BY JOHN BORDSEN
Santiburi Samui Country Club, in Thailand: "If you dreamed of a tropical island and saw a picture of it, that's what it would be," says Mark Siegel.
Mark Siegel, 49, has lived in Asia for 20 years, the last five in Bangkok, Thailand. The New York City native is president of Golf in a Kingdom (www.golfinakingdom.com), a co-op that promotes golf courses and resorts in Thailand.
Question: Thailand brings to mind rice paddies, elephants and Buddhist shrines. But golf?
Answer: Yes. There are 260 courses in the country, scattered from the mountains in to the north to the central plains to the southern beaches. Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones, Pete Dye ... they and other top designers each have one or more courses in Thailand. Golf is probably the largest industry for tourism in the country. The course trail that Golf in a Kingdom has put together has seven courses and six resorts, from northern to southern Thailand.
Q: Who golfs in Thailand?
A: Foreigners, mainly. Europeans and Asians have known about golf in Thailand for a long time. North Americans are just discovering this. Their difficulty in getting here and their unfamiliarity with golf here kept them at home or kept them going elsewhere.
The majority of golfers are European, but in the last six months there's been a huge influx of tourists from the United States in Canada. In the past, they've gone to Scotland and Ireland for an overseas golf holiday. Now that the economic situation has tightened in the U.S. and costs in Europe are so high, they're looking at other premium destinations for their money. And Thailand comes to the top of the list every time.
Q: Thailand is in the tropical latitudes; how long is the golf season?
A: It's 365 days a year. In five years, I've seen only one rainout. Even when it rains, it only lasts 30 minutes — then it's sunshine. It's analogous to southern Florida in seasonality.
Q: And there are major tournaments?
A: There've been 20 PGA tournaments in the last five years. The next major one in August is sponsored by the queen of Thailand.
Q: Are courses there different from those in America?
A: A lot — and from each other. You'll find things you won't anywhere in the United States. In the south, they're often built at old tin mines or rock quarries that were abandoned 100 years ago; then the jungle took over. So there are tremendous variations in course design. Sometimes you're playing inside a quarry with par-3s.
In central Thailand are two types of courses, which are sculptured based on individual designers' tastes. Some are built from rice fields; some are palm-lined or parkland. It's pretty much a blank canvas for a designer.
In the north, where there are mountains and other rugged conditions, are courses with high cliffs overlooking large jungles. Things like that.
Q: Do you golf much?
A: Three times a week.
Q: Favorite course?
A: Santiburi Samui Country Club, in the south. If you dreamed of a tropical island and saw a picture of it, that would be Santiburi Samui. Huge, soaring coconut palms, crystal green and blue water. It's on an island called Koh Samui, and is phenomenal.
Q: What does golfing cost in Thailand?
A: A round in Thailand is $30 to $50 at a course that's the equivalent of one three times the cost in the U.S. A PGA course like Thai Country Club, where Tiger Woods played and won in 1997, costs $85. In general, golf here is a third or quarter of the price in Europe or the United States.
Q: Are there other differences?
A: The largest is this: Golfing in Thailand is done for relaxation and enjoyment. Caddies are compulsory at every course. The caddy helps you read the green, select the cart, repair the green and so on. Also, every three holes is a rest stop where you can get a cold beer, a towel and a massage. When you've finished your round, you can sit in a hotel that could be a five-star anywhere in the world. You can have a massage and enjoy yourself.
Q: How big are these on-the-links rest stops?
A: Maybe the size of a McDonald's or a Starbucks. You can play through without stopping, if you like. Having the rest stops doesn't mean more land is required for the course. The size of the courses here is about the same as in America. The rest stops are on what might be wasteland in the United States.
Q: What about animals straying onto the links?
A: Last week, a monkey took my ball after a 250-yard drive down center of the fairway. I got a bit angry at him, but that's all right. There are no bears or rattlesnakes or anything like that. Just watch out for the monkeys. That's all.