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Zen Golf in Thailand

Like Thailand itself, the country’s golf scene is casual, low-cost and confusing (those words could also be used to describe the recent government coup, which has had next to no effect on tourism or daily life). There are no public courses, at least not in the sense of being municipally owned, yet very few—perhaps only one, the new Amata Springs Country Club, set to host next year’s Royal Trophy tournament—are strictly private. Even elite clubs with plenty of members (who mainly pay for playing privileges, not for propriety shares) welcome sign-ups from golf packagers like GolfAsian’s Mark Siegel, an engineer and ex–New Yorker who followed a passion bred of fifteen years here. "Every door can be opened," he said. "The only problem I can see for Thai golf is its popularity with people from other Asian countries."

My journey to golf bliss begins on the sleek new Bangkok subway, where I’m just another straphanger trying to avoid this megacity’s merciless traffic jams. A twenty-minute taxi ride from the end of the line takes me into a hushed world of floral profusion: manicured arcades of palm and bamboo leading up to the aptly named Green Valley Country Club course. On this weekday, I can stroll straight to the first tee for chump change. But I’ve come to see Mongkol Varee, a teaching pro and a standout of Thailand’s small senior tour. I find him supervising the driving range like a contented Buddha in Bermuda shorts.

"Welcome to golf paradise!" he proclaims, with a surprisingly American accent and a respectful clasped-hand wai—the traditional Thai greeting. Varee was sent (over his objections) to get educated in the United States. He ended up as a mechan­ic at a General Motors plant, but one with an abiding love of golf. A visit home in 1985 convinced him to quit his nine-to-five job, earn his teaching credentials as a pro golfer and get a post here with a David Leadbetter academy.

As well as getting help with my rusty swing, I ask Varee where to find Thailand’s best courses. "From here to Pattaya, two hours away," he waxes, "there are so many fine courses you can never get tired of them."

But first, he suggests, I need to trace Thai golf’s origins. So a few days later, I make an easy three-hour ride on a rickety two-car train to coastal Hua Hin, the second home of Thailand’s King Bhumibol. Right across from the tiny railway station, dolled-up in templelike red and gold, sits the Royal Hua Hin course—its first nine designed by a British railway engineer in 1924 under the patronage of King Rama VI (whose grandfather was depicted in The King and I, much to the Thais’ chagrin). His Highness had seen the game while at school in England, and his son would become Hua Hin’s leading patron and player.

Today, Royal Hua Hin’s main link to tradition is its manager, Chao Pobtasnapong, a retired naval officer. Through the years, he says, there has been little change in the narrow fairways that climb toward coastal hills or the hedges that are sculpted into fanciful animal shapes. No fancy resort here, just a Golf Inn that provides motel basics for $18 a night. Pobtasnapong’s main job seems to be keeping woodpeckers and scampering monkeys from causing damage: On my tour, he and a kiosk vendor suddenly pull out wooden slingshots to keep the roving primates from swiping bottles of Japanese-made electrolyte drinks.

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