I've played my first round of golf in Thailand, and I have to say I am still ambivalent about the whole idea of golf in this part of the world. The game feels different here. It's an exotic import, from lands and cultures much different than the indigenous terrain and society. It doesn't seem to fit in quite the way that, say, a Buddhist spirit house fits in at the entrance to a Bangkok courtyard. And then there's the contribution Asia has made to the culture of golf—the uniformed female caddie.
The pretty woman pictured above is named Muk, and she works at a course called Riverdale Golf Club, about an hour's drive north of Bangkok. Muk is a good caddie. I struggled to an 89, and my score would likely have been higher without her. She gets the yardages right and she's pretty good at reading greens. She efficiently rakes the bunkers (a task I imposed on her all too often) and cleans the clubs.
She also drives the cart, which is where my ambivalence begins. Golf in its ideal form is a walking game, played by friends who chat and talk trash to one another between shots. I'm gimpy enough to use a cart nowadays, particularly when it's as hot as it was yesterday in Bangkok—about 90 degrees and humid. (One thing I'm not ambivalent about is missing out on the weather at home, where it was 16 degrees and snowing as I played golf in Thailand.) But at least when I am forced to use a cart on a course at home, I'm riding with a playing companion, and there's a sociable aspect to the game.
At Riverdale, and I gather in most of Thailand, each golfer gets his or her own cart, and the caddie drives. A foursome consists of four players, four carts and four caddies. Much of the time, the only person a player could talk to would be his or her caddie. But I don't speak any Thai, and Muk's English vocabulary is limited mostly to golf terms. She might say, “O.B. left, water right,” as we stood on a tee, or “160, pin back,” if I was preparing to hit an approach shot. (She also knows the English word “fat,” which she said when I showed her the picture.) There was no chance of having a chat with Muk about her life or my life, no chance of exchanging jokes, no chance that she'd do what great caddies do, which is to act as sports psychologists, telling their player exactly what he needs to hear exactly when he needs to hear it. I am fairly confident that Muk is a sweet lady, but for all I know, she and her fellow caddies, when they talked among themselves, were cracking scabrous jokes about the clumsy farang they were working for.
Then there's the matter of the way the caddies dress. At Riverdale, they all wear gray coveralls with orange trim, topped by a bonnet with an enormous brim. Their caddie number is embossed on the back (Muk was 257) and their first name is embossed on the chest. They wear blue gloves. Sometimes they'll even drape a towel over the bonnet, fastening it with clothespins, so that their faces look as if they're at the end of a tunnel.
I'm not sure why they do this, though I suspect it has to do with a few aspects of Asian culture. One is that the men who own golf courses like the idea of uniformed women performing what they see as a subservient job. When players arrive at the clubhouse, their caddies converge on the car to take the clubs from the trunk, all politely performing the Thai "wai," a respectful greeting with bowed head and pressed hands. There's a certain status affirmation going on. I'd be comfortable with it if I were a teacher and the person doing the wai were my student. But it doesn't seem quite right when the person doing the wai is, in theory, an independent contractor.
Another factor in the local caddie culture is an evident preference in at least some areas of Thai society for light skin. (There's a billboard along the Chao Phraya River for sunscreen in which the model looks absolutely chalky.) Muk and her cohorts don't want to get burned or tanned. Maybe they're worried about skin cancer.
But the upshot is that, dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, with maybe a baseball cap to cover the head, the golfer on a Thai course starts to wonder how much his caddie is sweating underneath all that clothing and whether she might be in danger of dehydration. It's not the best swing thought.
And the course I played yesterday demanded good swing thoughts. Riverdale is tough, stretching to 7001 yards from the back tees and full of bunkers and ponds. I don't know what the land was used for prior to the construction of the golf course, but the architect made liberal use of bulldozers to shape the each hole. The greens have a lot of tiers and runoff areas. The fairways are seldom flat.
The bulldozed contours leave the place with a slightly artificial look, which I guess is only appropriate, considering that golf is a game Thailand has imported.
I've got nothing against cultural cross-pollination in sports. But I worry that in this exchange, Thailand has been picking up some of the worst elements of American golf and culture instead of the better ones. Riverdale Golf Club is owned by a Thai conglomerate called MBK, which has enterprises ranging from goat's milk production to shipping to an enormous, enclosed mall with 2,000 shops in the center of Bangkok.
MBK apparently intends to make Riverdale (there is, by the way, no sign that the name was given to the club in homage to the hometown of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica) the center of an exclusive, exurban residential development. Though no homes have yet been built, lots have been laid out around the edge of the course, demarcated by low green hedges. There's a security guard at the entrance to the development and another at the exit.
I was left with a vision of wealthy Thais emulating wealthy Americans, living in a gated community with a walking-averse lifestyle and getting to work via a long commute on highways already choked with traffic. In Bangkok, it's bumper to bumper at all hours. If you go to see a temple in the dawn light, the sun struggles to break through the city's constant shroud of smog. I'm just not sure about the way golf is affecting Thailand's karma, or the West's.
But maybe that's just me. Maybe if I had shot 79 instead of 89, I'd feel differently. We'll see.