Santiburi Golf Club Review By Sean O'Donnell
The Santiburi Country Club outside of Chaing Rai, Thailand represents the epitome of a “hidden gem” in the golf world. Here you will get an elite architectural design, an absolutely mystical setting in the rural highlands of Northern Thailand, and a true “old money” private club feeling but with walk-up tee times available year-round.
The course is a 6850 yard par 72 from the tips and provides a perfectly modern championship-caliber design in an old-world setting. Opened in 1992 and designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the Santibury club is named after its owner, Santi Bhirombhkadi, and consistently rates as one of the top courses in all of Thailand.
The difference that sets apart the Santiburi Country Club is its location. Set in the “tri-countries” or Golden Triangle area of Northern Thailand, the course is situated just hours away from the borders of both Laos and Myanmar. Because of this, the mystique of the course is accentuated by the fact that it is off the beaten path of the large Thai cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai and the island or beach hotspots such as Phuket, Koh Samui, or Pattaya.
This lush, hilly setting gives the course a natural protection from the elements. A light mist seems to hang in the air all day as the rolling terrain and forests make for an oasis … one that any weary golf traveler would do well to seek out if they want a pure experience away from the busy crowds that a course this nice would usually attract.
Golf in Thailand
The story of Santiburi Country Club cannot be told without knowing a few things about golf in Thailand in general. Thailand is a golfer’s paradise, and has established itself as a destination not just for the recreational golfer but as a reliable producer of world-class professional talent, especially for a country its size.
Bangkok especially is a hotbed for the game of golf, with a huge recreational scene as well as many courses capable of holding international professional competitions on any tour. But the Santibury Country Club in Chaing Rai represents a contrast to the busy, touristy scene while providing an experience that matches the top public courses on the planet.
One of the major tenets of golf in Thailand is that you’re going to take a caddy. This is true whether you are taking a cart or walking - the caddy is required at most courses, and Santiburi Country Club is no exception.
The other peculiarity about Thai golf is that it is not uncommon to see fivesomes on the course. That means you could see TEN people on the green in front of you, since everyone has a caddie! Some clubs restrict this during peak days or hours, and others do not. At Santiburi country club the atmosphere is so laid back, that it is unlikely to be an issue, and when I played we had no problem with golfers letting us play through as necessary.
What to expect
The Santiburi Country Club lies in a gated complex about 15 minutes outside of the modest city of Chaing Rai. Unlike the major metropolises that mark most destinations in Southeast Asia, Chaing Rai is a rural city with a small airport. Flights are available from Bangkok for about $25 each way, which makes it a destination that is super easy to add to your itinerary even if it is for golf alone.
Leaving the city and traveling on some rural highways sets the tone for what you will see when you arrive at Santiburi. The clubhouse is about a 5-minute drive inside the complex from the main gate, where you will get your first glimpse of the course as its misty sea-green fairways and greens sit in stark contrast to the shady evergreen forests that the course is cut from.
The clubhouse is nothing less than immaculate, an open layout with glass doors and deck/patio space surrounding the adjacent #1 tee, #10 tee, and #9 and #18 greens. On the opposite side of the clubhouse sits a covered 300 yard driving range and the ubiquitous caddy shack. Expect to have one of the ladies (there are normally only female caddies in Thailand) greet you at your car to take your clubs out of the trunk and ensure that you will not touch your golf bag the entire time you are on the property.
The course is, of course, the real gem of the Santiburi Country Club experience, as it should be with any good golf venue.
The Robert Trent Jones Jr. design absolutely does not disappoint. The front 9 is a water-laden design that mimics some of the famous courses of the Southeastern United States, especially the 411-yard par 4 #2. This hole is a serious nod to the 3rd and 6th holes at Bay Hill, playing like a par 4 version of the #6 hole where the fairway doglegs left over water and bunkers dot the landing areas, waiting to collect any conservative shots that are too well-struck. The name of the game here is for long hitters to bite off as much as they care to chew - but one nibble too much spells disaster!
Overall you will encounter water on 7 of the 9 holes on the front 9. Numbers 2, 3, 4, and 8 have lakes that run down one side of the hole framing either the tee shot, approach shot, or both. Meanwhile holes 5 and 6 feature tributaries that divide segments of the fairway a la Rae’s Creek or the Swilcan Burn. While these are far from unique offerings at major, modern golf courses they are incorporated artfully and very strategically into the layout as Robert Trent Jones, Jr. followed the natural contours of the property to provide very relevant decisions for the golfers from all tees, very much in the spirit of those other famous waterways in golf lore
The back 9 gives the water a rest until the final two holes, but we get a stunning display of woodland golf with every green outfitted with multiple bunkers and large runoff areas. This combination makes for a true test of the whole game. Tree-lined tee shots are followed by approaches into fully developed greens complexes with intricate bunkers and runoff areas on each hole, and plenty of undulation and shelving once you finally get to the green.
The gem of the back 9, and of the entire course, is the closing stretch. I haven’t seen all the contenders for sure, but at least one other review mentioned this as the best closing stretch in all of Thailand, and I have no reason to doubt their words. The par three #17 is arguably the signature hole of the course, where we are re-introduced to water with a short downhill shot guarded by a lake on the right. The par 5 closer goes all-out with a double dogleg over water providing plenty of risk/reward scoring opportunity with several ways to navigate the hole and is all you could ever want out of a golf hole, and the perfect capstone on an absolute architectural gem.
The golf course ultimately earns one of the best and surprisingly most difficult compliments to earn - even amongst famous golf courses: the honor of legitimately having 18 very strong holes without a letdown. This combined with the variety between 9’s and the world-class greens complexes make the replayability factor very high, another mark of a truly classy layout.
“Always have dinner with great putters”
Any great golf experience can always be rounded out by taking a load off at the clubhouse afterwards. The Santiburi Country Club continues to deliver and rolls out the red carpet for you to spend as much time on property as possible. The serene setting has a super-inviting clubhouse that flanks the golf course with open-air dining areas that overhang the home holes.
The food is excellent, cheffy Thai fare with Western-style salads, sandwiches and desserts also offered. Most of all though the clubhouse gives that true private club feel, with friendly staff waiting to greet and assist you, and the grandeur of the surroundings far exceeding the density of the clientele, you will feel like it is your own personal palace with staff to take care of you directly.
While Santiburi Country Club is off-the-beaten-path for most golf tourists, it deserves a closer look. It routinely rates in the top 10 courses in Thailand, and may be even higher since it doesn’t get the bias of a lot of tourist traffic and press opportunities. The low rate of play and the fresh mountain weather makes for absolutely immaculate conditions year-round and a proper respite from both the scorching heat and the hustle/bustle of the busy tourist destinations in Thailand. With flights from Bangkok available for as little as $25 each way, it’s absolutely within reach for any interested golf enthusiast.
That underlines the real take-home from the experience at Santiburi Country Club. You could actually play this course as a fly-in, fly-out if you wanted to. Which sounds absurd, but with a 1-hr flight that costs less than a lot of cab fares, how often do you get the kind of opportunity to pretend like you’re Phil Mickelson for a day? And it’s actually absolutely worth it. All told, this course has everything you’d ever want from a world-class golf experience, and on a weekday afternoon the total fees are going to be under $40. Dinner with drinks and desserts at the clubhouse will not break the $10 mark. This leaves plenty of room to give your caddie a great tip, and get an experience that would normally cost several hundred dollars at almost any other venue, regardless of where it is in the world.
The course has a real mystique to it, a real magic. The setting is immaculate, and the whole setup is just so private, so pristine, and so natural that it’s virtually impossible to not walk around with a smile on your face all day.