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Be the Ball

Thailand may seem a little off the beaten path for golf lovers, but when you apply the teachings of the Buddha, you might just become one with the hole.

Author James A. Frank Illustration Barry Blitt

There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. — SIDDHARTHA GAUTAMA ("THE BUDDHA"), 563-483 BCE

THE BUDDHA WOULD HAVE made a good golf instructor.

Rather than show his students the proper grip or stance, he would point them toward the Right Path. He’d teach chakras instead of chipping, mantras instead of mid-irons, the Four Noble Truths instead of a Five-Step Swing. The game would be just that: a game. It would be…serene. In other words, the way it’s supposed to be.

And the spiritual home of golf wouldn’t be gray, dour Scotland, but rather sunny, happy Thailand, where these days golf courses are multiplying like bamboo.

A few years ago, someone had the bright idea of luring visitors to Thailand with lush fairways where they could combine the ultimate game of self-flagellation with a culture of peace and inner harmony. The ploy seems to have worked. Today, playing golf in Thailand can be a Zen-like experience, leading even the most ill-tempered, hard-swinging hacker to adopt a new attitude of tranquility, one that the Buddha would surely approve of.

There are now more than 250 courses in Thailand, catering to local businessmen as well as golfers from the rest of the world. For the visitor, there are maybe 50 good courses, a dozen of those worth a special trip to play. (Most of the rest are run by the country’s armed forces.) Although the nation’s geography ranges from jungle and mountains in the north to sand and sea in the south, certain givens apply to all the top clubs: great conditions, top amenities, delightful caddies, delicious food and unfailingly cold beer. Also, affordable prices: A week of golf in Thailand costs roughly the same as a week in Orlando or Scottsdale, including airfare.

The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.

Golf can be painful. It’s demanding, demeaning and demoralizing— mentally and physically. I’ve learned this on courses around the world. But as I arrive in Thailand—admittedly, a long trip from New York just to golf—I view this as a chance to open my consciousness to peace and greater enlightenment. Or at least a smoother swing.

My journey begins an hour from Bangkok at the Thai Country Club, a short track lined with trees and water. It’s a good warm-up, although it can make one hot with anger. Pro golfers have been known to pass through here and blow their cool on the devastating par-four 10th hole. It’s rare that I can compare myself to a pro, but at Thai CC, I’m humbled by the 10th, searching fruitlessly for good vibrations and finding only muscle spasms. I wouldn’t have minded three-putting if I’d been able to hit a green in that many strokes first.

The next day, I play two courses at the Siam Country Club in the hills outside town. The classically styled Old Course was the first privately owned links in the country, and it hosted an LPGA Tour event a few years ago. Thankfully, it’s a big ballpark with lots of room, so I feel able to swing more freely, less worried about a shot slicing into Cambodia. But it’s a roller coaster: On one shot, I’d think I’d found the key; on the next, I’d find a pond, a tree, a new depth of frustration.

The wilder, more modern Plantation Course features more sand than the Jersey Shore. On the par-five fifth hole, I manage to avoid all 27 bunkers and reach the green in three magical shots. I start to feel that false sense of security golfers get when they think they’ve “got it.” My muscles loosen (it could be the heat or the humidity, both approaching triple digits), and my normally leaden putting stroke gains a silky smoothness. And a birdie.

The following morning, I tee off at dawn at the year-and-a-half-old award-winning Banyan Golf Club in the hills outside Hua Hin. Lush, rolling, mentally challenging and nonstop fun, it’s my favorite course in Thailand. For a few holes, good vibes help my game transcend. The course suits my eyes, and my strokes seem to conform perfectly to each of its contours.

Later I treat myself to a massage. Thai massage techniques, incorporating tenets also found in acupuncture and yoga, work every limb and joint. But be warned: The standard rubdown can prove too forceful for the uninitiated, and inner peace can quickly turn into outer pain.

Still, Mark Siegel—an American who moved to Thailand 20 years ago and now runs tour operator olfAsian— gets a feet, hands, neck and head massage nearly every day. For about six dollars an hour, the therapist works away his stress while he taps away on his laptop, the perfect melding of business and pleasure.

He is able who thinks he is able.

The caddies in Thailand are mostly young women who can make a better living carrying clubs than working in an office or factory. Wearing long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats and gloves as protection from the scorching sun, these cheerful ambassadors also fill in as both Sherpa and nurse. They’re great at judging yardage and reading greens, and they will run back to the snack shack in oppressive humidity to bring you a cold drink. Feel an ache coming on? They’ll massage your back or shoulders.

At Thai Country Club, my group is surprised by a sudden downpour. The caddies quickly cover our clubs, don cellophane rainsuits and scan the skies for lightning. My caddie, Siep, ushers me into the cart and snaps open an umbrella, which she proceeds to hold over me. It’s a nice gesture, but I feel a bit ridiculous. I repeatedly beg her to come in from the rain, but she refuses.

To conquer oneself is a greater victory than to conquer thousands in a battle.

The longer I’m in Thailand, the more the good golf karma takes hold, and the more my game shows flashes of adequacy. After a few days of flailing, I begin to feel fluid. I slow down, realizing that I have to cool off inside to beat the heat outside. I start to really notice the bountiful plant and animal life, and turn my mind from keeping score to soaking in the experience. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

And then I have it—my Zen golf moment. Fans of Caddyshack will understand when I say that I actually stopped thinking long enough to “be the ball.” It is my final round in Thailand, a tee shot on one of the last holes. My swing suddenly develops tempo and makes a perfect turn. The ball rockets off the face, traces the shape of the fairway and bounces well past the other drives from my foursome. For one swing, I have reached a higher plane of golf wisdom. I will see that shot in my head for months to come.

One hole later, I shank it straight into the water. As the Buddha says, Life is suffering.

The former editor of Golf Magazine, JAMES A. FRANK has a registered handicap of 14 and a seriously tweaked muladhara chakra.

NAMAS-TEE

How to find the Right Path to the right fairway.

GOLFASIANWWW.GOLFASIAN.COM • The most comprehensive outfitter in Thailand, GolfAsian will set up tee times at places like Banyan Golf Club, above, reserve hotel rooms and even arrange non-golf-related excursions. Offers the personal touch.

TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILANDWWW.TOURISMTHAILAND.ORG • From this website, you can book everything from rental cars to elephant rides, as well as connect with resorts, instructors and even a Buddhist monastery or two.

GOLF IN A KINGDOM WWW.GOLFINAKINGDOM.COM • In case you’re still not sure where to begin, this website forms a sort of consortium of clubs, with descriptions of the best of the country’s 250 courses.

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