“Take it easy,” the Dane said. We were waiting for our tee times at Palm Hills in Hua Hin, Thailand. “Relax. Everything will work out. This is Thailand.” He ordered a couple of Singha beers for us. I didn’t really believe him. The ‘mistake’ on the Thailand Golf Travel Market tee sheet turned out not to be one. Some of us were intentionally being sent out in five-balls. “This is not golf,” I lamented.
The last time I had played a five-ball was a few years ago at Gullane in Scotland. We had been a group of four rough-prone Scandinavians, when we spotted a lone golfer patiently waiting at the tee behind us. We had waved him through, but he seemed to be hesitant about charging past us as we flailed in Gullane’s penal system, the shin-high rough. He slowed down to satisfy his morbid curiosity and ended up clinging to our group for an awkward final three holes. I thought that five-ball was an oddity that I would never experience again.
But then came Thailand. Things you thought you knew about life and the universe don’t apply here. Take the beer. Don’t be surprised if you’re handed beer on the rocks. Just drink it, ice and all – it’s remarkably refreshing!
Back at Palm Hills, the Dane handed me an ice-beer. “Remember, he said, in Thailand they have ‘halfway houses’ every three holes! Just go with the flow.”
Golf in Thailand needs some getting used to. I don’t mean the courses. Most of them are top notch with impeccable fairways and greens. But it’s all the packaging of the Thai golf ‘product’ that you have to become acclimatized to. It starts with the caddies.
This is the deal. At most courses caddies are obligatory and they are almost always women with mono-syllabic names. Mine were Nuch, Na, Nok and Noi. Some of them are absolute geniuses at giving you the right club and especially at reading the greens. Others, well…. In my experience, the older the caddie the better. Unfortunately you don’t usually get to choose – only if you call ahead and request a caddie you already know. On site it’s random, those are the rules.
Some Thais love having caddies so much that they think that having merely one caddie is a bit on the stingy side. In their world, having three caddies is more normal. One to drive the buggy, one to give advice and one to hold the umbrella in order to shade her employer from the tropical sun. And why not throw in a couple of forecaddies? These golfers, usually Thai businessmen, tend to go overboard on the number of playing partners as well. That’s where five-balls fit in. Actually, at some Thai courses even six-balls are allowed!
And when you have five or six players, each with three or more caddies, you can imagine that the entire group of players and assistants can look like a small army making its way across the course. It is a sight to behold.
Now, you may think it would take all day for this group to play 18 holes. That’s not always true. Sometimes it takes only half a day. It turns out that the rules of etiquette have been adjusted for Thailand’s cultural playing conditions. On many courses a circle is painted around the hole at a set distance, and any putt within the line is an automatic ‘gimme’. This speeds up the putting. And it’s not unheard of in Thailand for a five-ball golfer to leave the green, head on to the next hole and tee off while the others are still putting. Finally, since the halfway houses come every three holes, the five-balls sometimes get distracted by liquid pleasures. If they settle down after six holes with a bottle of bourbon, quicker players will be waved through in no time.
So yes, ‘relax’ was the best advice the Dane could possibly give me. In Thailand things tend to work out. They did.
Funnily enough, having never heard of intentional five-balls in my entire golf-playing career, last week a long-time resident of Palm Springs, California told me that five-balls are common there, too. “How do you deal with it?” I asked, astonished. He just looked dejected. I felt for him. There are some rules of golf that should never be broken, at least not outside of Thailand.