THAILAND, with its more than 200 courses offering a number of championship layouts from Chiang Mai in the north to Phuket and Koh Samui down south, has long been a drawcard for golfers in this part of the world. The country has now added another golfing feather to its cap, with the crowning of laid-back seaside town Hua Hin as Asia and Australasia's Golf Destination of the Year for 2014.
It is only the second time that the title, conferred at the International Association of Golf Tourism Operators' annual convention in Spain, has been given to a region, rather than a whole country. Thai cities have now won this award twice, with Pattaya given the honour in 2012.
Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand, 200km south of Bangkok, has been the Thai royal family's holiday destination for more than 80 years. Its 11 courses include the championship ones of Black Mountain and Banyan; its other premier courses include Springfield Royal Country Club, the 27-hole Majestic Creek Golf Club & Resort and the Sea Pine Golf Course.
The par-72 Sea Pine course measures 6,862m from the black tees and sits on prime land along Hua Hin's Suan Son Pradipat (Sea Pine) Beach. Set on 10,500 sq km of land, this is one of Thailand's 30 military golf courses. It is open to the public as well, and navy, army and airforce personnel pay just S$10 a round. It has a couple of stunning signature holes. The par-3 eighth requires a tee shot over water to the green; the par-3 17th, with the ocean behind and the mountains off in the distance, is quite spectacular.
The Banyan opened in 2008 and was named best new course in the Asia-Pacific the following year. This stunning 18-hole championship golf course was designed and built by one of Thailand's leading golf course architects, Pirapon Namatra of Golf East. The signature hole is the par-3 15th, which has elevated ocean, valley and mountain views from all tee boxes. The course is equipped with resort-style accommodation, spa, swimming pool, fitness centre and restaurants.
The six-year-old Black Mountain Golf Club & Resort has been named the best course in Thailand for the past three years by Asian Golf Monthly; in 2011, it was awarded the title of the Asia-Pacific's best championship course. Originally designed by Phil Ryan of Pacific Coast Designs, it became in 2012 the first course in Thailand to be included in the US Golf Digest's list of the World's Top 100 Courses outside the United States.
Over the years, the par-72 layout been tweaked here and there by Black Mountain founder and investor Stig Notlov of Sweden and compatriot European Tour professional Johan Edfors. Harald Elisson, Black Mountain's general manager, said: "We've tried to find the weaknesses on each hole and to turn that hole from one of the weakest into one of the strongest holes. That has been the key to our success.
"Stig's vision for Black Mountain was to have one of the best courses in Asia. He wanted to find the right location but when he came to Hua Hin, instead of buying an existing course, he found this location."
The course, which is the venue of this weekend's Asian Tour King's Cup event, is challenging. While it tests low handicappers, it is also generous for players of all levels. The signature hole is the par-3 11th, with its island green. Many other holes deserve a mention, but the finishing hole is quite spectacular. It is a long uphill par 5, where a par is always a good score.
The fairway is quite expansive and if you can avoid the fairway bunkers with the second shot, the challenge begins with the approach shot. The green is guarded by deep bunkers at the front and right, which will catch any misjudged third shot. Another par-5, hole number 13, offers the best birdie chance on the golf course. The hole plays downhill all the way and if you hit a good drive, you will get plenty of roll. The dangers with the second shot are the water hazards that pinch in to the fairway about 55 m short of the green.
In 2011, Black Mountain opened a par-three course with water on every hole. It is an excellent place to hone one's short game. There are several holes with steep drops from elevated green, and, in a quirky nod to the club's Swedishness, the third green takes the shape of the Scandinavian country.
Black Mountain, which attracts many Singaporean and Malaysian visitors, has 15 villas and 76 condominiums overlooking the course. These properties have largely been sold, with purchasers automatically becoming members of Black Mountain. (No other memberships are sold.) Another 42 resort villas with private pools are available for short-term leases at around S$200 a night; the stay there comes with discounted green fees.
The sports area comprises two all-weather tennis courts and facilities for mini-golf, paddle tennis, beach volleyball and boule. There is also a 55,000 sq m water park and an 800 m circuit wakeboard park.
Mr Elisson said: "We're trying to create a lot of activities at Black Mountain because people are travelling here and they want to feel they can stay here, play golf and also enjoy other activities."
In a sign that Thailand is serious about maintaining its position as one of world's top golfing destinations, a programme called Golf in a Kingdom: The Thai Golf Experience was launched five years ago in the country; last year, it was launched globally.
Under this programme, visitors are put on a cooperative itinerary that matches the country's top golf courses with its most desirable hotels. On board this initiative are 13 of Thailand's best golf courses, 10 hotels and resorts and the Tourism Authority of Thailand. This effort has played a major role in Thailand becoming one of the world's top three golf-tourism destinations.
Banyan and Black Mountain are members of Golf In a Kingdom, as are Riverdale and Thai Country Club in Bangkok, Siam Country Club in Pattaya and Chiang Mai Highlands in Chiang Mai.
How to get there
The drive from Bangkok to Hua Hin takes 2½ hours. Plans are in the pipeline to build a high-speed rail line from the capital by 2018. The trip will take 69 minutes
Black Mountain, Banyan, Sea Pine, Majestic Creek
Where to stay
Black Mountain Golf Club & Resort, Banyan, Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin, Intercontinental Hua Hin Resort, Anantara Hua Hin Resort & Spa, Hyatt Regency