McCabe: Plantation a course unlike any other

Martin Laird tees off on the 18th hole at Kapalua

Martin Laird tees off on the 18th hole at Kapalua

KAPALUA, Hawaii – More than 20 years since it opened and 14 years into its spot on the PGA Tour schedule, the Plantation Course is defined by a simple truism.

It is a golf course unlike any other.

In a most splendid way, that is.

“It’s fun,” Martin Laird said.

“It’s wild,” Brendan Steele said.

“It’s crazy,” Keegan Bradley said.

Fun. Wild. Crazy. Hardly are they adjectives often used to describe golf courses, particularly those that host PGA Tour tournaments. More likely, players will be asked about PGA Tour courses and they’ll talk about the need to be precise and patient, how they’ve got to stand on a tee box and pick out a line and then try to thread a tee ball into a thimble.

But at the Plantation Course, well, it’s that one time in their PGA Tour season when players can cast that mentality aside. Said Laird, after opening with a 5-under 68 to get within one of Jonathan Byrd’s lead, about a few tee shots here: “You just stand up there and smash it, as hard as you can.”

No worries about missing left. Or missing right. At least not on a handful of holes like the par-4 seventh or par-5 18th, because when Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore finished with this masterful design back in 1991, they provided for a number of fairways that are seemingly as wide as the island itself.

Which sort of hits at the genius of the place, Laird said.

“It is a fun course. But when you look at the land they had here (enormous elevation changes, a handful of gorges they had to build around), they built it the way they had to. You couldn’t have a tight course, so they made it the only way they could to make it playable.”

Right from the start, when players take on the challenge of a 520-yard, downhill par 4 and have problems keeping the ball in the fairway because it runs out at 360 yards, well, you know we’re not at a classic, tree-lined course. And, again, that’s the glory of the Plantation Course and why no one looks at the 7,411 yards and gasps.

“First thing about the Plantation Course is, yardage has nothing to do with what club you hit,” said Mark Wilson. “You will hit 8-iron from 200 yards on one hole, then at the ninth (a 508-yard, par 5 into a 25-mph wind) today I hit 8-iron from 90 yards.”

On first glance, you’ll see the massive length and wide fairways and suggest that it’s a mismatch, that the game’s longest hitters like Gary Woodland and Bubba Watson have an unfair advantage. Ah, but you would be given a triple bogey, and a quick study of recent results would confirm that. In 2011, for instance, Byrd, as medium a hitter as the game knows, topped Robert Garrigus, a heavyweight driver of the golf ball, in a playoff, and Friday he got off to another rousing start by shooting 6-under 67.

True, long boppers such as Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Stuart Appleby, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh have prevailed here, but so have Jim Furyk and Daniel Chopra, and Steve Stricker – never to be confused as a long-drive champion – always plays well here.

Why? Because as much as length is clearly a desired attribute, what sits at the heart of one’s ability to score at the Plantation Course is his or her ability to master the severe slopes that confront you from the opening tee shot to the last putt.

“I mean, it’s the craziest course I’ve ever played, in a good way,” Bradley said. “You not only have to account for the breaks on the greens, but in the fairways.”

People will sit on their couches 6,000 miles away and see that Woodland hit a 450-yard drive at the 18th or a 413-yard drive at the seventh and think that golf has gone in the trash bin. But what puts things back in perspective here at the Plantation Course and makes you appreciate the joy of this place is what happened to Bradley at the delicious, par-4 sixth. It is called “Cross ’n Down” and it might just be the most tantalizing hole at this spectacular piece of property.

Bradley seemingly handled the hard part well at this 398-yarder – he ripped a drive up and over the hill, watched his ball ride a downward slope so that it came to rest a mere 25 yards short of the green. But then? “Our chip was down grain, down wind and we didn’t think it would come out like that,” Bradley said. Instead of pitching to tap-in range, Bradley watched his ball roll and roll and roll, so that he was left with 18 feet for birdie.

He missed, and acknowledged that the Plantation Course got him.

“Absolutely, there are times when you can hit it as hard as you can, and we don’t have that anywhere else,” Bradley said. “But then you have wedge shots that you can’t figure out. It’s great fun and great change.”

If you listen hard, you can almost hear the purists from all corners of the golf globe casting their disgust. And when you hear Woodland say that a big problem here is that there’s too much room off some of the tees and that “I struggle with that,” well, again, you know you’re not where Donald Ross left his imprint.

But consider that the Plantation Course was given to the golf world by Crenshaw and Coore, arguably the greatest designers in the game, and that in itself validates the place as a course to be respected.

That it happens to be a joy ride at the same time only makes it more impressive.

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