Golf in exile

Written by meraj shah | Updated: Aug 31 2014, 06:08am hrs
No one talks about golf and Khao Yai in the same breath. It could be that the wildlife preserve in Pakchong district of Nakhon Ratchasima province of Thailand would rather cater to nature enthusiasts rather than droves of visiting golfers. But the truth is more insidioustired of waiting for tee-times at the crowded golf courses in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Hua Hin and other golfing hubs in Thailand, the Thai golfer is understandably indignant. And theres no way hes going to divulge the whereabouts of possibly the only place where you can still play a surfeit of courses without bothering to make a booking or hankering for a morning spot.

It helps that Indians arent that hot on wildlife and who can blame them Who in their right minds would go to Thailandthe land of blue waters and virgin beachesto head to a tropical forest where the only attractions are elephants and monkeys Been there, done that. Of course, everyone conveniently forgets to mention that the wildlife reserve is, in fact, hemmed in by no less than seven-eight golf courses, all of which are substantially frugal on the pocket and easy to get toyou can easily make for an afternoon tee-time if you leave Bangkok after breakfast.

Even more importantlyand this is crucial if youre heading to Thailand in these monthsthe area around Khao Yai rises from 400 m to 1,351 m above sea level, which translates into lower temperatures than Bangkok, making it considerably cooler than the capital and a good option even in the summer months.

The one thing youre not going to find in Khao Yai is the frenetic night life of Bangkok or Pattaya, but once youve had your fill of that and are looking for nothing more than a few games, unwinding at a spa and moments of peace, then this is the place to do it.

As far as public courses go, the Rancho Charnvee Golf Club is exceptional. At first, the eccentricity seems limited to the over-the-top cowboy western theme of the resort accommodationuntil you come to the back nine, that is, and are confronted with the unfamiliar sounds and sight of low-flying vintage aircraft barnstorming over the fairways. As it turns out, the swashbuckling owner is as besotted with flying as he with golf and the Wild West. And when youve got enough land to build a golf resort then wheres the harm of throwing in a private airfield while youre at it And so it is that between wide fairways and large water bodies, theres an airfield right on the golf course. Why spend three hours on the road when you can just charter a flight in Bangkok and get here in a jiffy Its only logical, says the club pro with a straight face. In spite of the outrageousness, or perhaps because of it, Rancho is eminently fun to play. Its tough, but not overly so: wide open fairways dont penalise hooks and slices, and youre always in the game if you can recover on your approaches. The Bermuda greens are immaculately-cut and the course is maintained to championship levels. And to top it all off, its a public course and pretty nifty on the pocket too.

While it may not be as immaculately kept as Rancho Charnvee, Kirimaya Golf Resorts charm is all about its hidden-in-the-forest setting and exclusive feel. First off, there arent that many players on the coursemostly hotel guests and a few walk-inswhich heightens the feeling of isolation and stillness in the jungle setting. And, as with most Jack Nicklaus designs, the course blends seamlessly with the natural surroundings, while providing a fairly challenging test.

If you know your golf, then all you need to know about Mountain Creek Golf Club is that it was designed by Seve Ballesteros. When someone once asked him why he didnt use new-age technology to fine-tune his swing, the Spanish golf legend famously said that his hands were his computer. And thats exactly the kind of feel youre going to require to get through this course in one piece. Forget all about large landing areas and wide-open fairwaysMountain Creek has tapering pathways leading to the most treacherous greens youre likely to have played in recent memory. And all sorts of monstrous troublescreeks, lakes, impenetrable rough (which transforms into full-blown thicket in places) and pit bunkersabound where you least expect them.

Goes without saying that this is a course where the driver is best kept inside the bag or even better left back at the hotel room. What youre going to need to tackle the three ninesHighland, Valley and Creekare razor-guided irons and a silky touch around the greens.

The very first hole on the Creek Nine sets the tone for what is to come: a mammoth 611-yard par-5 where, believe it or not, you cant hit driver off the tee, courtesy a stream, which criss-crosses the fairway twice. So you pull out a long iron, only to realise that the next shot has to be a short lay-up, courtesy the stream, which has meandered back. If you successfully negotiate that bizarre turn of events, youre faced with a daunting long third into a murderous three-tier green. The signature par-3 second hole, haplessly named King Cobra, takes intimidation to another level, requiring a precise seven or eight iron to a severely elevated green. In fact, the only amusement here is to be derived from the imaginative names Ballesteros has given the holes: the fifth, another par-5 is called sixth sense. You need all the extra sensory perception (ESP) you can conjure, as the first two shots are completely blind. Playing this course is all about strategy, managing your game and point A to B golf. The best part is that once youre done here and irrespective of how youve fared, youre going to get back home and blitz that tame pushover of a parkland course at your Sunday Nassau.

Apart from golf, the National park is the biggest draw in Khao Yai: a huge number of flowering trees and shrubs in addition to wild orchids and other rare plants bloom from December to May (which is also the best time to spot wild elephants and migratory birds). June and July are low-season, but the most exciting time for nature-loversit rains for two-three hours in the forest every day during this period giving it a forest in the mist charm. Visitors can star-gaze, watch wildlife up close, traverse nature trails or take wine-tasting tours. Khao Yais USP is its quietude and the feeling of complete isolation from the urban world.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game