Swing by Hua Hin

Written by meraj shah | Updated: Apr 13 2014, 09:00am hrs
Twenty years ago, I saw Tiger there, says Setaphan Buddhani, a local golfer who has been playing at the oldest club in Thailandthe Royal Hua Hin GCfor over two decades. Buddhani points to an area of thick undergrowth behind one of the greens on the front nine. Really responds a perplexed member of our group, adding, I know his mothers Thai, but I didnt realise hed been playing here since he was so young! No, no, says Buddhani in exasperation. I dont mean Tiger Woods; I saw (a) real tiger there!

Not hard to imagine. Royal Hua Hin, which opened in the 1920s, is still surrounded by a lush verdant forest and has a very old-style parkland feel to it. Were exploring golf courses in Hua Hin, the small resort town on the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand, which has, over the past couple of years, become the tropical countrys hottest golf destination.

Hua Hin is Thailands oldest seaside holiday town. Its been the preferred haunt of the royal family since the latter part of the 19th century, and has several palaces built by erstwhile kings. Both King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current monarch, and Queen Sirikit now mainly reside at their summer palace in Hua Hin, called Klai Kangwon (far from worries). In the 1980s, the town saw a development boom catering mainly to affluent Thais from Bangkok. The first to come up were condominiums along the seafront, and then came the golf courses.

The jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Black Mountain course, designed by Australian Phil Ryan and the scene of this years dramatic capitulation by the Asian team to their European counterparts on the final day of the Ryder Cup-styled Royal Trophy. Set in the shadow of the Black Mountain, and dominated by rocky outcrop, this is one of the newest additions in the area (it opened in 2007). Black Mountain is a modern layout characterised by large greens and peppered with bunkers (highlighted by red pampas grass, very common on courses in Thailand).

Among Black Mountains features are rock faces set in to the mountains, and natural creeks that run through the course. The par-3 11th is Ryans signature hole: it has a green cradled by a wall of white stones and protected by an expanse of water. The course also has dramatic elevation changes, which make for interesting tee shots, none more so than on the downhill par-5 sixth hole, with its twin fairways.

Johan Edfors, the European Tour pro from Sweden (and part of the Royal Trophy-winning team a few years back spends most of his winter breaks in a sprawling villa at the GC. Edfors enthusiasm for his tropical home spilled over to fellow Swede pros Henrik Stenson and Frederik Andersson Hed, whove come to Hua Hin for a few weeks to practice and relax. The weather is great and the facilities for play and practice are excellent Were going to stay back to practice and prepare for the season ahead, enthuses Stenson.

The pros endorsement of Hua Hin comes as no surprise to golfers familiar with the town. Just a couple of hours by road from Bangkok, Hua Hin and adjacent Cha Am offer the itinerant swinger a choice of over 10 championship layouts within an hours drive of the town centre.

Another relatively new addition is the similarly striking Banyan Golf Club, which opened three years back. Banyan is a long drivers delight, with many holes featuring elevated tees. Water comes into play on most holes and precision hitters have equal opportunities to make up strokes via alternative routes, especially on holes such as the fifth, eighth and the 16th, each of which force a decision off the tee because of a lone tree lurking in the middle of the fairway.

Its difficult not to make a comparison with courses back home, as unfair as that might seem. At the Springfield Golf Club, which recently hosted the Asian Tours qualifying school, your bag is taken from the car and deposited on the first tee at your designated tee-off time. The caddies are exceedingly polite, and a member of the GCs hospitality comes around in a club cart just as you finish the front nine to ask if you need anything. Between holes, the club manager gives you local insights into the best restaurants in town, and what to do in your free time once youre off the course. The entire machinery, it seems, is geared towards taking care of visiting golfers and making their trip memorable.

The only barrier is language: most Thais do not speak English very well, but its obvious that theyve dealt with the impediment long enough to be able to surmount it (which they do rather well through gesticulations, and with a smattering of the language). From a sleepy coastal village to the Kings summer retreat, and now, Thailands oasis for golfersHua Hins transformation has spared the towns air of leisure and unspoiled charm. At just over five hours flying time from New Delhi (and less from Mumbai), the resort town makes a compelling case as a destination for golfers. Clean beaches, a complete absence of sleaze, and the best seafood Thailand has to offer, seal the deal if youre looking for a family vacation.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game