Golf in the Land of Smiles: Santiburi Samui Golf Club, Thailand
That's not a suggestion here, it's practically a requirement. Thai people begin every interaction with a smile: Go into a store, smile; pass someone on the street, smile; order a fried curry with squid and a Singha beer, smile. All this smiling becomes contagious. The friendly people, inexpensive massages, delicious food and tropical weather don't hurt either.
I was lucky enough to spend this past New Year's Eve in Koh Samui, a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand. I had just gotten married in Bangkok (my wife's father lives there), and after the reception the wedding party (all 14 of us) flew to Samui to celebrate New Year's, relax on the beach and of course play golf.
"Men only organize two things: how they're getting beer and where they're playing golf," my wife said when I told her about my morning tee time at Santiburi Samui Golf Club. Our foursome (me, my father, my brother and my brother-in-law) took a 30-minute cab ride (about $15 U.S.) from our resort to the course. The course is less than 10 years old and the clubhouse has decent rental sets and all the tees, gloves and balls you forgot to pack, plus an outdoor restaurant overlooking the coconut jungles and white-sand beaches of Samui for your lunch or post-round drinks.
The course is carved into the island mountain and the elevation changes make it virtually unwalkable. Instead each player has a cart and a caddie. The caddie experience is what makes golf in Thailand so remarkable. In Asia, the caddies are almost all women, as is often reported with an unseemly wink. It's not like that at all. First, the caddies are completely covered to protect themselves from the sun, so they look about as provocative as Scarlett Johansson in a beekeeper's suit. (OK, bad example.) Second, the caddies are all about the golf: they give yardages, select clubs and read putts like any chain-smoking Scotsman, they're just a lot sweeter. And just like at those Scottish courses, your caddies get into your round. If you're playing well, you'll hear a lot of "good shot" and soft applause. My father was the biggest hit with the caddies at Santiburi, who took to calling him "Papa" and cheered loudly when his tee shots split the fairway.
The Santiburi Samui course is a challenging resort track: generous fairways and large greens, but enough doglegs, tricky greens, ravines and bunkers to make you think. The views are the real treat though. The downhill par-3 sixth plays into a natural waterfall, and on the par-4 16th [see photo above] you play toward the ocean and nearby Phangan island, site of Samui's legendary full-moon parties.
And the best part is that once your round is over, you're still in Samui. After we finished our round and settled our bets over a beer, we headed back to Chaweng Beach, which hosted a New Year's Eve celebration the likes of which I've never seen before. Take a look.
Santiburi Samui Golf Club
Koh Samui, Thailand
6,930 yards, par 72
Fees: Green Fee 3600 baht ($110); Caddie fee 250 baht ($8); Caddie tip: about 300 baht ($9); Cart: 600 baht ($18); Clubs: 1000 baht ($30)
For more information on golf trips to Thailand, visit golfasian.com.
(Photo courtesy of Santiburi Samui Golf Club)