By Scott Murray
No expat has done more to spread the gospel of golf throughout Thailand over the past 25 years than Les Walsh. Les has many skills and has worn many hats in his time in Thailand.
But after almost 30 years of living in Thailand Les is returning home to start the next chapter of his life – keeping an eye on his rambunctious 90-year-old mother, building a bridge to citizenship for his Thai wife Khun Gift, and creating a landing zone for his children to make the move out of Thailand to Canada as well as reconnecting with his brother and long-lost friends.
Les grew up in a little town outside of Montreal called Hudson, a place he fondly calls “the nicest place he’s ever been to”. It’s a historic community on the southwest bank of the Ottawa River, about 60km from downtown Montreal. Les was actually born in Montreal West, but his parents came from Hudson, and they moved back there when Les was in grade six.
Les thought about playing golf as a career, but there was no real career path other than becoming a club pro, a teaching pro, or a touring pro. Golf was not taken as a serious industry back then. Les talked about turning pro with his dad, who told him he didn’t have the temperament for it. Les heeded the advice and went to university.
Les left Hudson to study at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, where he received an Honours BA in economics, marketing and geography in 1980. Dave Layton, the younger brother of Jack Layton (former federal NDP leader) was Les’ best friend, and as he had decided to study at Ryerson, Les followed, they were college roommates and studied together (Layton's great-granduncle, William Steeves, was a Canadian Father of Confederation).
Les stopped playing golf then, and instead played music in his spare time. His brother, Robert is a renowned and award-winning recording artist, (www.robertwalsh.ca) and two years younger than Les. “He’s the best rhythm guitar player I’ve ever seen - period,” Les says, “I always envied him - when he was a kid, he picked up the guitar, fell in love with it and that was it, he knew what he wanted to do right away and he’s been playing professionally since he was 13.”
When Les first moved to Toronto he played in an Italian wedding band and then in a disco band, before joining a rock band called “Phoenix” and he stayed with them for four years. “We were a 6-piece band with 5-part vocals. There was nothing that we couldn’t play. We did everything from Journey to Max Webster – it was a great ride!”
Upon graduating he did a management training program with Wendy’s and worked as a research analyst for the realtor, A.E. LePage. Looking for something a little more adventurous and different, he then took a job heading up trade and investment development for the South Korean government’s 72-office Korea Trade Promotion Corporation, located in downtown Toronto. He worked there for six years, and was responsible for everything from sourcing stuffed teddy bears to nuclear reactor parts as his mandate changed from research originally to business development. He led Canadian buying delegations to Seoul and acted as a middleman between Canadian and South Korean companies.
Les eventually went as far as he could with the Korean Trade Center – the next step would require getting Korean security clearance - so in 1988 he grabbed a chance to relocate to Taipei, Taiwan to run a sourcing office for a Canadian firm. Les did product development and quality control, sourcing products like steak knives for a gasoline company and dolls for Campbell’s Soup for their promotional campaigns. But things back in Canada went south after a year, leaving him effectively stranded in Taiwan.
One positive from his time in Taipei was the discovery of a rock and blues club where he met Czech/Australian musician Dave Zuric. They’d jam together at the Farmhouse and other clubs for several months until Les left Taiwan.
One of Les’ Taiwanese suppliers had an office in Bangkok, and invited him to Bangkok where he ended working for the supplier’s company CAG for about a year-and-a-half.
During this time he sourced food and giftware products for large retailers such as Loblaws, to whom he supplied seafood products and other niche products such as Mae Pranom hot sauce and even escorted Loblaws President Dave Nichol on a sourcing trip around Bangkok when he visited Thailand.
About a week after his arrival in Thailand, Les learned that a couple of his friends in Taipei had also relocated to Bangkok. One of them was his jamming buddy David, and they quickly put a proper act together.
With the support of a couple of local club musicians they played a regular slot at Round Midnight on Soi Langsuan every Saturday night, occasionally enlisting local businessman Ken Lambert to play drums to play special events like AMCHAM’s Independence Day picnic.
During this entire time in Taiwan and Thailand, the golf clubs stayed in mothballs, but he became involved with the Can-Am Invitational golf tournament.
In 1991, Les moved back to Toronto in the middle of recession and created a job for himself at Pizza Pizza. He put together a proposal for Mike Overs, the founder and CEO of the company. Mike was impressed and made Les the head of international franchise development where he remained for 2 years. Despite creating opportunities in Korea, Costa Rica and another half-dozen countries it became clear that his ambitious strategy for international expansion didn’t sync with others in the organization and never would.
Les went back to Montreal, but after almost a year he realized no one was interested in his Asian work experience. So he decided to return to Asia, stopping in Bangkok, Taipei, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo to meet senior business contacts and assess opportunities. Before he left, he spoke with a number of major Canadian franchise firms, offering to do exploratory research for them during his trips to see if any of their products would be viable in this part of the world.
At the tail end of his trip he visited the Seoul Franchise Show but missed his connecting flight to Tokyo during the Korean wedding season and couldn’t get another flight out. Stuck in the airport for two days, he begged the Thai Airways counter for a flight anywhere; he ended up with a ticket back to Bangkok.
Once back, Les decided that things happen for a reason and that he would try to turn this disaster into an opportunity. He took a number of different jobs, including working at Siam Trade business magazine together with Scott Murray, and ended up in an 8-year relationship that produced sons Hudson and Tyler, born in 1995 and 97, respectively.
In late 1996, Les went to work with the Thai-Chamber of Commerce (now CanCham Thailand) when Matt Raynor was the Executive Director and the office was on the premises of Enterprise Thailand Canada on Silom Road. It was then that he started Voyageur, the CanCham Thailand magazine, as well as a short-lived newsletter called The Elephant and Beaver.
Les had met Ron Livingston through the Chamber and next went to work for IEM from 1997-2001 in business development and admin support on a number of ISO 14001 certification projects for the energy sector. Les left IEM to pursue a career in real estate doing projects for Destination Properties in Sri Racha and Samui, followed by numerous resort development projects with Pacvest Properties
He also represented a car-coating company, which gave Hudson a springboard into the automotive business as he now works for the Forza GT supercar service shop, while Tyler runs an online shoe company, and is an accredited marijuana grower.
Hudson (guitar) and Tyler (drums), inherited their dad’s musical skill and father and sons have performed at two Canada Day celebrations in recent years.
Les was introduced to his wife K. Kulthida (Gift) by a mutual friend and after a number of years dating they married in 2009. Gift spent several years in marketing and sales for private aviation firms X Jet and Minor Aviation before becoming involved in professional golf course management at Thana City and Chee Chan, while becoming a freelance consultant in branding and social media marketing.
Golf has wound its way through everything else Les has done in Thailand. But Les says golf is a labour of love for him, not a career, as he is always doing something else while working on golf projects. When Les arrived back in Thailand the second time he met Kerry Matison who quickly grabbed Les to help him run the annual Can-Am Invitational golf tourney.
The Can-Am ran from 1981-2007 and was replaced by the Flying Farang golf tournament, which then became the Beaver when in 2018 it became the Moose and then finally the Caveman Classic in 2019, which was the last time it was held. And Les has had a hand in running this often renamed tourney since 1997.
Les has also worked on the rebuild of Muang Kaew golf course and done reviews for CNN on golf courses. He ran a golf course redevelopment project for Muang Kaew and Sri Racha; he also ran Doug Harrison’s tourney for Father Joe for eight years; Rajah’s Invitational tourney for nine years; and the Rotary Bangkok South tourney for a decade.
What does Les love about golf? “It’s the things that golf gives you that you can’t get in any other sport. It’s very personal, you don’t need anyone else around, it’s a personal challenge, and no one beats you but yourself. That said, it’s a great opportunity to meet new people. You can learn more about someone from playing a round of golf with them than you can in a year of boardroom meetings. It’s also a mobile game, you get fresh air, it’s a nice walk with plenty of sunshine (usually) and you get to play in a wonderful environment. ”
Les’ advice for someone just starting out: “Buy a used seven-iron, go to driving range, and hit some balls around. If you like it, keep practicing and then go to a public course on a weekday afternoon and play a round. It’s not as cheap as say football, or takraw, but it is affordable, especially here in Thailand.”
Les has always juggled many balls at once and has a talent for multitasking. Indeed, it’s rare to find Les focusing on just one project.
Looking back Les says, “My time here has not been a commercial success, certainly no party or cake walk. However, I met Gift, I have two great kids, a lot of great experiences and friendships that are deep and lasting.”
Parting advice for someone coming to Thailand to work, or invest? “You must have your eyes wide open, do your homework and truly understand the costs and processes. Network – go online, contact the Chamber, and visit forums like ‘Canadians in Thailand’ on Facebook before you get here. Most of all, you also must have a strong sense of who you are and a strong sense of values to stay focused. If things don’t work out, leave. Don’t be one of those guys just hanging on because you like the beaches and temples.”
And the golf? Les plans to be back in Thailand next April 1 & 2 to run the Caveman Classic at the Phoenix Golf Club & the Hard Rock Hotel in Pattaya. The next event will be the 40th time it’s played, allowing for interruptions. Fellow Canadian AJ Easton will look after things while Les is in Canada, but he will still be sending out golfing updates through his website The Ministry of Golf.
You can contact Les at email@example.com.