiary animals. Picture: John Borthwick
The Centara will be party headquarters and 19th hole for the World Masters event. The tournament itself, organised by Golfasian and Australia’s Go Golfing, will be played at four of Hua Hin’s world-class courses — Black Mountain, Banyan, Majestic Creek and Imperial Lakeview.
Entry is open to all golfers over the age of 35 with an official handicap and, despite its amateur status, the event is one of Thailand’s richest, with $US30,000 ($39,000) in prizes and lucky draws.
The sleek golf resorts-cum- housing estates of Hua Hin can seem at times the contemporary equivalent of yesterday’s princely compounds. Their tees and fairways, manicured, if not pedicured to perfection, are framed by plantation hills and, to the west, the distant blue border ranges between Thailand and Burma.
My “non-golfer’s” tour of the courses takes in their driving ranges, practice greens, elegant restaurants, resort suites, pro shops and bars, plus fleets of buggies and squads of smartly garbed caddies. It’s all an eye- opener. And perhaps no more so than when I notice a familiar- looking bloke teeing off at the fourth hole of the svelte Banyan Golf Club. It’s Aussie rocker and sometime working-class man Jimmy Barnes. One of his gold records hanging in the club’s Mulligan’s Pub confirms his presence and good standing here.
The gracious interior of Centara Grand Beach Hotel. Picture: John Borthwick
Another course, Imperial Lake View, is owned by Thailand’s giant Chang brewery, one of the sponsors of the Masters championship. The manager tells me that last year there was free Chang for the players, including at drink stations on the course.
Tournament officials, however, soon noticed that as players quenched their thirsts, their progress around the 18 holes grew slower and slower. Following groups were increasingly delayed until they too fell upon the beer.
New rule for 2015: free Chang in the clubhouse, not on the course, after your round is completed.
Hua Hin’s Temples of Golf
The Hua Hin—Cha-Am area has nine golf courses. These four will host the 2015 Centara World Masters Golf Championship, from June 14-19. Over the five-day period all contestants play each course once, with one lay-day.
Banyan Golf Club. An 18-hole championship course, 7361 yards, par 72, plus practice range and greens. Opened in 2008, Banyan promptly scored Best Golf Course in Asia Pacific 2009.
Black Mountain Golf Club. The first course in Thailand to make US Golf Digest’s list of Best 100 Courses Outside USA and among the most challenging in the country. Natural creeks run through its 18-hole terrain while an enclave of luxury villas overlooks it all.
Majestic Creek Country Club. Previously voted by a German magazine as Hua Hin’s best course, Majestic Creek has 27 holes set in rolling countryside. Recent renovations and re-laying of greens have transformed the course.
Imperial Lake View Golf Club. With two 18-hole championship courses (designed by Roger Packard), this parkland course set among orchards near Cha-am also features a luxury resort.
Aim for a weekday game and enjoy uncrowded courses; the weekend influx from Bangkok makes conditions much busier.
Fees vary from course to course, peaking at top-drawer Black Mountain, where a round costs 4500 baht ($180), which covers playing fee, buggy, caddy and tips.
November to February is “winter” (the term is relative), while March-June is the hottest period. July through October is the wet season.
Most clubs offer a limited shuttle service to and from Hua Hin and Cha-am, as well as their own resort accommodation.
Getting to Hua Hin:'''''' Thai International flies Perth-Bangkok direct. Currently there is no scheduled air service between Bangkok and Hua Hin. The 200km road journey takes around three hours. Hotel limo 7000 baht ($280); meter taxi 2500 baht; coach from Suvarnabhumi airport 300 baht; express train 200-400 baht. Public vans are fast and cheap but prone to accidents.
Information: Centara World Masters Golf Championship enquiries, see thailandworldmasters.com. Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas, see centarahotelsresorts.com.