You can see how it all started. Behind the green of the signature hole at the Aquella Golf Club, with the aquamarine waters of the Andaman Sea lapping at your feet, the sandy crescent of Phuket island arcs along the horizon to the south. At the jetty in the distance, watching old fishing boats thrash and long for the tug of open waters, it’s not hard to imagine what this island must have looked like to medieval seafarers. And they’ve all been here: the Portuguese, the French, the British, the Dutch, to name just a few. Traders sailing from China in the 17th century docked their boats in Phuket and waited for the northeast monsoon to take them westward to Arabia, and India.
In the late 19th century, on the back of a major tin mining boom, Phuket attracted fortune seekers from around the world. In the modern era, an airport opened the island to the world in the 1970s and catalysed Phuket’s modern iteration into a tropical vacation paradise. The first to come were the backpackers, followed, eventually by luxury travellers. The trickle became a flood, and set into motion a comprehensive shift to tourism for the island’s economy. Today, Phuket has a slew of standalone spa resorts, tony hotels, and, as is often the case, world-class golf courses.
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Why am I going on about Phuket’s history in a golf column, you ask? Mostly because, in the first week of March 2022 (unlike 2019 when 1.4 million visitors arrived on the island), Phuket looked and felt like the city it might have been like in the decades before its elevation as Asia’s tourist central. On a personal note, an international trip—the first in two years after being cooped up at home—felt like a significant event. It was clear that golf, on this occasion, was to be the vehicle, not the raison d'etre, for the trip.
That, however, is no reflection on the quality of golf on offer. For the record, the five or so golf courses in Phuket—the calibre of which are well established—are in ridiculously good shape. Two of these, Laguna Phuket GC and Blue Canyon GC, have hosted Asian Tour events in recent months. Crucially, and this will appeal to those of us who’ve paid cringingly high green fees in Phuket—teeing it up here in 2022 is surprisingly reasonable. Playing golf in Phuket was never cheap, but it’s not ridiculously expensive anymore. At least until the world returns to status quo.
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For itinerant golfers, like all would-be travellers, the primary consideration is ease of travel. So how difficult is it to travel to Phuket from India? Not ‘Open Sesame,’ for sure, but, provided you have the documentation in place, it’s not that convoluted either. Apply for a ‘Thai Pass’ online; RT-PCR tests before departure and on arrival; covid-specific travel insurance; hotel reservations for at least one night; return tickets; and you’re good to go for a Visa on Arrival. The thing to note, however, is that Thailand’s testing protocols are more exhaustive than those at home. Folks who’ve been diagnosed with covid-19 a month or so before travel are likely to test positive and would do well to wait another month before travelling.
Indians, for whom life has returned largely to normalcy in the cities, will be a bit taken aback by how quiet Phuket and even Bangkok seem. Nothing to complain about, especially on the golf courses, many of which have not had golfers from the subcontinent tee it up for the past two years. You’ll find no groups breathing down your neck, or a rush for booking tee times. The jewels in the crown—Red Mountain GC, and Blue Canyon GC—are consistently ranked amongst the top courses in our part of the world, and are must-play layouts on any golfer’s itinerary here. Both these courses reward strategy and ball placement over length and are best played once you’ve got into your groove.
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Start with the newest layout in the region—Aquella GC—that isn’t on the island, but on the adjoining province of Phang Na on the mainland. This course is much closer to the airport than Phuket’s popular beaches and towns (where you’re likely to be staying) and is best played first, (or last) on your trip. Mission Hills GC, another pretty layout, has the most spectacular views of the ocean. As is usually the smartest way to go on championship layouts, teeing it up from the white tees is the best way—as clichéd as it sounds—to enjoy not just the golf, but the whole experience of teeing it up.
Every now and then you'll find yourself in a situation that is best described with a cliché—jaded, but true.You’ve heard the oft-repeated maxims ‘enjoy the walk’, ‘appreciate the views,’ on the golf course. I’d proffer that anyone who says he or she isn’t consumed by his quality of play (or lack of it thereof) is being plain disingenuous. In fact, nothing matters—neither the weather, nor how pretty the landscape is—when your game deserts you. Golf, when you’re not playing well, can be mirthless.
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And yet, there I was, playing well below par (no pun intended), at some of the finest layouts in Asia, and still grinning. Not even the prospect of losing enough Baht to pay for my opponents’ post-round brew dampened my spirits. And that’s when it struck me—I was reveling in the momentousness of the occasion. Standing on the tee of the gorgeous signature par-3 13th hole at the Blue Canyon GC on a warm March day, a small gallery in attendance, I duffed a wedge that didn’t reach the green but didn’t land up in the drink either. I’d take that gladly: at least there I was, club in hand, on a gorgeous golf course, thousands of miles from home, within a six-iron distance of the ocean, on a pretty summer day. In with a chance, so to speak. In Kipling’s words, “That night we stormed Valhalla, a million years ago.”
Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer and television producer.
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