Over the top by Meraj Shah: Till kingdom come

Is it too soon to say ‘post-covid’? I thought about that as I mulled over the headline for this piece… and decided against using that phrase. As the pandemic enters its third year and we wake up to news reports about yet newer variants, there’s a pervasive sense of fatigue with the virus and the way it’s constricted our lives. From traveling to, and playing some of the most gorgeous golf courses in the world, your columnist, like everyone else, has been largely house-bound since April 2020. So, last month, when I was asked by the Tourism of Thailand, if I would consider taking a golf trip to Phuket, I had no hesitation in accepting the invitation.

Phuket, that picture-perfect tropical vacation destination, has always been a no-brainer: like a book that you’re happy to read and then re-read — discovering new facets of the plot every time— to get acquainted with Phuket’s multi- faceted charm requires time and repetition. The purpose of this trip was to play golf, and while I certainly wanted to tee it up at the island’s storied golf courses, it was the carefree beach vibe, the perfect-for-snorkelling aquamarine waters, and the street food that I really yearned for. For a modicum of life as we knew it. For moments of normality — whatever that means today. Bottom line: as an antidote to over 24 months of being sequestered to the world-at-large, Phuket made a watertight case. And it was clear that golf, on this occasion, was to be the vehicle, not the raison d’etre, for the trip.

For itinerant golfers, like all would-be travelers, the primary consideration is ease of travel. So how difficult is it to travel to Phuket from India? Things have changed since I got back. Now Thailand has removed mandatory pre-arrival tests and reduced the medical insurance amount by half. You still have to register for a Thai pass online, but that’s a breeze. 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 if they decide to get tested, and would do well to wait another month before traveling.

In 2019, 1.4 million visitors arrived at Phuket. A month back, Phuket looked and felt like the city it might have been like in the decades before its elevation as Asia’s tourist central. 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 at the five or so golf courses in Phuket — the caliber of which is well established. 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. That frugality extends to the jewels in Phuket’s golfing firmament — Red Mountain GC, and Blue Canyon GC — that are consistently ranked amongst the top courses in our part of the world. In the same league as, say, the Black Mountain GC in Hua Hin, or the Suwan GC outside Bangkok. As of now, there’s a severe slash in the standard rates that used to hover in the range of THB 4000 on weekdays and THB 5000 on weekends, and another THB 1200 for the caddy and cart. It’s still a good idea to carry your own clubs, but in case you’re not, then rental clubs are easily available. Both of these courses are must-play layouts on any golfer’s itinerary here: course management rewards strategy and ball placement over length at both layouts. That’s why Blue Canyon GC and Red Mountain GC are best played once you’ve got into your groove. 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 cliched as it sounds — to enjoy not just the golf, but the whole experience of teeing it up.

I flew Thai Airways that has a generous allowance of 30 kgs — enough to cover luggage and the golf set. In any case, as far as I’m concerned, Thailand is by far my favorite golf destination in this part of the world, and probably the only place that I would not mind warming up the cheap seats for a golf trip. For a golfer, the country’s surfeit and diversity of championship layouts, top-notch hospitality, and value-for-money appeal is just too overwhelming to resist. Should you go now… in light of Covid cases rising again? I can not answer that for you; I would go back to Phuket… in a heartbeat.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game.

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