Fore! A guide to Thailand's best golf courses, bogeys and all

Fore! A guide to Thailand's best golf courses, bogeys and all

From the Golden Triangle down to Koh Samui and Phuket, these are the Thai fairways hardcore golfers need to hit
Golf in Thailand
The Springfield Golf Resort, between Hua Hin and Cha-Am, is a 7,000 yard Jack Nicklaus-designed course.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, many of the big brand names in golf course design were paid to put their names to the rash of courses built in Thailand by land developers who figured incorrectly that a golf course with a purchased pedigree would sell the property surrounding the course. Lack of sales and the 1997 market crash brought about a change of course ownership, and with it, a whole new attitude in golf course management in Thailand.

Today, these experienced local course construction and design firms have taken the business to a world-class level, revamping many older courses while the new ones are setting new standards in every phase of operations.

But they're not all great. Before you set your golf itinerary for Thailand, do your homework. Go to a website like www.thaigolfer.com to get other players’ ratings and reviews, some of them brutally frank. Keep in mind that Thailand is generally broken into five main golfing regions, where a comprehensive infrastructure of golf, hotels, non-golf activities, entertainment and lifestyle are all interlinked.

Here is a rundown of my personal favorites by region, including some really off-the-wall picks.

Central Thailand
Thailand golf coursesBangsai, located north of Bangkok near Auddhaya. Bangsai

Bangsai is flat-out one of my favorite courses in Thailand. Designed and developed by Thai golf course architect Pirapon Namatra on his family’s pancake-flat land less than an hour's drive north of Bangkok, near Auddhaya, he has molded a challenging layout of 18 distinctly different holes that is surprisingly tough. This course dips, moves, rises, challenges and motivates on a layout that features huge exposed sand ridges between fairways and has enough water to keep a yachtsman happy. The course is always in great shape and offers exceptional value for money.

The clubhouse is adequate and the food is edible but not spectacular, so if you are looking for opulence and chandeliers to round out the day, forget it -- this hard-working family puts its money back into the course, and renovations were undertaken earlier this year.

Birdies: Friendly, unpretentious, inexpensive, challenging, with great design and maintenance.
Bogeys: Occasional slow play.
Don't leave without: Testing your machismo on hole two, a sweeping uphill bend to a green guarded by bunkers front and back, and water at the bottom of a hill that falls away to the right. Big boys can get on in one -- or blow their card out. 

Thailand golf coursesView from the 9th hole at Bangkok's Muang Kaew. Muang Kaew

Muang Kaew, just a 20-minute drive from Bangkok, was recently re-built by the superb Schmidt-Curley team and features long and/or tricky par threes, lots of water, challenging greens and Lee Schmidt’s signature high-front bunkers that are fair but tough. Birdie opportunities are pretty much limited to five or six holes, where a strong game off the tee needs to be combined with a deft touch with high irons. Tough but flat layout and good pace of play.

Birdies: Professionally managed, good starter, great caddies, good food.
Bogeys: The course is bisected by a highway, which is quiet and doesn’t affect play, but it's just kind of ugly.
Don't leave without: Challenging the water off the tee on hole eight, a long par four where you need a cannon to get home in two if you wimp out on the drive.

Other personal favourites near Bangkok:  Legacy, Subhapruek, Vintage, Lam Lukka

Wild Cards: Some of the courses northeast of Bangkok near Khao Yai National Park are set in spectacular scenery and well worth a look, particularly Kirimaya, which is probably the best of the bunch.

Thailand golf coursesNorthern Thailand's Gassan Lake City Golf Resort, in Lamphun.Northern Thailand

With cooler temperatures and tall trees, this region offers some great golf, including beautiful layouts and scenery. Chiang Rai’s Waterford Valley and Santiburi are top-quality courses while in Chiang Mai, Green Valley and Chiang Mai Highlands offer up local branches of top quality Bangkok-based course developers. Other favorites include Lanna and the three courses from local developer Gassan -- Gassan Khuntan, Gassan Lake City, and Gassan Marina.

Wild card: If, for whatever reason, you find yourself in Thailand’s northwest, check out the EGAT-run Bhumibol Dam Golf Course which is located near the town of Bantak and is set in what has to be one of the most beautiful natural settings I have ever seen. It is a funny little course, with six par threes, six par fours, and six par fives set in undulating hills that take you up, down, and around. What makes it as challenging as it is beautiful is that you are constantly playing uphill or downhill in very narrow corridors.

Maintenance is not great as a result of almost-free green fees and the greens are for the most part flat. If you are a serious golfer then this lazy, friendly place is not for you, but if you are in the area anyways and need a fix, this is the place to get it. Part of what makes the trip special is staying at the nearby Bantak House, a cozy four-bedroom riverside B&B run by a golf-mad Dane and his Thai wife.

Thailand golf coursesRed Mountain is Phuket's newest 'it' course. Southern Thailand

The Pirapon Namatra-designed Santiburi is the only course on Koh Samui, but what a course it is. Carts are mandatory and absolutely necessary as this course takes you up, down and around, in the process offering fantastic views that challenge you to keep your mind on the game. Great design is combined with top-quality grasses to create a memorable day on the links. It is tough -- very tough -- as you continuously play uphill, downhill and sidehill and contend with Pirapon’s signature tough greens.

On the Andaman Sea side, Phuket has some great courses -- the Blue Canyon Lakes course (the Canyon Course is private), Mission Hills, Loch Palm, Phuket CC and Laguna. However, the one that is drawing all the headlines and rave reviews these days is Red Mountain, the 6,900 yard sister course to old stalwart Loch Palm that opened in 2008.

This piece of spectacular craftsmanship from Ron Morrow and Al Tikkenen has become a local favourite for its scenery, quality and difficulty. Measuring 434 yards off the whites and 451 from the tips, the par four sixth is rated as the number one stroke hole (the toughest), where the play from tee to green must be both long and carefully controlled to avoid strategically placed bunkers.

Thailand golf coursesThe Laem Chabang course has won numerous awards voted on by tourist golfers.Eastern Thailand

If you intend to play golf in the Pattaya area, the first thing to do before coming to Thailand is to join the Pattaya Sports Club. This local organization has negotiated up to 50 percent discounts at virtually every course in the area on behalf of their thousands of golfing members around the world.

There are simply too many great courses there to go into great detail, so here are a few personal recommendations:

Rayong Green Valley: Picturesque but tricky, Green Valley is always in great nick and a pleasure to play.

St. Andrews: Right beside Rayong Green Valley, this is a long, links-styled course that features tough shot-making, some unfairly difficult greens, two par sixes and with the long walk between holes, has been built for S&M fans. Patience and skill will be sorely tested, particularly if the wind is up. They recommend you don’t play if your handicap is over 18. They’re not joking.

Phoenix: Although a bit short and easy for the big guns, this very well-managed and maintained 27-hole course offers the casual player a good test and a very pleasant walk.

Laem Chabang: This 27-hole layout has won numerous awards as the most popular course among tourist golfers. I love the layout, the scenery, the great conditioning, sneaky greens, mature trees and every single dip and swale, but I personally dislike the mandatory golf cart policy.

Siam Country Club Plantation Course:
This is a fairly new course and it is a real stinker for the weekend player. Your long and straight tee-to-green game had better be on form so that you can be in a position to negotiate the testing greens. Nice clubhouse and great practice facilities. There is a lot of up and down to this course as well as long hauls between greens and tees, which has led to a mandatory single-golfer-per-cart-which-must-stay-on-the-path rule, which personally puts a twist in my shorts. 


Hua Hin & Cha-Am

Without a doubt, one of the best regions to play golf is the Hua Hin/Cha-Am area, home to a number of great courses just two hours south of Bangkok. The area has many of the world’s premier hotel chains alongside small boutique properties and a large number of independent hotels that cater to every golfer’s taste and budget.

Thailand golf coursesSpringfield is considered one of Thailand's best maintained courses.Springfield

The Grande Dame of the area is Springfield, the 7,000 yard Jack Nicklaus-designed layout that is always in great shape. The course, clubhouse, facilities and staff are all superb, making the entire experience at Springfield enjoyable. It is also home to the Heartland Golf School.

Birdies: Lovely layout, good greens, professionally managed, great maintenance, superb practice facilities, great caddies, good food.
Bogeys: Good players should play it from the back tees, or may go away feeling that the course is a bit wussy.
Don't leave without: Trying to make birdie on the ninth hole. The 500-yard, par five features an island green, demanding that you set yourself up for a short approach shot from a fairway that dog-legs to run parallel to the green, with a moat-like body of water in between. Your second shot must be both long enough and close enough to the water to make a simple pitch in and have a go at birdie. Miss-play either the drive or the second shot and you'll face a difficult angle into the green that will make this knee-knocking approach shot extremely tough to execute.

Thailand golf coursesThe Banyan is a new course that will get even better with age.Banyan Golf Club

This Pirapon Namatra course opened in October 2008, and building on his experience in building Santiburi, has created 18 holes that incorporate outstanding mountain and ocean views into what is being heralded as the best layout in the area, if not the country.

It is a bit quirky, offering six tee boxes, allowing the player to select his or her own skill level while battling this course, which throws up pretty much every kind of hazard you could imagine, include pineapple groves. Zoysia fairways are a pleasure to hit off, and the challenging, clever greens use TifEagle Bermuda grass that is a pleasure to hit into and putt on. This is a new course that will get even better with age.

Birdies: Good practice facilities, range balls included in your green fees, and a pleasant pub to watch the sunset.
Bogeys: The one-player, one-cart policy.
Don’t Leave Without: Swinging for the fence. Think you’re a big dog? Here’s your chance to prove it. Wait until you get to the 12th, a 610-yard, par five monster that is all uphill.

Other personal favourites:
Imperial, and I have heard nothing but great things about Black Mountain.

Wild Card:  If you are driving to Hua Hin from Bangkok, you might want to take a wide detour to check out Dragon Hills in Ratchaburi. It was originally planned as a 54-hole development but never got past 18 holes. It is a great layout by veteran designer Jim Engh (Golf Digest’s Architect of the year 2003, and multiple award winner). It features a beautiful natural setting with loads of challenges, and is generally in great shape. The clubhouse a bit worn and the food is utility-grade, but it makes a great stop-off point.

Les Walsh is a former competitive amateur player who traded the snow and five month golfing season of his native Hudson, Quebec for the year-round tee times in sunny Bangkok, where he has lived for the last 18 years.
Read more about Les Walsh