These days, Royal Hua Hin has plenty of competition under construction, including the ambitious Swedish- backed Banyan Resort. And the bordering region of Kanchanaburi, made famous by the World War II film The Bridge on the River Kwai, has added the gardenlike Japanese Nichigo Resort and Country Club and the unique Blue Sapphire Golf Resort, built on land and lakes reclaimed from gem mining. After a round at Royal Hua Hin, I come across Robert Baker, a retired Los Angeles real estate agent and host of a weekly tournament, who enthuses about "this golf mecca made possible by the wonderful attitude of the Thai people." Fueled by the 2004 tsunami’s damage to competing Phuket, Hua Hin is booming, he says, with "people selling their villas and golf memberships in Spain and getting the same here for one-third the price."
But Thais don’t see golf’s appeal as financial in any way. "You work hard for a month but you can’t buy back the time, so take a few of those days and give them back to nature," explained a teaching pro at Hua Hin’s Springfield Royal Country Club one morning. "Sabai, sabai." That means "relax, relax" or "very comfortable."
Relaxation is so much a part of the golf experience here that Chiva-Som, Hua Hin’s internationally acclaimed health resort, provides "golf retreats" that include personal biomechanics courses along with detoxifying foods and special tai chi classes. But universal truths apply too: "Some golfers hit the courses," said Paul Linder, Chiva-Som’s general manager, "while their wives stay behind for pampering."
Impressive, too, is Thai golf’s sense of environmental awareness (in a country hardly noted for its care and tending of teak forests, elephants or clean air). The sensitivity seems to be largely self-imposed: Unlike much of Asia, water-rich Thailand has seen little protest over environmental issues. Springfield Royal boasts of its Audubon rating, and Navatanee Golf Course, the oldest, nearest and classiest of the courses around Bangkok, prides itself on being a pesticide-free bird park. Just forty-five minutes from downtown hotels—if your driver doesn’t get lost in another country, a peril of cabbies who rarely speak English but don’t like to admit it—the mood at Navatanee could not be further from the capital’s chaotic planning and chain-store mentality.
"Can you believe this is Bangkok?" says general manager Sukuma Jayananda when I call on him. Jayananda is the proud young nephew of the businessman Sukum Navapan, who launched Navatanee Golf Course as his "personal hobby" back in 1973. (Thai families are famously close-knit, and many courses are family affairs.) Wanting to create Thailand’s first world-class links in time for the 1975 World Cup, Navapan brought in Robert Trent Jones Jr. to transform flooded rice-paddy land. Caddies throughout Thailand wear tailor-made uniforms; at Navatanee, they’re blue and yellow, the colors chosen perhaps for the tropical flowers and birds that make the pristine course sparkle. It breaks my heart to leave divots here.
Thailand’s hottest course designer is also an environmentalist. Pirapon Namatra claims that Bangsai, the course he built on family land north of Bangkok at age twenty-four, puts only a fifth of the chemicals into the water and soil as the surrounding paddy fields do. Namatra brought in a specialist to start up the Asian Turfgrass Center at the course, to find ways to further minimize damage. A jovial thirty-eight-year-old who sports a buzz cut, Namatra caught the course-design bug while studying engineering at San Jose State and playing and surveying every course he could in California. "My goal," he says, "is to make sure every hole is fresh, that you remember all of them."