Keen On Kauai Golf

Hawaii’s Garden Isle Conjures Sweet Golf Magic

Hokuala Golf Course offers some of the best seaside holes on Kauai.
Hokuala Golf Course offers some of the best seaside holes on Kauai. Photo by Brian Oar

Back in 1989, Paul McCartney penned a song called “Distractions” for his album Flowers In The Dirt. While it can’t be independently confirmed, the consensus here is that he must have written it while standing on one of four fab seaside tee boxes on the island of Kauai.

Maybe the par 3 7th on Princeville’s sublime Makai Course.

Perhaps the par 3 14th on Hokuala’s rejuvenated Ocean Course.

Or how about the par 4 16th on Poipu Bay, where Phil Mickelson once fired 59 in the Grand Slam of Golf? Or the lovely 17th, another par 3, at Wailua, one of the finest county munis in creation?

Or, to add a fifth “Beatle”: could he have snuck into the Jurassic jungle for some quiet time on No. 6 at Puakea, tucked away from the Pacific but beautiful all the same?

So what if Sir Paul isn’t and has never been a golfer (again, as far as we know). So what if the song has more to do with “butterflies buzzin’ round my head” — not that Kauai doesn’t have its share of beautiful flying creatures. We can picture him, then in his late 40s, gathering inspiration from the stunning Pacific and jungle views from each of these holes, his muse gathering momentum with each warm breath of trade wind, just as a golfer’s joy ratchets up the minute he steps off the plane at Lihue and dives into some of the best tropical golf in the entire Hawaiian chain.

So many beautiful distractions. So many songs of joy to whistle to yourself, with ukulele backing, as you compose another round in paradise. So many reasons to venture out where the native culture remains a little closer to the surface, alongside all-out Western luxury.

Geographically, socially and in all-around vacation vibe, Kauai stands alone. It’s mellower in spirit — start “talking story” with any local and you’ll have a friend for life — though the golf is anything but. Gorgeous and challenging, yes. Mellow? No, at least in terms of hole-to-hole heft and across-the-board visual drama.

So why doesn’t it attract the hordes of mainlanders that, say, Maui does?

“We just have to work harder to get our name out there and attract the attention some of the other islands do,” says Sue Kanoho of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. “We kind of share that attitude with the Big Island. We’re not Maui or Oahu, and we don’t want to be.”

Neither does anybody who gets just one taste of the Garden Isle’s unique flavor, then craves it forever. It’s a place where one-lane highways lead to storybook locales like Hanalei Bay, on the north shore, home not only to lifelong surfers and several movie and TV stars (Pierce Brosnan, Craig T. Nelson and, for a while, George Clooney while onsite to film “The Descendants”) but also to the lovely, cliffhanging St. Regis Princeville Resort and its Robert Trent Jones II-designed Makai Golf Club (its tougher younger sibling, the Prince, is currently shuttered). Head the other direction, to the south shore, and you run into Poipu and the much larger, more family-oriented Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, with its own Trent II track finishing in spectacular fashion along rocky cliffs. In between are miles of green-clad mountains, tranquil valleys, secluded canyons — all the soul-feeding splendor one expects from any Hawaiian island.

Closer to and within the resorts are plenty of manmade, non-golf distractions, too. The gamut of restaurants — high-end gourmet to roadside joint to humble clubhouse grill — feed the stomach with fresh seafood, locals’ favorites like Loko Moko (an egg, rice, meat and gravy concoction that’s breakfast, lunch and dinner all in one) and spam musubi (a giant sushi roll loaded with the mystery meat delicacy, perfect for an on-course snack). Spas soothe the modern traveler’s muscles and quiet the mind. Outdoor adventure outfits bring the island’s myriad natural charms into play via Zodiac whale-watching tours, kayaking excursions and hiking trips to Waimea Canyon State Park.

So if you’re in for the entire Kauai experience, you'd best set aside a good seven days to get it all in, because you’re looking at a minimum of five of those dedicated to some of the most wonderfully distracting and engaging courses in the world. There are others to play if you have the time, but the following quintet should form the heart of any trek to the Hawaiian chain’s oldest main isle.

Princeville Makai Golf Club

When it debuted on the north shore in 1971, Makai was Trent Jones II’s first Makai canvas, 27 holes meandering out to the cliffs, into the inland forest and back toward the Pacific again. It kept mainlanders coming back even as the brawnier, more rugged Prince Course came into being, thanks to its mix of wide, flat fairways and stretches of hillier holes that give the almost-constant breezes an even bigger role in every round. It’s parkland golf for the most part, punctuated by those stately, symmetrical, conical Cook Pines here and there, a couple of albatross colonies (the actual bird, not the score), other assorted wildlife and, of course that big blue thing to the north. After a 2010 redo that separated the Makai from what is now known as the Woods Nine (a locals’ favorite), the main 18’s rhythm and drama make for a more memorable and flat-out fun circuit than ever. The opening notes are mild but soon reach an early crescendo at No. 3, a downhill par 3 with Hanalei Bay its backdrop — with a sliver of the handsome hotel in between, along with plenty of dense jungle. No. 4 climbs back up to a sunny high spot, then Makai makes its first and boldest move to the sea, first at the pretty par 4 No. 6, followed by No. 7, which demands, at minimum, a solid 7-iron across a churning inlet of surf and rock and flora. There’s a bunker to clear, a wide but shallow green to negotiate, and all that ocean to contemplate. By the time you get to the turn you’re back inland, but grab a spam musubi and get ready for more thrills down the stretch, including more Pacific vistas while hitting shots off sweet turf — the remodel also included the introduction of Seashore Paspalum turf, which holds up well to salt air (Poipu Bay also switched several years ago). “I absolutely love this course,” gushed one well-traveled scribe as he downed a spam morsel. “I think it’s one of the best tracks in all of Hawaii.” Agreed.

Wailua Golf Course

Yes, there is affordable golf to be had in paradise, and this handsome 18-holer just a few miles from the airport, on the island’s eastern edge, is the poster child for public-run value, Hawaiian style. With a clubhouse that’s closer to barracks than palace in look and feel — think of the course you grew up on, then surround it with palm trees and singing tropical birds — and a practice range that wears its divots with pride, Wailua just begs to be walked, though carts are available. It’s flat for the most part, though parts of the back nine bring some healthy hills into play. It hugs the ocean for several holes, including the opening pair, for a tantalizing moment at No. 14, and at the aforementioned par 3 17th, as lovely a one-shotter as you’ll find on any island — well-bunkered down the right side with a couple shot-shape options depending on how comfortable you are with sea foam flirtation. In other words, keep that baby draw in check. The last few holes climb gradually to a forested crest with a few sharp turns and quirky approaches along the way. It ain’t fancy golf, but it’s sublime all the same, even when played in a steady spring rain. And the grill serves a mean burger or sandwich when you’re all done.

Hokuala

Formerly part of the 27-hole Kauai Lagoons resort complex and now a flagship development in the growing Timbers Resorts portfolio, Jack Nicklaus’ only Kauai design got new life with a rerouting the Ocean Course into its best 18 holes a couple years ago. The Bear returned to make its stunning back-nine, seaside heart beat even stronger thanks to a new long two-shotter, No. 15, that ties together the two most famous holes — the pinch-me par 3 14th and the short, terrifyingly beautiful par 4 16th in — stunning fashion. In fact, that three-hole stretch might be the Hawaiian chain’s finest in terms of drama, views and shot values. You simply must have every arrow in your quiver sharpened to a fine point to negotiate the trio in par, especially if the trades are kickin’, which they usually are. Not that the outward nine is any slouch; what it foregoes in oceanside setting is made up for in terms of lush, green, flowering fun, with holes routed around and over ravines and mild hillocks and among groves of mango and guava. Fairways are wide and bunkers pop up in all the right places to provide strategic direction and visual engagement. In true Jack fashion, you’ll find hollows and bailout areas in the green surrounds, while the putting surfaces themselves walk the line between severe and serene. And yes, there’s a signature par 3 of sorts, too — No. 5 asks for a solid iron over what looks like a depthless chasm overflowing with greenery. Overall, Hokuala is a golf resort golf in full flower, but there’s more blooming to come; according to Timber’s developers, there’s a new inland course is on the drawing board — giving head PGA Professional Kelli Hines and her staff more room to get guests’ and residents’ games in shape — plus a boutique hotel, luxury ownership units and a completely new clubhouse-spa complex. There are running and hiking trails, tennis courts and, right next door, Running Waters Beach — one of the island’s most protected stretches of sand. Nawiliwili Bay and Kalapaki Beach are right there, too, making for a swimming/boarding/snorkeling juggernaut.

The stunning 17th hole at Puakea on the island of Kauai. Photo by Brian Oar
The stunning 17th hole at Puakea on the island of Kauai. Photo by Brian Oar

Puakea

Not 10 minutes inland from the Hokuala and five minutes from the Lihue airport is one of the late Pacific Rim architect Robin Nelson’s most stirring designs. Puakea is a tale of two nines — or rather, 10 holes that opened in 1997 on a former sugar cane plantation, with the remaining eight going online in 2003 as the town of Lihue grew toward it on two sides. So, though at the start you get a dose of modern suburbia, teeing off on No. 1 toward the back wall of a shopping complex, all that fades away within a few wide-open, water-lined holes. By No. 6 — yet another secluded three-par with a serious vertical drop from tee to green, with the jagged ridgeline of “Jurassic Park”-featured mountains above — you’re deep into Nelson’s imagination, which takes full advantage of the topography: Volcanic cliffs flow into broad mini-valleys, which swoop back into elevated stands of tropical forest. On the back nine Puakea truly hits its strategic stride, stringing one spectacular hole after another until you emerge back into civilization at the gut-checking, 455-yard par 4 17th, then turn for home at the friendlier par 5 finisher. No wonder this track is a favorite among discerning locals and considered by just about everyone as one of the islands’ most fun and memorable experiences. Toss in a friendly staff led by General Manager Glen Urweiler and teaching pro Glenn Tamagawa (see sidebar tip), plus another dose of excellent clubhouse cuisine (try the wraps!), and Puakea makes for the perfect beginning- or end-of-journey round.

The 16th hole at Poipu Bay Golf Course on the south side of Kauai.
The 16th hole at Poipu Bay Golf Course on the south side of Kauai.

Poipu Bay

It remains the most famous and most-played of all the Kauai courses, for several reasons — its Grand Slam of Golf history, its location next to the island’s largest hotel complex (the Grand Hyatt alone has more than 600 garden and ocean view rooms), its seven holes with ocean views and its classic, sneaky-hard Trent Jones design — but even with all that wind at its back, Poipu Bay is better than ever on the heels of its own rejuvenation over the past five years, including a switch to paspalum turf, flawless conditioning and an overarching dedication to opening the golf experience to as many brands of player as possible. For instance, guests don’t have to carve out five hours and top dollar to play the whole 18; for $99 they can knock out the incredible back nine, and for only $30 they can beat some balls on the lovely range, then do a quick loop of the first three holes between 3 and 4 p.m. daily — we’ll call it the “Mai Tai Run.” Still, if at all possible you’ll want to dig in and go the duration. The course seems to bring a handful of tropical temperate zones into play, from grassy savanna to semi-desert to movie-set swaying palms, to the rocky coastline that make holes 14-17 the stuff of hackin’ Hawaii legend. Get through that stretch just one or two over par and you’ll carry bragging rights back to the mainland for the foreseeable future. Holes 15 and 16, in particular, comprise a truly great par 5/par 4 combo, while 17, with its back box hard against the roiling Pacific and its green set into a pretty green cradle bordered by a rock wall on one side, presents one of those pucker-up long-iron tee shots that can define a round. A final triumphant stroll up the par 5 finisher takes you to straight to the clubhouse and yet more fine food. No doubt you’ve worked up a solid appetite, so go ahead, give in to the reigning Hawaiian culinary philosophy: “Eat ’til you’re tired.”

Tidepools is one of several outstanding restaurants at Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa
Tidepools is one of several outstanding restaurants at Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa

The Chow

Speaking of eating, Kauai’s spread runs the gamut from pizza, wings and beer at Tahiti Nui, old town Princeville’s premier surfer dude hang (and location for one of the “The Descendants’” key scenes), to locally sourced seafood and choice Hawaiian beef, pork and lamb at hotel showcases like the St. Regis’ Makana Terrace (get a load of the extensive sushi menu, and don’t miss sunset!) and the Grand Hyatt’s Tidepools, which is set among the resort’s labyrinthine lagoons and serves all the right umbrella-laden cocktails, as well as some fine Asian-accented fish specialties of its own. Then there’s Plantation Gardens, a Pacific Rim showcase occupying the main home of the former Koloa sugar plantation. If you want to go full-on Hawaiian authentic, try the Seafood Lau Lau — fresh fish, shrimp, scallops and veggies steamed inside a large ti leaf. Then take a stroll among the beautifull manicured gardens, complete with koi-populated ponds.

The Bed-Down

Nothing beats dreaming of birdies made and almost made with the sound of a real-live ocean drifting in through the lanai door. Both the St. Regis and the Grand Hyatt deliver that natural amenity in spades, along with their own versions of island comfort. St. Regis tends to cater more to quiet-seeking couples with its refined, personal service (including your own butler if you want to go there), while the Grand Hyatt, with its sprawling acreage and killer water park, attracts bigger, more boisterous families. Both room designs have their unique calling cards, including special bathroom windows that go transparent or opaque with the flick of a switch (St. Regis) and even bidets (Hyatt). Both boast soaring lobbies, friendly hideaway bars and excellent spas — in fact, the Hyatt’s Anara is one of the top-ranked pamper palaces in America, much less Hawaii. Finish off your five days of golf with a Lomi-Lomi open-air massage, and you’ve just indulged in the ultimate island distraction.

And before you check out, say hello to Sir Paul, won’t you?

 

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