GOLF IN BANGKOK
Thailand's vibrant, colourful and pulsating capital is according to one reputable source, the most visited international destination on the planet in 2016.
Bangkok, aside from its traditional tourist attractions continues to advance its position as a major commercial hub in global terms while playing a leading role in SE Asia's economy, perhaps now only behind Singapore in importance. A glance across the city's burgeoning skyline, which, incidentally, features some spectacular architecture, will give hint to that!
However, Bangkok also deserves recognition as a golf destination, and in its own right rather than typically being a conduit to the resort towns of Pattaya, HuaHin and Phuket, which soak up much of Thailand's substantial golf tourism income. You can probably now add Chiang Mai to that list too. The city's vaguely defined metropolitan region is home to about 60 golf clubs, some offering courses which are rated internationally, and have regularly hosted events on both men's and women's professional tours. It would be a fair assumption however that the overall standard is high. The courses I played are considered a fair representation. They all offered a quality golf and hospitality experience at reasonable cost, and, importantly, were visitor friendly.
Most golf clubs in the Bangkok area are however, private, some being quite exclusive. Securing weekday tee times is usually straight forward but options are limited at weekends and green fees are usually higher. It's also easier to get a booking for groups - two people at least. Clubs can be less accommodating of single players, particularly on weekends, however they will try and find a slot for you with another group. Morning tee times are best. It's marginally cooler and there's less threat of rain, assuming you visit in the cheaper low season.
A tour of Bangkok's fairways also presents logistical challenges i.e. the city's notorious traffic!. Thoughtful planning is essential. If you choose to stay in the city and combine golf with some retail therapy, sightseeing and nocturnal activity, the location of your hotel will be an important decision – The Park Plaza 18 is suitably well positioned. Alternatively, you could divide your stay between the city and a hotel further out e.g. nearer the airport where most of the courses I visited, and several others, are conveniently situated. One such hotel/golf course package will be featured in part two of this review.
Either way, attention to detail will help ensure your trip will be an enjoyable experience rather than a frustrating, and quite likely, more expensive one. Utilising the services and expertise of a reputable local tour operator is highly recommended. They enjoy preferential arrangements with a good selection of hotels (or can probably book the hotel of your choice) have the knowledge to efficiently organise your golf itinerary and secure any deals on offer, and most importantly, manage all the logistics. They can also usually assist with sightseeing excursions. While the upfront cost may be a little more than the DIY approach, you will ultimately be better off and, stress free
MUANG KEAW GOLF CLUB
‘Muang Keaw Golf – The golfing Oasis in Bangkok' proclaims a tasteful sign as you approach the front of the clubhouse. Pretentious? Marketing hyperbole? Well actually no, it really is something of an Oasis and one of the closest (24km) golf clubs to the city. The picturesque, meticulously maintained 18 hole layout was initially opened for play in 1993 but in 2003, the Schmidt Curley design team were retained to implement a major revamp. This primarily involved rebuilding many of the greens to a tournament standard which has certainly been achieved!. The fast paced, undulating putting surfaces would test the best of strokes. Incidentally, I first encountered Schmidt Curley's impressive work in 2016 when I visited Muang Keaw's sister club, the equally impressive Chiang Mai Highlands GC. In its entirety, Muang Keaw is a genuine challenge. It's not excessively long, although five par fours extend over 370mts and the wide but dampish fairways offered little run. However, Lee Schmidt has re fashioned a flattish course into a layout with more pronounced elevation changes particularly around the well guarded greens emphasising the premium he places on the short game. Cleverly placed and shaped bunkering (greenside and fairway) also fits with his design philosophy and there's plenty of water around to complicate matters too. Muang Keaw certainly put my game to the test, and mostly to the sword, but it was a delight to play and to experience the environment that's been created here. The spacious club house is well appointed and serviced apartments are also offered.
LAKEWOOD COUNTRY CLUB
35km from the city centre, Lakewood occupies a surprisingly secluded property neighbouring one of Bangkok's many universities and only 15 minutes from the airport. Opening in 1992 with 18 holes - the Lake and Wood nines- with an additional nine (curiously baptised, the Rock) following a year later, the 27 hole layout is the handiwork of Californian architect J Michael Poellot, whose resume includes award winning projects in the USA, China and Japan.
The Bangkok region's ‘pancake' topography presents a constant challenge to golf course designers and as a consequence, water is a ubiquitous element in the creative process. Lakewood is no exception as implied by its name. The Lake and Wood composite 18, aggregating 6000mts, feature water prominently on all but six holes, however its presence, aside from the excellent 3rd hole (Lake) the demanding 9th (Wood) and a couple of standout par threes, was less intimidating than expected. This was perhaps partly attributable to generously wide fairways which, despite being sluggish from the accumulation of recent overnight rain, were in very good condition. The modestly sized and contoured greens were also a little on the slow side but offered a true putting surface .In summary, Poellot and his team have conjured up a visually pleasant, well designed course offering a good test, relative to the four tee positions, without being overly punitive. Despite perhaps not wearing her ‘Sunday best' e.g. cart paths in need of maintenance and some attention to detail lacking in the presentation, possibly due to the weather - Lakewood proved to be a relaxing and enjoyable start to my tour.
THE VINTAGE CLUB
Vintage? I was intrigued to find out in what context. Certainly the rather grand 6000m2 Tudor style clubhouse invokes a bygone era. Apparently however, the design brief given to acclaimed American architect Arthur Hills, was to create a property which would mature into classic, i.e. vintage, parkland style course to accommodate all skill levels. From my observation, he met the brief. Since the gates opened in Jan 1996, the owners, retail and property conglomerate the Central Group, have undertaken some ongoing improvements, mostly around drainage, but the 18 hole layout still showcases Hills' expertise. Water has been strategically placed throughout, more so guarding the greens than being a threat off the tee but its exact location isn't always obvious so caddy knowledge is important. The excellent graphics on the scorecard also help. Overall, the course was very well presented and featured some tasteful landscaping. The roomy fairways, albeit quite heavily bunkered, were near perfect and the greens offered a consistent putting surface. What also impressed was that cart paths ran down both sides of most holes, a real time saver. Vintage is blessed with many very good holes, the par fours14th &15th being memorable, and at 5700mts, it isn't long journey. Beating your handicap here, is very achievable. The facilities are of the expected high standard too so the 47km drive from the city is well worthwhile. The club also lies relatively close to the sea so, unusually for Bangkok courses, a pedestrian cooling breeze makes its presence felt - thankfully!
THANA CITY GOLF CLUB & SPORTS CLUB
The next stop on my tour was not just to a golf club but to a multifaceted, residential, sports and leisure complex with the golf course being the focal point. The entire development is owned by the commercially diverse BTS group however the apartments and sports facilities are managed as separate entities. Other sports catered for include tennis, badminton and squash and there's an excellent driving range/practise area which is also home to a golf academy. Initially opening in 1993 the club is now in the final stages of a major re-development programme. The golf course was first up with Greg Norman's original design (the only Norman signature course in Thailand) being fine-tuned by Aussie firm, Pacific Coast Design. Work commenced in 2013 after the club had hosted the Thailand Open, and concluded in 2016. The outcome is a well-groomed 5800mt, par 72 layout, and although of little variation in undulation and elevation, the greens notably excepted, offers some very good holes, the par three 13th being exceptional. While more water has been brought into play, although mostly defending the greens, and sand is omnipresent, there is still ample space off the tee. The upgrades to the clubhouse and integral amenities, including an impressive Pro shop, were completed last year and a Four Star hotel is planned. Distraction or amusement, Thana City is very near the airport and sits directly under the flight path so your round of golf will be accompanied by the perpetual soundtrack of Pratt & Witney's finest.
Muang Kaew Golf Course.
Thana City Golf Club & Sports Club.
The Vintage Club.