"When I think of Thailand, I don't think of golf."
This was my sister's response to my upcoming vacation plans. Of course she is not alone in this reaction. Most tourists come to Thailand for the same reason Rick came to Casablanca: for the waters. And in this case they are not misinformed. Whether it is Ko Chang to the East, Pattaya outside of Bangkok, Phuket and the Andaman coast to the West or Ko Samui further south, Thailand is gifted with beaches the way the Kardashians are with good looks. Yet golf--great golf--is available all over Thailand, and having just experienced my first taste I feel compelled to advocate for it as more noble souls do for unappreciated diseases.
The North is the natural place for entry into the world of Thai golf, the relatively remote location of the region boosting the Zen state of mind which the game at its best inculcates--the way it makes time stand still and nothing else matter for about four or five hours. Chiang Mai is the perfect northern base: a relaxed city to complement this attitude, one with a culinary and cultural richness unmatched for any of it size. There would be no difficulty in finding something to do in our spare time.
Summit Green Valley
This was the first course we played on our five course tour of Northern Thailand and it did not disappoint. Only twenty minutes from the city, the palm tree-lined fairways seemed a world apart from the car choked streets we had just left behind. Summit Green Valley was much more open than the other city course we played, Mae Jo, so that even though it played longer everyone scored better here; we certainly lost fewer balls. A banner hung from the clubhouse proudly announced Summit Green Valley as "The North's Most Popular Course," and while I don't know of any evidence to back up this claim, it might well be true, although we saw more players at Mae Jo. Still, if I had to recommend one in town course, I would choose this over Mae Jo as the better groomed. A special feature of Summit Green Valley is the possibility to play night golf.
Alpine Golf Resort
We alternated playing a nearby course with a more distant one. Generally speaking, the scenery we experienced during the round compensated for the extra hour this added up to on alternate days. Alpine Golf Resort was a forty-five minute drive from our hotel, and while the mountains loomed in the distance at Summit Green Valley, at Alpine they were close enough to touch. Indeed, the jungle comes right down to the course itself, so that there are some lost balls you simply do not look for unless you want to take a chance at not walking back out. The course's signature holes are about as beautiful and challenging a trio as I have played anywhere: a tee off over water at the par five 14, an island green at the par three 15 and a 460 yard par four 16. Designed by world-famous golf architect Ron Garl, Alpine can make a case for being the best course in the area. Lek told us that her clients split on whether to award this title to Alpine or Highlands.
Mae Jo Golf Resort
Like Summit Green Valley, Mae Jo Golf Resort is only about twenty minutes from the old part of Chiang Mai and is in fact more of a locals course--the only one of the courses we played that had a homey feel to it. The most memorable feature of this course, however, are the variety of fruit trees scattered throughout the eighteen holes, many of which function as impromptu snack stands. At 6, 730 yards, Mae Jo was by far the shortest of the five we played, yet its narrow fairways made it one of the more difficult ones. Indeed, If it weren't for the "refreshment stands" every three holes, I might not have made it. But overall, the pleasure in playing this course consists in the opportunity to interact with Thai and foreign residents of Chiang Mai and, if only for a few hours, pretend that you are one of the gang.
Highlands Golf Resort and Spa
What can one say about a course that Asian Golf Monthly as one of the Top New Courses in Asia shortly after it opened in 2005 except that it lives up to expectations. Set directly amidst the mountainous jungle a 45 minute drive from Chiang Mai, the jungle setting of Highlands gives it an other worldly feeling while its gently rolling fairways, strategically placed bunkers and Tiff-Eagle greens enhance a world-class golf experience. Its spa, with 19 private resort villas that are of a 5 star quality and 12 treatment rooms, was the only one that made us think twice about basing in the city.
Inthanon Golf and Natural Resort
We saved the course furthest out for our last day, and for a while I wondered if we would not have been better off spending the day in the city. As we past the hour mark on our drive, the jungle grew denser, the elevation higher, and, more tellingly, there were no signs of the 7/11s which are as ubiquitous as massage parlors in Thailand. Finally, after 75 minutes, when I began to think we might be lost, we almost magically rolled into the world of Inthanon. The least well-maintained of the course we played, it is still worth the trip for the stunning scenery.Most holes offer a view Doi Inthanon, Thailand's tallest peak.
One of the more unexpected but enjoyable parts of the experience is that in Thailand all the caddies are women. But don't expect the same beauties who call out "massage" from the streets of Chiang Mai to be the ones carrying your clubs. Most of these women are middle-aged and older. And though they take their jobs quite seriously, they all enjoy a good laugh, as shown by their response to my short game. Each course dresses its caddie in a unique outfit, the only similarity being that they all protect relatively well from the sun. You must decide, however, whether to have your caddie lug a pull cart or drive an electric one. In my case, it was my love of exercise, not my fear of female drivers, that caused me to choose the former option.
Since four of the five courses function as full-blown resorts, the golfer deciding on Northern Thailand can play all or most of his golf at one site with the added luxury of rather posh digs. But if you are spending the time and money to travel to Thailand, it probably makes no more sense to play only one course in this enchanted land than it would to eat at only one restaurant. In addition, basing in Chiang Mai allows you access to countless activities on your off time and extra days. And who knows. You might end up falling in love with the place enough that you find yourself staying a lot longer than you had planned. It happened!