I have been to Hawaii on two previous occasions -- but never to Kaua'i. Nicknamed "The Garden Island," Kaua'i is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands and the juxtaposition of land and water is truly an eyeful -- especially for those who can venture to the inaccessible areas where motor vehicles cannot drive near. Be sure to schedule sufficient non-golf time to see what this small island provides in a big time way.
Clearly, my focus centered on the golf side of the aisle and no Hawaii golf education is complete without a visit to Kaua'i.
The par-3 5th at Kaua'i Lagoons plays 210 yards from the championship tees and requires
an accurate approach across a frontal water hazard that can prove difficult to avoid.
One of the really great things about landing at Lihu'e Airport is the close proximity to a top tier golf course literally seconds from the runway. Kaua'i Lagoons (KL) is a Jack Nicklaus design. Originally started as a 36-hole facility the layout has been compressed to just 18-holes -- encompassing the top tier holes from the original contribution created by team Nicklaus.
The fascinating aspect of KL is you don't see much of the golf course from the clubhouse area. The land is nearly dead flat with tree coverage blocking instant views -- you discover the holes when you come to them.
KL provides plenty of width -- and the prevailing trade winds have a major impact on how the holes play -- varying velocities can certainly effect club selection in a big time way when wind speeds are blowing hard.
Be sure to warm-up properly because the strength of KL is the outward half of holes. The front side starts with two fairly basic holes. At the short par-4 3rd you're presents with a range of decisions at the tee. One can play aggressively with a bold tee shot that aims towards the green but that angle of attack is ably protected by a series of bunkers. Not a long hole but one that doesn't yield without careful thought and solid execution.
The final six holes on the outward nine at KL are just grand stuff. Generally the trade winds are with you for all but the final two holes on the front half. The combination of holes is well done and the greens are angled so only the purest and most surest of approach shots will settle near the flagstick.
The signature hole at KL is the short par-4 6th and it's very well done. There's a temptation for the big play at the tee -- but the slightest tug or push from the tee will result in double-bogey or worse.
KL's most demanding hole comes with the final hole on the front. The long par-4 9th plays into the prevailing wind and to make matters more challenging there is a water hazard that cuts immediately in front and right of the putting surface. If the wind is blowing hard into the players it's best to lay-up with your 2nd for a short pitch in trying to make a par-4 that way.
The inner half of holes does not have direct frontage on the ocean and is truly secluded through trees bordering the edges of nearly all the holes. Candidly, I think the course works better if the nines were reversed -- finishing with the stretch of holes in close connection with the ocean would really bring the player home in grand fashion. KL presents scoring opportunities but the player must know when to attack and when to show smarts by avoiding the big number and playing smartly when the situation calls for it. www.marriott.com/golf..kauai-lagoons.
The short par-4 14th at Kukui'ula plunges from an elevated tee to a green wonderfully positioned in front of the azure Pacific Ocean.
Kukui'ula encompasses 1,010 acres of land and is located on the southern perimeter of Kaua'i. The facility was created as a family getaway -- a haven from the 24/7 pulse that consumes daily living. Those fortunate to be members will find a meaningful disconnect with golf being high on the pecking order but far from the only activity.
The opening of Kukui'ula marks the first private club on the island and the Tom Weiskopf golf design is well done although it takes a few holes to get its mojo going to full steam.
The name Kukui'ula comes from the kukui / candlelight torches placed on the property and on the south shore of Kaua'i which served to guide voyagers going to and from Tahiti.
Membership at Kukui'ula provides a slew of different elements of note and activities galore. You can take a quick short ride to a significant farm on property -- set on a nearby hillside the crops produced are incorporated into the menu.
The facility also provides for one of the finest designed spas I have seen. The smartly designed complex provides a tropical setting with sufficient spacing and separation so that total comfort and relaxation are fostered.
The opening of Kukui'ula marks the first private club on the island and the Tom Weiskopf golf design is well done although it takes a few holes to get its mojo going to full steam.
Although Weiskopf competed at the highest levels of professional golf his design emphasis has always been playability -- providing fun for the widest range of players. Kukui'ula clearly allows sufficient elasticity for nearly all handicap types to negotiate the terrain. There's a good bit of elevation change throughout the 216 acres set aside for the golf course but nothing onerous that forces players to play one particular way.
The first four holes are there to get the cobwebs off your swing -- it's at the par-4 5th where the challenges start to intensify. The hole climbs steadily uphill to a green that fits naturally into the setting. The 6th plunges downhill and again consistent shot execution is called upon.
Fairway widths are quite generous -- partly to handle the blowing winds which can be strong at times.
The true essence of Kukui'ula commences with the final 5 holes and starts with the downhill short par-4 14th -- driveable for the strongest of players. When you stand on the tee you are mesmerized by the shimmering Pacific Ocean which provides a backdrop of incredible beauty.
The 15th and 16th are both long par-4's and require two very strong shots to get near both greens -- especially when encountering the prevailing trade winds. The par-3 17th is perfectly positioned between the two preceding holes and the finale - a risk-and-reward par-5 gives you one final shot in securing a low number before the round concludes.
An interesting side element at Kukui'ula is the provision in which a full-time resident of Kaua'i can play the course for just $35 providing they can present two forms of ID on the first visit – Hawaii driver's license and voter registration card or income tax form that confirms residence on Kaua'i full-time. There are 4 tee times (16 players) a day beginning at noon for $35 a round. The residents call in to make their tee time a week in advance with a lottery type drawing, but the majority of requests are confirmed for the requested day. Not a bad thing to consider if moving to Kaua'i full time is doable. www.kukuiula.com.
The long and challenging par-4 16th at Poipu Bay is one of the toughest holes found on all of the Hawaiian Islands.
The literal translation for Poipu means "crashing waves" and Poipu Bay -- designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. -- certainly has provided major awareness of golf in Kaua'i after having served as host layout for the Grand Slam of Golf event played there between 1994 and 2006.
Phil Mickelson caused even more attention when firing a course record 59 -- in winning the 2004 event.
Poipu Bay is located on 210 acres of land and is really about two golf presentations. The first half of the holes is primarily interior and away from the water -- although ocean breezes can impact play no matter where you are at on the course.
The par-72 7,123 yard layout really comes to the forefront as you make your way into the final nine holes. The back nine features plenty of strategic holes where making the right decision at the tee can pay huge dividends. The 10th thru 14th holes play slightly away from the ocean with the 15th thru 17th holes take you to the edge -- where property meets coastline. You can hear the waves breaking onto the surf so try to keep your focus.
The par-4 16th is one of Hawaii's top holes. The 500+ yard par-4 demands a well-placed tee shot as the landing are gently turns left. Avoiding bunkers to the right is important but being equally sure not to be too aggressive down the left side where a rock wall lurks throughout the entire hole. The approach is no less daunting. The putting surfaces bends to the left hugging ever tightly to the rock wall previously mentioned. Even with the tradewinds helping -- the 16th can determine your entire round so pay heed at all times with execution. The putting surface is also quite large -- knowing where the pin is located can make a huge difference in avoiding three-putts or more.
Poipu Bay's final two holes provide a clear contrast to the 16th. The par-3 17th plays from an elevated and at 225 yards requires a marriage between distance and control. The 18th ends the round in grand fashion. A dog-leg right off the tee -- those able to play closest to that side will have an opportunity to reach the par-5 ending hole in two blows. Be mindful of the fronting water hazard that protects the target for the slightest mishit.
Poipu Bay is a good resort layout - blending flexibility for different skill sets while still providing a few holes of note capable in testing the superior player. www.poipubaygolf.com
Kiahuna provides quality golf with very reasonable green fees.
Just minutes from both Poipu Bay and Kukui'ula is Kiahuna. The 18-hole public facility gets plenty of attention and rightly so. The par-70, 6,787 yard Robert Trent Jones Jr. provides ample widths. Quite playable with affordable rates given what island golf charges at the more noted facilities. The outward nine is quite modest in the challenges provided and one will need to score well to offset the more rigorous back nine. The course finishes strongly with the final trio of holes - a long par-3 at the 16th which is well defended and two challenging par-4 holes to close out the day. www.kiahunagolf.com
WAILUA GOLF COURSE
Wailua has hosted three USGA Amateur Public Links events and is both affordable and fun to play.
As you drive from the southern perimeter of Kaua'i you head back through Lihu'e and roughly 20 minutes north of the island's largest city you come upon Wailua Golf Course -- owned and operated by the County of Kaua'i. The par-72 6,991-yard layout has earned a considerable reputation over the years having hosted three USGA Men's Public Links Championships. Wailua is a good test -- neither overly demanding nor really outstanding in any one specific way. Among the more noted holes comes early in the round with the stretch of the 2nd thru 7th holes. The 2nd is a demanding long par-4 that requires a stout drive and a accurate approach. Course does provide attractive rates and is conveniently located to Lihu'e. Worth a visit when on the island. www.kauai.gov/golf
PRINCEVILLE (Makai and The Prince Courses)
The severe terrain changes at The Prince are a constant item for much of the round.
For connoisseurs the best golf on all of Kaua'i is found at Princeville. The 36-hole facility hugs the coastline but the actual property is set high above the ocean providing jaw-dropping scenery.
The two courses at Princeville -- Makai and The Prince -- are the handiwork of architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Makai opened in 1971 originally as 27-holes and was later remodeled in 2009 and re-opened January 16, 2010. The main 18 encompasses the former Lake and Ocean nines. The Woods nine still exists and is geared to those searching for a less rigorous test.
Makai is set predominantly inland although there are several holes that swing immediately near to the dropoff point that separates land from water. The par-72, 7,200+ yard layout was the first solo effort of Jones and was the first course he designed in Hawaii. Others have since followed.
The par-4 6th hole at the Makai Course at Princeville plays 446 yards and provides a stunning view with the Pacific set behind the green.
Makai is blessed with a superior routing -- the first three holes eventually dead end with a gorgeous dropshot at the par-3 3rd. At this point Jones reverses direction and you play one of the more challenging holes of the day -- the uphill 385-yard par-4 4th which really plays closer to 425 yards because of the major shift in terrain.
At the 6th you play towards the Pacific Ocean with the green framed against a glorious backdrop of azure blue sky and water. What follows is the terrifying par-3 7th -- 213 yards which begins with a tee box that snakes itself around the top of the land shelf that plummets immediately to the shore to your right. The view from the tee is something you won't forget -- mountain in the background with a green strongly defended and accessed only with the surest of strokes.
The inner half of holes is even more consistent than the front nine. From the 10th thru 12th holes you play in a relatively straight manner until you get to the coastal cliff area. The short par-4 14th is a superb design -- driveable for the strongest of players but with considerable risk for those seeking the big play. The dog-leg right hole allows for an easy safe play to the left -- while the putting surface is tugged immediately next to a ledge that means certain finality for one's golf ball should you venture in that direction.
The final quartet of holes is well done -- with the par-4 17th at 476 yards simply a no nonsense hole calling upon two top tier shots -- the approach is tested to the max with a fronting pond that works well in protecting the diagonally positioned green - the more the pin is placed far right the greater carry and precision is called upon.
The ending hole at Makai is a par-5 that can bring into play a range of numbers -- from eagle three to a quick double-bogey seven or worse. Even the desire to lay-up is no small matter as the landing area becomes smaller the closer and further down the fairway you play. Just a fine mixture of different holes calling upon the player to execute the fullest range of shots.
Nearby to Makai is The Prince. Again designed by Jones -- The Prince opened for play in 1990 and requires substantial golf ability. The most immediate noticeable dimension at The Prince is the rolling terrain -- compared to the predictable dead flat with little character courses that inhabit much of the Hawaiian islands -- The Prince is a big time roller coaster.
Robert Trent Jones, Jr. designed The Prince Course to be a thorough test -- blending beauty and demanding consummate golf skills.
You get a feel for The Prince simply by warming-up at the expansive practice range area which gives you a glorious panorama. Be really good if the facility were to use higher quality practice balls though.
The Prince sports a demanding 76.2 course rating from the tip tees and unless you can consistently hit 275-yards or more in a controlled manner it's best -- in fact critical -- that you play at least one tee box forward -- possibly two for those who are double-digit handicaps.
What makes The Prince so challenging is that Jones decided to leave much of the natural vegetation intact. Standing on any number of tee boxes and one can be clearly intimidated with all that can go wrong with a mishit. Being able to block out the distractions calls upon the most focused of players.
The first five holes on The Prince work the far edge of the property -- you then work towards the water on the downhill par-4 6th and the stellar par-3 7th which features a green hovering above the jungle abyss to your immediate left.
The back nine is simply one solid hole following another. The 10th is a well done risk-and-reward par-5 followed by the third of the four high quality par-3 holes. The downhill 12th calls upon a steadying of the tee shot nerves with a very tight landing area. The par-4 13th is a scenic wonder with a waterfall backdrop behind the putting surface. The final par-3 14th plays considerably longer because of the uphill elevation and the green surface is a bit narrow so accuracy is clearly tested.
The par-5 15th provides an all-encompassing view linked to strategic calculation of the highest order. The tee shot plunges downhill with a fairway that sweeps from right-to-left. Strong players need to pay special heed since the fairway does run out at roughly 310 yards. The opportunity to reach the putting surface is possible but the green surface is angled and set slightly above the adjoining fairway area. Pull or push the approach and you will be working especially hard to leave with a par-5.
The final trio of holes are all par-4's and they each require sound thinking matched with flawless execution. I especially liked the closing hole -- slightly uphill and calling upon length and placement so that the appropriate approach shot can be played to the contoured home hole.
The Prince is not to be played without a certain level of requisite golf skills. The player must successfully shut out various distractions with all the terrain changes and varying stances encountered. Couple that with varying wind speeds which can be quite severe on any given day and the golf experience can prove most vexing for nearly all skill levels. Nonetheless, The Prince is set on a grand stage and provides a memory that will last long after the round concludes. www.princeville.com/golf.
WHERE TO STAY
The Grand Hyatt Kaua'i Resort and Spa encompasses over 50 acres -- ideally situated in Koloa in the southern portion of the island.
Grand Hyatt Kaua'i Resort & Spa -- Ideally located in greater Poipu area and provides the widest array of services and amenities for any lodging location in the southern area of the island. The hotel provides over 600 rooms and is located on 52 acres of land. Great base of operations for locations throughout the southern area of the island. www.kauai.hyatt.com.
The St. Regis Princeville Resort -- Consummate luxury and also located in the heart of Princeville. Quality dining options, spa services as well as access to golf at facility. www.stregisprinceville.com.
The Westin Princeville -- Opened May 2008 -- ideally situated within the confines of the 9,000 acres of Princeville. 346 total rooms well positioned around all the amenities -- including swimming pools as well as a private pool free of excess noise. Offering "Endless Escape" package -- $315 per night with breakfast for two by requesting rate code BAR10B. www.westinprinceville.com.
The main pool area at The Westin Princeville provides stunning views of the Pacific high atop the cliffs.
Kaua'i Marriott Resort -- Ideally located near to port, Kalapaki Beach and Kaua'i Lagoons Golf Course. Recent $50 million upgrade to all rooms, suites, pool deck and restaurants. Offering $199 room rate based on availability and two-night stay. www.marriott.com/.../lihhi-kauai-marriott-resort/
Mark Twain famously called Waimea Canyon the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Photo by Matt Freeser
Be sure to see Waimea Canyon State Park -- aptly named by Mark Twain as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." The topography is more than an eyeful. The gorge shows clearly the force of Mother Nature at work.
Looking for the perfect beach? Where pristine sand meets uncrowded conditions -- head to Polihale State Park and Beach -- located on Kaua'i's west coast. Stay on Rte 50 until the pavement ends. You will need to travel roughly 5 miles on unpaved roads which can have major ruts -- so use caution in driving. Best bet is to use an all-terrain vehicle. Be advised the surf can be wildly unpredictable with strong rip currents.
Tour the NaPali Coast by helicopter. With 70% of the island inaccessible by foot it's a smart idea to splurge a bit and take a helicopter ride over some of the most stunning vistas one can imagine.
The Napali Coast of Kaua'i is one of the most striking settings where land and water meet in all the world.
Be sure to observe all local vehicle speed laws. Kaua'i generally has two-lane roads and the pace of movement is much slower than found on the mainland. Leave sufficient time to get to different places because 25-35 mph is the usual pace.
In regards to golf -- turf conditions can be a bit softer than many might wish. Bermuda grass and seaside paspalum -- popular turf choices -- can often be less than ideal in terms of firmness. Grass coverage is generally very good but getting much bounce after the ball lands in most cases is not likely to happen. Choose tee boxes that reflect this dynamic.
Keep in mind winds can be quite gusty at times whether they be trade winds which come from the prevailing northeast or "kona" winds which come from the southwest direction. Club selections into headwinds can force 3-4 or even more club differentials at times. Prepare accordingly.
OVERALL GOLF ASSESSMENT...
Golf on Kaua'i is quite good when held against the available options found on the other Hawaiian islands. No question the costs to play can be quite high -- especially at peak times -- usually from Christmas through the winter months when snowbirds flock to the island to get away from the grip of winter.
The architectural side of the equation has also improved over the years. Kauai's golf development took place after initial courses opened elsewhere - most notably on Oahu, Maui and The Big Island. As a result -- the overall complexity of the designs -- maxing out playability and challenge has come up considerably.
Locations such as The Prince have clearly kept the focus although a recent purchase from a Thai businessman could mean a change in terms of outside play availability.