This summer marked my second golf trip in five years to Kauai, Hawaii’s “adventure” island. I doubt there’s a more lush, naturally beautiful place on Earth. There’s green landscape and blue Pacific Ocean views seemingly everywhere you look, accented by colorful flora. And the setting alone makes it a haven for golfers. My thoughts on where to play, in no particular order? Glad you asked.
Princeville Makai Golf Club Before you even play the 7,200-yard course, I highly recommend taking the nightly sunset golf cart tour hosted by PGA head pro, Tom Freestone. You will see gorgeous sunset views from several of the course’s ocean holes while learning all about the island’s history and culture. Non-golfers will love it, also. This 1971 Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design - his first solo project ever - went through a $6 million makeover in 2010. The front nine is riveting as you work your way down toward the ocean, while the back nine I think plays tougher — especially the closing two holes. Previously a flat course, the bones of the original layout remain. It’s a wonderful resort-style course with plenty of terrain, large greens, deep bunkers, subtle challenges and a high degree of player friendliness. Many of the greens are so contoured that locals claim any putt longer than 20 feet is likely a double-breaker that can be aimed right at the center of the cup. One look at the various holes over the Pacific and the North end of the island, and you realize why this consistently ranks among the state’s top courses. There’s plenty of wildlife on the course, including roosters aplenty and adorable baby albatross. The bunker sand is light, fluffy and white — but not penal when trying to escape. The staff is also as outgoing and friendly as you will find anywhere. Insider note: The beer cart’s Transfusion — a mixture of grape juice, ginger ale and vodka — will really relax you.
Princeville Makai Golf Club | makaigolf.com
Wailua Golf Course This outstanding 6,961-yard municipal course is popular among locals. Several holes either play along the water and beach, or have ocean views. The layout is very thoughtful, challenging, fun to play, and offers plenty of variety. There’s plenty of drama throughout. Fairways and greens are in really good shape, but the bunkers need some work, both in shaping and the quality of sand. My favorite hole was number 17, a par-3 that goes downhill towards the Pacific. There are definitely birdie opportunities for most golfers, and you can expect to score pretty well. Those bunkers are strategically placed for every skill level, so bring your lob wedge — you're gonna need it. At $48 for non-resident green fees, it's an absolute bargain for the price — especially compared to the upscale resort courses on the island.
Poipu Bay Golf Course The 7,123-yard Robert Trent Jones, Jr. course is best known for having hosted the PGA Tour’s now-defunct annual Grand Slam event for years. Tiger Woods won it here seven of the eight times he competed. The course is wide open, playable for all skill levels, and fairly forgiving. There are plenty of subtle contours on the greens, which roll fast, true and predictably. But beware (first-hand experience): Even short gimmees can break. The back nine meanders down toward the Pacific, and then hugs it by the 14th hole. I think the last five holes may be the best collective group of finishing holes I’ve played anywhere — highlighted by the long downhill par-3 17th and the challenging dogleg 18th with a greenside pond. I wanted the round to keep on going. Bunker sand is local, but packed tightly, to make it more player-friendly. The scenery, course conditioning and overall feel are magnificent. It’s simply an awesome resort-style course that's neither too easy nor difficult. And again, the staff is very friendly. And in the spirit of Makai, you can take a guided sunrise or sunset golf cart tour here. Do it!
Puakea Golf Course This inland public course opened to the public in 1997 as a 10-hole, par-41 course. In 1992, during the original course construction, a hurricane hit the island. Only 10 of the holes were salvageable, so that’s how it opened. Then in 2003, the final eight holes were added during a renovation. This unassuming 6,954-yard Robin Nelson design is ranked by experts as one of the state’s best. The first hole plays toward Costco, but then the course quickly throws plenty of rolling doglegs and elevation changes your way. There are no oceanfront holes nor lava rocks, but there are gorgeous Pacific vistas in the distance and well-designed holes. Pay attention and you should score well, whatever your handicap. Its signature hole, the par-3 6th, is downhill and scenic, with the set of the original Jurassic Park movie playing as the backdrop. I was bummed to see the addition of more houses around the front nine since I first played here five years ago, but liked the course just as much. Don’t expect the fancy resort golf experience, but do anticipate it to be quite a find. And a meal at the on-site cafe is worthwhile.
Puakea Golf Course | puakeagolf.com
Ocean Course Hokuala This 7,156-yard Jack Nicklaus design has been around for years under various names — recently as Kauai Lagoons Golf Club. It was also the original home of the Grand Slam. Regardless, it’s under new management from Timbers Resort. The day I play it’s windy. More so than usual by the back nine, I'm told. As in a three-club gust, at times. The front nine rolls smoothly. There are some really scenic holes. That’s one thing about Kauai courses — the scenery is so spectacular that it’s very easy to get visually distracted and lose focus on your golf game. Frankly, I expected some more beast-like holes from Nicklaus on the first nine and was more than pleasantly surprised that it was player-friendly. The cart drives on holes 5 and 6 are essentially through what looks like gorgeous jungles, by the way. Your tee shot on 6 needs to carry over one of those areas, so beware. By the back nine, you reach the Pacific. You get a front-row view on what’s known as Hawaii's longest stretch of contiguous ocean holes — a half-mile’s worth, spanning four holes. Expect your score to go up on the back nine, as the gusts pick up. The knockout punch: The downhill par-3 14th that flanks the water. Greens roll true and consistent for every hole, with plenty of undulation. This course has been ranked in Hawaii’s top four; for its sheer combination of beauty, challenge, layout, immaculate conditioning, and flat-out fun factor. Green fees run as high as $265 for visitors, but rates vary lower.
WHERE TO STAY
Princeville Resort This is a five-star hotel I’ve stayed at before, while it was a St. Regis property. It’s still outstanding and popular. On the north shore, it offers jaw-dropping views that span scenic Hanalei Bay. You can lay in bed, watch the unimpeded view, and listen to crashing waves — as tranquil as it gets. And there’s French coffee press service delivered to your room.
Timbers Resort Kauai Close to the Lihue Airport - but without the noise - this ocean setting is nothing short of spectacular. These are deluxe private residences that you rent out, but you still get all of the amenities of a hotel. If you happen to be going with other families, it’s the perfect place to share. Hualani’s is the onsite restaurant, down by the main infinity pool. Awesome food and atmosphere.
WHAT ELSE TO DO The Napali Sunset Cruise from Holo Holo Charters made everyone happy — except for one dude in the back of the boat who apparently couldn’t handle the waves. The 70-mile, 3.5-hour journey will take you into caves along dramatic cliffs. The scenery is amazing, as is the sunset. They serve drinks the entire time and a light dinner. You can sit inside or out.
WHERE TO EAT The golf courses all have pretty good grills with various standout menu items. I tried poke for the first time ever at Makai, and really enjoyed it. Had the chicken musubi at Wailua, too, which was great. One standout I loved: The Bistro in Kilauea, which came highly recommended as a favorite among locals. The St. Louis ribs are as good as any I’ve tasted.
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