When you think Kaua'i - if you think Kaua'i at all - golf doesn't often come to the fore.
Kaua'i, the westernmost of the Hawaiian Islands (with the exception of seldom-visited Niihau), is more famous as the Garden Isle, a haven of lush vegetation, spectacular beaches, profuse waterfalls and a canyon that provides breathtaking views of ancient rock and determined rivers.
Kaua'i is famed for its Na' Pali Coast, where cliffs climb thousands of feet to peaks that are accessible only to the hardiest of hikers.
Kaua'i is a mecca for snorkeling and scuba diving, for lighthouse viewing, sunbathing and kayaking.
For those only peripherally familiar with the island, golf seldom enters the conversation - and that's a mistake.If truth be known, Kaua'i boasts an array of golf courses that can rival more famous Kapalua (on Maui) for the quality of the experience, if not in notoriety.
Take your pick. Poipu Bay Golf Course on the southeast side of the island is perhaps best known as the host course for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, a tournament reserved for the winners of the four major championship. The Grand Slam was a fixture there from 1994 through 2006.
|View from behind the 8th green at Kaua'i Lagoons Golf Club. Photo by Reid Spencer
Poipu Bay gives golfers something that's difficult to find in the continental United States - unless you happen to be playing on the Monterrey Peninsula at Pebble Beach, Cypress Point or Spyglass Hill. The four finishing holes at Poipu Bay play along a scenic 150-foot-high cliff that provides dramatic vistas of the Pacific Ocean.
The 16th, in particular, is a daunting long par-4 that is just as challenging as it is beautiful. From an elevated tee high above the ocean, golfers must fit a tee shot into a fairway that turns left along the cliff. The par-3 that follows likewise plays from an elevated tee that affords an ocean view back along the coast to the 16th tee.
Poipu Bay reopened Dec. 16 after extensive renovations that included reseeding the greens with eco-friendly, saltwater-tolerant Seashore Paspalum grass. To call the condition of the course “immaculate” would be to do it an injustice.
| The beautiful 7th hole at Makai Golf Club, with the north coast of Kaua'i in the background.
| Photo by Reid Spencer
The north shore of Kaua'i provides a combination of golf and scenic majesty that is equally compelling. The Makai Golf Club at The St. Regis Princeville Resort is meticulously conditioned and equally breathtaking.
On a course full of highlights, the par-3 7th is particularly noteworthy. Depending on the wind, golfers face a mid-to-long-iron shot over steep cliffs to a generous - but tricky green. Hit it fat or spray it to the right, and your ball will land on the beach some 200 feet below.
It's easy to see where architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. found his inspiration for this spectacular hole. Although the vegetation is understandably different, the shape, look and feel of the 7th at Makai is more than vaguely reminiscent of the fabled 16th at Cypress Point.
The drivable par-4 14th likewise plays along the beach and tempts the golfer to aim for the flag from the tee. The penalty for missing to the right, however, is another trip down the cliffs to the beach.
The Makai Golf Club reopened in 2010 after a 15-month renovation and features Seashore Paspalum on the tees, fairways and greens. There are 27 holes at Makai Golf Club, the 18-hole Makai Golf Course and the more modest nine-hole Woods Course.
When you add the 18-hole Prince Course to the mix, you have 45- holes of golf at The St. Regis Princeville Resort. Also designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the Price is rated the No. 1 course in Hawaii and No. 67 on Golf Digest's list of “America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses” for 2009-2010.
The Prince may also be Hawaii's most challenging test, so bring your “A” game when you're lucky enough to play this magnificent track. But don't plan to schedule a tee time until October - The Prince closed Jan. 29 for a 10- month renovation, but the pro shop and Tavern Restaurant by Roy Yamaguchi will remain open.
Having arrived on Kaua'i by boat, we established our base at the Kaua'i Marriott Resort on Kalapaki Beach, which also is home to the Kaua'i Lagoons Golf Club. Currently, 18 of the 36 holes - all designed by Jack Nicklaus - are in play, as Nicklaus completes a project that will create a one-half-milelong stretch of ocean holes, the longest in Hawaii.
While the project is under way, golfers can play nine holes from the Kiele Course and nine from the Mokihana Course, while the Ocean Nine of the Kiele Course is under construction (completion is scheduled for May 2011). The combination provides plenty of golf for players of all levels - with some nice touches thrown in.
Each hole on the Kiele Course is marked with a marble sculpture. On the first tee, golfers are greeted by a large Buddha before they strike their first shot. The opening stretch of the Kiele Course is Nicklaus at his most challenging. The long par-4 fourth (more than 460 yards from the tips) is an appetizer for the main course that follows - a long par-3 that's all carry and a risk/reward par-5 with a long forced carry to a generous fairway.
Not all the good golf on Kaua'i, however, is found beside the ocean. The Puakea Golf Course in Lihue is a modestly priced local favorite - and for good reason. It's rated No. 15 in the state by Golfweek and has the shot values to back up that designation. Architect Robin Nelson lets the land speak for itself, incorporating the natural flow of the terrain seamlessly into his design.
|The back nine, in particular, provides close-up views of Mt. Ha'upu, and when patches of fog roll in, the course has an almost other-worldly feel to it. Puakea is just a few miles away from the Kaua'I Marriott Resort on Kalapki Beach.
Though the Plantation and Bay Courses at Kapalua may get more press, and though courses on Oahu and the Big Island are perhaps better known, golf on Kaua’i may be the best-kept secret in the Hawaiian Islands.
To our delight, that’s what we found when we played there in December.
To Play in Kaua'i…
Here's contact information for the courses on the Garden Isle:
Poipu Bay Golf Course (800) 858-6300
Kauai Lagoons Golf Club (800) 634-6400
The Prince Course at Princeville ((800) 826-1105
The Makai Golf Club (800) 826-1912
Puakea Golf Course (866) 773-5554