Obviously, Im gushing a bit, but with golfs biggest spectacleThe Masters Tournamentwhich is played at Augusta National barely six weeks away, it seemed like an ideal time to tee it up at the next best thing. The course at hand, The Dream Arena at the Royal Gems Golf City on the outskirts of Bangkok, is a replica layout by well-known course architect Ronald Garl (whos designed many courses in this part of the world, including the Alpine GC, which hosted the Johnnie Walker Classic in 2000 and 04). Besides incorporating the back nine at Augusta (which forms the back nine here as well), the courses front nine is a smorgasbord of some of the most recognisable holes from across the planet.
So there you are: an hours drive out of Bangkok, in the vicinity of the old international airport, teeing it up on the first with Oakmonts famous church pew bunkers peering from the left side of the fairway. Thats the third hole at Oakmont, and its similar enough to be recognizable, even if youve only seen it on TV. After getting through Bay Hills curving-around-water par-5 sixth, you come to TPC Sawgrass dreaded island green. Except that while its the penultimate hole at Sawgrass, it plays as the third at Royal Gems. A bit too early in the round, and enough to dampen the spirits if you end up in the drink.
The yardages are within five to 10 yards of the originals, as are the bunker placements, while the shapes of the bunkers and greens are spot on. Still, most holes have a two-dimensional quality to themyou know which hole it is, youve seen the images many times, but theres something thats not quite the same. Cant fault Garl for that, though (he maintains that the holes are merely inspired, not absolute copies). Reinventing these holes, or trying to fit them into the land, must have been quite a topographical challenge.
I have played at almost all the worlds leading courses, and seen 70-80 courses around the world. Now I am bringing some impressive holes to be Dream Arenas signature, says Pornsit Sriorathaikul, chairman of the Royal Gems Golf City company. Obviously, Garl had a very clear brief and worked to that. And considering the limitations, hes done rather well.
On the front nine, another striking hole is number seventhe Road Hole from St. Andrews Old Course. The tee shot is still blind, and this time theres no corner of the Old Course Hotel to aim for. The tarmac road on the back of the green and the old stone wall are there and very much in play.
A flurry of birdies and pars on the Augusta back nine are testament enough that were a long way from Georgia. Well, obviously, its not the same, says Sumit Rathore, a five-handicapper and ex-President of the Karnataka Golf Association GC, whos played Augusta National.
I think the distances and the topography are remarkably similar but the greens are much slower and easier to putt on. Besides, this is a new course and they dont have mature trees, which give Augusta its character, he adds.
But there is a genuine thrill teeing it up on the iconic 16th, or walking over Raes creek on the Hogan Bridge. The elevation of the 18th green, as difficult here as it is in Augusta, is neatly replicated: no simple task, considering that there are no rolling hillsides in Bangkok, and the site used to be a very flat fish farm before the course was built.
The promoters have made an attempt to transplant relatively grown trees but it will take a few years before they can interfere with the line of play. As of now, this is more like a boutique courseblast off the tee and go for the pins on every hole. Its genuinely fun to play. Unfortunately, Royal Gems is a members-only clubalthough you can put in a request for a game ([email protected]), and they might pair you up with a member. Even so, the round will probably set you back around 5,000 baht (R10,000), which is exorbitant by any standards. Still, its worth the experience. Royal Gems is no Augusta National, but its likely to evolve into a championship course in the years to come.
Come to think of it, if theres a televised pro tournament ever held at Royal Gems, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the accompanying soundtrack will not be the syrupy elevator music which continues to jar millions of ears following the tournament on television around the world every April. Nor will the course (as the course superintendent vehemently assures us) ever need to paint bare patches green. Ronald Garls steadfast denial of Royal Gems being a replica course might actually have some merit (irrespective of what the promoters say). Augusta National is one of a kind, thank God. The world of golf couldnt handle another one.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game