A Beautiful Wildness: Golf in Hawaii is as Good as it Gets
Golf came to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1890s. The first courses were built by Scottish plantation managers who came to oversee the then-thriving pineapple and sugarcane fields but also needed a little home-style recreation. The first course in the state was built in 1898 — it still operates today as Moanalua CC (Oahu) — and others soon followed.
The first resort courses sprang up in the 1960s, with the master course designer of the day, Robert Trent Jones Sr., delivering masterpieces at Ka’anapali (1962) and Mauna Kea (1964).
In more recent years, Jones Sr.’s son, Robert Trent Jones II, has helped define what top-level golf in Hawaii can be. His renowned designs dot the island chain from Kauai to Maui to Hawaii Island. Asked what makes golf in the islands so unique, Jones II answers without hesitation: “There’s a beautiful wildness to Hawaii. And a wonderful spirit of aloha everywhere you go. Plus, most of the courses have ocean views. The combination of these things makes playing golf in Hawaii unique in the world, and as good as it gets.”
The essence of Jones II’s “beautiful wildness” is easily found on Kauai. With its majestic green mountains ribbed with knife-like ridgelines, thick and colorful foliage and hidden beaches that ring the island, Kauai is everyone’s idea of the perfect tropical paradise.
Opening in January 2023 on Kauai’s north shore is the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay, a complete renovation of the former St. Regis Princeville. This luxury property on a cliff above Hanalei Bay is adjacent to Princeville Makai GC, a Jones II design that is among the best in the state. 1 Hotel and Princeville Makai will be the “it” destinations for 2023 in Hawaii. The over-ocean par-3 seventh is a highlight hole, but Makai is a gem from start to finish.
Across the island on Kauai’s south shore is Poipu Bay GC, another Jones II creation. Next door to the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, Poipu Bay boasts several magnificent clifftop holes overlooking the Pacific, where golfers pull out cameras along with their drivers.
The PGA Grand Slam of Golf, an event that brought together the winners of the year’s four majors, was held here from 1994 to 2006. Over the years, champions such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Ernie Els participated.
Last but far from least on Kauai is the Hōkūala Ocean Course. This Jack Nicklaus Signature Design includes the longest stretch of oceanside holes in the state, with No. 16 green jutting out into Nawiliwili Bay, with a small lighthouse on some lava rocks just to the left of the putting surface.
Like Kauai, there are several championship-caliber experiences on Maui, led by Kapalua, home of the Sentry Championship, played across the Plantation Course each January. Montage Kapalua Bay and The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua are the two accommodations choices at this “best-of Hawaii” resort.
Set on former pineapple fields, the Plantation Course is a broad-shouldered, hilly layout with magnificent ocean views from every hole. If you’ve ever watched the tournament on TV, you’ll recall the surfers and windsurfers in the nearby waters and humpback whales surfacing offshore.
While the Plantation is the premier course at Kapalua, the Bay Course — an older Arnold Palmer/ Francis Duane design — is a fun, resort-style layout that boasts one of Hawaii’s prettiest holes, No. 17, a par-3 with an ocean inlet between tee and green. Club selection on this hole is important, as anything short requires scuba gear to retrieve your golf ball.
Ka’anapali’s 36 holes are found just behind a beachfront row of hotels. The better of the two layouts is Royal Ka’anapali, a classic Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that opened in 1962. The Champions Skins Game was played here for several years, with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson teaming up in 2010 for a popular victory, a win that they successfully defended in 2011. Hole five plays right down to the beach.
An hour’s drive south of Ka’anapali, Wailea’s three courses — Old Blue, Emerald and Gold — embody the best of both classic and new design. The Gold and Emerald courses — two more Jones II designs — were built in the 1990s and are shining examples of contemporary resort golf course design. Immaculate in conditioning and strategic in play, Jones calls the Gold his “television course,” a reference to the various televised events that have been played on its fairways.
The Old Blue Course is Wailea’s classic design. Opened in 1972, it is a favorite with locals, who enjoy its wide and forgiving fairways. The routing weaves through the foothills of Haleakalā, with a relaxed pacing that reminds you to slow down and enjoy the day.
Anyone care to play a Nicklaus Signature course that has ocean views on every hole, features average annual temperatures around 70 degrees and is located on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific?
This idyllic scenario precisely describes Manele GC on the island of Lanai. Nicklaus was given a spectacular piece of land atop Lanai’s rust-red seaside cliffs, and he proceeded to route a course equal to the scenery. Hole after hole, golfers are treated to panoramic ocean views meshed with strategic play.
The “wow” hole is No. 12, a spectacular par-3 that plays from one ocean cliff ledge to another, high above the crashing waves of the Pacific.
Part of the fun of visiting Lanai is staying at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai (required to get on the golf course), where luxury and fun go hand in hand. Had your fill of golf for the day? Go watch spinner dolphins frolic in Hulopoe Bay. Or drive a Jeep up an old pineapple access road to the top of the island.
Mauna Kea GC leads the golf offerings on Hawaii Island, but the Kohala Coast also finds 36 holes at Mauna Lani, along with a new Auberge hotel; 27 holes at Waikoloa Beach Resort; and a terrific Jack Nicklaus course at Hualalai that has hosted the PGA Tour Champions Mitsubishi Electric Championship each year since 1997.
Mauna Kea GC plays through the foothills above the ocean down to the waterfront at holes three and 11. Palm trees and lava formations line most fairways, so accuracy is as critical as length. It takes your ‘A’ game to score well on this classic “easy bogey/ tough par” course that still stands, almost six decades after its opening, as one of Hawaii’s best. The par-3 third at Mauna Kea, which plays over the churning Pacific, has laid claim to the title of “The Most Photographed Hole in Hawaii.”
At nearby Mauna Lani, the North and South courses both weave through black lava fields before emerging at the Pacific for thrilling par-3 action. No. 15 on the South Course, which plays over a wide ocean inlet from tee to green and often features blowing tradewinds, is the one everyone talks about. The South Course played host to the Senior Skins Game for several years, with legends of the game such as Arnold Palmer, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino competing.
You can go to a lot of different places in the Hawaiian Islands to play golf. But the one place you won’t go is wrong.