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Zen Golf in Thailand

It feels like the end of a jungle expedition. As dark clouds threaten a perfect afternoon, I’m the only one battling the Kirimaya Resort’s vast course, hewn from low- lying rain forest. The surrounding limestone peaks of Khao Yai National Park tower over elephants and the occa­sional tiger, although the creatures are not actually visible from the course. Hardly a Tiger myself, I’m helped along by neck massages from one of Thailand’s famously attentive female caddies. She goes by Nit, as in nit noi, which means "a little bit"—the phrase that Thais almost always utter when you ask if they speak English, even when they can’t tell you their names. Swathed in layers of fabric and wearing a straw hat with sky-blue cloth wrapped around its wide brim, Nit consoles me after my errant shots with soothing cries of "Mai pen rai!"—the national motto, which translates as "never mind" or "no problem."

As I walk off the eighteenth, I spot something found beside no other greens in the world: A spirit house, looking like a miniature temple on a pedestal, strewn with fresh offerings and garlands of white jasmine buds. It guards the Jack Nicklaus layout against infelicitous events, if not double bogeys. And judging from the state of golf in Thailand, the spirits must be working overtime.

As an infrequent hacker, I’m more interested in boasting about where I’ve played than how: I have putted amidst the strutting peacocks of Delhi’s historic greens; belted drives on a North Vietnamese course still surveilled by antiaircraft bunkers; and gone into the trees of Malaysian fairways echoing with Muslim calls to prayer. But after settling in Thailand a year ago, in the suburbs of Bangkok near the famed Chatuchak flea market, I had been distracted by the country’s wealth of vivid associations: the red-hot food and the gracious manners, the glittering temples and the girlie bars. Hadn’t I seen the many tournament victories scored by a host of accomplished Thai players, led by Thongchai Jaidee, a disciplined ex-paratrooper who is opening a golf school to give poor kids a chance?Tiger Woods, of course, was born of a Thai mother, has praised Buddhism and is regularly described here as being Thai-American—though his relations with this hyperproud country landed in the rough when he allegedly asked that an honorary degree from a top Thai university be presented to him in his hotel room because he was too busy practicing.

"But we know he’s Thai because we are very superstitious and he always wears that red shirt," joked one local.

Before the late 1980s, Thailand’s handful of courses were either military sponsored or basic layouts near hydroelectric projects. But since the late 1990s, the country has ramped up to two hundred courses. In addi­tion to Thais, they attract many Europ­eans, Japanese and, in the winter months, up to a hundred thousand Koreans (to some, the worst "hazard" of golf here, given their sheer number and, in the eyes of many Thais, their brusque on-course manner). Fueled by local interest, foreign investors, Tigermania and golf on television, up to five high-quality courses open annually, and not just as adjuncts to real estate schemes.

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