Renovations put best face on Kauai golf

The par-4 12th at Puakea Golf Course.

The par-4 12th at Puakea Golf Course.

The June 1 issue of Golfweek includes a story on a visit I made to Kauai in April. That was my first time in Kauai, and what I found striking about the island is how much it had to offer, particularly for golfers. 

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The par-3 14th at Kauai Lagoons.

Given Kauai’s size – it’s the fourth-largest of the Hawaiian islands – I’d feel comfortable recommending at least seven courses, all of which are located on the eastern half of the island. As I noted in the story for the magazine, Wailua Municipal has hosted three Amateur Public Links championships, and yet it sometimes get overlooked despite its convenient location just north of Lihue Airport.

The Kauai experience has benefited from money, and lots of it. Over the past five years, most of the courses and major resorts have undergone seven- and eight-figure renovations. So I felt as though I was catching Kauai at an opportune time.

In cleaning out my notebook, I came across some material on the golf courses that I didn’t have space to include in the print version, but thought was worth passing along here.

Makai and Prince golf clubs– These neighboring North Shore courses used to have the same ownership, and you can still purchase package deals to play both courses. The Prince probably gets more attention, largely because it can be incredibly penal. I played it with assistant pro Tom Freestone, who’s regarded as one of the best players on the island, and his round was all but shot by the time he walked off the green on what might be the most difficult opening hole I’ve ever seen. The jungle and ravines really gobble up shots that are slightly mishit.

The Prince is the sort of course that everyone will want to try, sort of like the intermediate skier who makes one halting run down the double-black-diamond slope just to say he did it. But if you’re planning to play several rounds on the North Shore, I suspect that Makai is going to be a pretty appealing option. It’s plenty challenging, but you’ll be able to hit your ball and find it, and the seaside holes that fall in the middle of the front and back nines epitomize why we go to the islands to play golf. I also thought the flash bunkering played well in this environment.

The cliffside, par-3 seventh makes great use of a ravine crossing; when my drive trickled back into the steep hazard short of the green, my playing partners were worried I was going to tumble a couple of hundred feet into the bay trying to play my recovery. There’s a similarly entertaining stretch on the backside, including the downwind 14th, which might be the single most thrilling hole on the island.

Makai did 36,000 rounds in 2011, and GM Alex Nakajima anticipates that will rise 4 percent this year. My sense from my playing partners was that they really enjoyed Makai. 

Kauai Lagoons GC – When I came off the green at the sixth tee, I recall telling Scott Ashworth, the director of golf, “This is what I expected from golf in Kauai.” At that point, I could really feel the jungle closing in on the par-3 fifth, which is one of the scarier shots on the island, and the drive across a huge ravine on No. 6. And we hadn’t even gotten to the most memorable part of the course – the Moana nine, which has a half-mile of uninterrupted seaside golf. 

That back nine might be the single most enjoyable series of holes I experienced in Kauai. I know some people will gripe about No. 15, which is a funky driving hole, and also the short, downhill 16th. If the 16th green had a wider entrance, it might encourage more players to attempt to drive the green; that said, one friend did drive the green with his mulligan and holed the putt. 

For whatever reason, I really dug the idea of playing the 11th hole, which sits adjacent to the airport runway, with a couple of planes landing as we were teeing off. The 12th is one of the coolest little par 4s on the island, with a lot of options for how to play it; the cross-bunkering forces you to think hard about your club choice. And No. 14? Well, what can you say about this seaside par 3 across a ravine to a diagonal green? I loathe the term “signature hole,” but it sort of fits the bill. Nos. 17 and 18 make up one of the most difficult closing stretches on the island, as they play into the wind and require forced carries across the eponymous lagoons.

Puakea Golf Course – This is a public course on the southwest side of Lihue. It was designed by Robin Nelson, who has been prolific in Hawaii and Asia. In one blog, I saw him referred to as “Mr. Hawaii.” 

Puakea’s sixth hole probably gets the most attention because of its eye candy: a mid-iron shot that plays steeply downhill and across a pond. What golfer doesn’t love that shot? There’s a really outstanding stretch of holes from Nos. 11-15 that I thought constituted the meat of the golf course. That includes the split-fairway par-5 11th; the par-4 12th, which is canted toward a lake; the par-3 13th, with water right; and a couple of solid par 4s.

Puakea isn’t as well known to travelers because it’s not attached to a resort. But Nelson has a good reputation, and that’s evident at Puakea. There’s nothing too flashy here, but it’s a good, solid layout that merits repeat play. And while it’s located slightly inland, the Haupu Ridge provides a dramatic, mountainous backdrop for the course.

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