My first trip to an LPGA event in Asia

CHONBURI, Thailand – To understand what the LPGA represents in the modern era, one almost has to travel outside U.S. borders. After all, nearly half of the tour’s schedule takes place internationally. Fans can wake up in the morning Stateside and check scores for the (surprise) finish, but nothing compares to standing alongside thousands of Thai fans beneath the shade of an umbrella.

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In some ways, it feels like any other well-run tournament back home. But when elephants paint landscapes at a nearby camp and course security warns of cobras in the jungle beyond the rough, U.S. visitors are quickly reminded that it took two full days to get to this place.

Last week marked my first trip to an LPGA event in Asia, though it wasn’t my first time traveling East. Three years ago I met Jiyai Shin at a Korean LPGA event on Jeju Island, and last summer I vacationed in China. Traveling to Asia is always an eye-opening experience, and it helps remind those who follow this tour that it can’t survive on U.S. money alone.

Pre-tournament perks: When the boss says you’re going to Asia for two weeks, it only makes sense to tack on a few extra days to sight-see. Prior to arriving in Pattaya, I spent four days in northern Thailand in the country’s second-biggest city, Chiang Mai.

Elephants are beloved creatures in Thailand. They’re featured on almost every souvenir here, from bags to pillows to salt and pepper shakers. Like many players on tour, I spent time at an elephant camp, feeding them bananas and watching them graze on an hour-long ride. Elephants aren’t the smoothest form of transportation, but they offer a terrific view when perched atop their sturdy backs.

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I wasn’t kidding about the painting. During a circus-like show, elephants did everything from play the harmonica to kick soccer balls. Patrons paid up to 6,000 baht for paintings created during the show. The elephants’ precision with a brush is simply stunning.

Christina Kim rode elephants in Pattaya last fall and ziplined through the jungle. This year Vicky Hurst went to see the elephants and was asked to participate in the show. One promptly picked Hurst up with its trunk and carried her across the stage.

Welcome to Thailand.

Relaxed yet? Massages are so cheap in Thailand tourists almost feel guilty paying so little for hours of pampering. Almost every player I talked to last week had at least one foot massage. Thailand native Russy Gulyanamitta pointed me in the direction of a quality spa frequented by players. A two-hour traditional Thai massage (loads of stretching and pressure points) at the Health Land costs 450 baht. That’s roughly $14. Amazing.

Sights and sounds: It’s always interesting to see players with their hair down at pro-am shindigs and other tournament parties. Some, like Paula Creamer, are decked out in form-fitting dresses and stilettos. Others show up with wet hair and hoodies.

Michelle Wie wore a pair of 50’s-style white-rimmed glasses with her black pants ensemble. I thought they were merely an accessory until she passed them across the table. Needless to say, Wie spends most of her life in contacts. She has worn glasses since elementary school and bought this white pair on a recent trip to Seoul.

Rough ride: When players travel to Asia for LPGA events, they get paid just to show up. Sponsors pay for plane tickets, hotels and transportation. They even get meal vouchers at the player hotel. Oh, and the tournament has no cut.

A shuttle bus, driven by the Royal Thai Police, carried players and caddies to and from the hotel. There was even a police escort that stopped traffic to ensure a quick arrival.

On an afternoon ride back to the hotel Friday, the police car leading the shuttle bus got into a collision with a tractor-trailor heading down the highway. The police car spun around and clipped the bus, which carried Sandra Gal and her father along with Natalie Gulbis’ caddie and Kim. The accident took place at the entrance of Siam Country Club during a rain shower and left the tractor-trailer jack-knifed in the highway median. Luckily, no one was injured.

“Everything considered it was best-case scenario,” Kim said. “It was just scary as hell.”

The buses took a more scenic route over the weekend.

The Honda PTT tournament was held on one of Thailand’s premiere tracks and featured a major-like field. In many ways, the event felt like any other top-tier LPGA event. Aside from the crowd looking mostly Asian, it was interesting to note the number of umbrellas dotting the fairways. Double A, a Thai paper company, gave away free umbrellas on Sunday, a nice touch for scorched spectators.

Signs instructed patrons to leave their cell phones and cameras at home, but those rules were largely ignored. Cameras clicked all day long.

There was a good-sized crowd surrounding the 18th on Sunday and as players exited the green they were met with a chorus of children who yelled out in unison “Give me your ball, please!” One couldn’t help but wonder how many Thai youngsters were inspired to pick up the game last week.

Virada Nirapathpongporn, a Bangkok native who won both the NCAA Championship and U.S. Women’s Amateur while at Duke, learned how to play the game at the Old Course. She’s greatly impressed by the talent coming up through the junior ranks.

“I see the potential,” she said. “They’ll be as good as the Koreans. We just need some time.”

Next stop: Singapore.

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