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Teeing off in Paradise
The Best of Hawaii's Kauai, Maui, Lanai
by Tim Nolan

Behind us on the practice range the golfers were hitting. Patternless clicks, occasional thuds followed by grunts. The subtropical humidity and climbing sun of a Kauai morning made winter at home in the Northeast seem impossibly far away.

"How are you feeling today?" asked Jack Baker, head golf professional for the Princeville Resort on Kauai's northern coast. We'd loosened up on the range and arrived at the first tee of Princeville's Makai Course, where my usual playing-with-a-professional butterflies were on the wing.

How was I feeling? Imaginative. Bleak scenes of physical comedy unreeled, a phantasmagoria of gaping divots in the teeing ground and high pops launched 20 yards or so before vanishing into rough as thick as a TV weathercaster's hair.

I said "How about back tees, with room to change my mind if I start hitting snipes."

"All right."

I had liked Baker instantly. Relaxed and openly passionate about golf, his job as head pro means running the 27 holes of the Makai Course, and the 18 of the Prince Course. Rated numbers 6 and 1, respectively, in the golf-rich Hawaiian Islands, these two layouts bracket the broad scope of golf through the islands. One — the Prince — is about as difficult as a golf course gets, and the other — Makai — goes by the term "resort course," meaning it provides balm for the golfer's soul with wide fairways, shorter holes, and a generally forgiving demeanor. If the Prince and its ilk are the golf equivalent of a Jonathan Edwards sermon, all wrath and brimstone, then the resort golf ethos is akin to the flexible, easygoing spirit of say, a Unitarian minister in a good mood.

Regardless of difficulty, count on consistency in several areas of Hawaiian golf: accessibility (through price points that range roughly between $75-$150) exceptional grooming, varied styles and backdrops of unending beauty.

A trip through Kauai, the eldest of the islands, centrally placed Maui, and the now-returned prodigal of the family, little Lanai, offers the golfer a full range of the islands' choices.

But before exploring further, there was the matter of knocking off winter's rust on the first tee at Makai. Against the backdrop of a fog bank resting atop Bali Hai's silver-green cliffs, Baker briefly surveyed the first fairway and then swung, striping a frozen rope with five or so yards of draw. I got the ball airborne and slid the driver back into my bag, quietly relieved even as I affected the nonchalance of a professional assassin slipping the knife back into the sheath. We were off and running.

After half a dozen holes, a good-natured competition was under way. Baker had holed one surgically delicate chip for birdie and had another inspect the hole before sliding a foot past. But a couple of holes later he could only watch as my 15-foot slider rattled in for a hole-winning par. "Do all putts break toward Bali Hai or what," he asked rhetorically, pleased that the basic rudiment of putting the greens had been borne out.

Later, a good drive placed me within short-iron distance of a pond-fronted green. I took 9-iron. Baker asked what I'd chosen and I told him.

"This breeze," he said. "I don't know if that's enough."

"You're laying it on very thick," I told him. "I don't even need to step on a nine. In fact, if this isn't enough club I'll buy you the cognac of your choice after dinner."

"Agreed."

The swing was rushed, and I think the clubhead speed was probably slowed by the six or so inches of turf the club plowed through before getting to the ball, which rose at about the same indolent pace as the divot and barely made it into the pond.

"Sad," I said to Jack. "Now we'll never really know if nine was enough."

"Cognac," he said, "is such a treat."

Coming to 18, I was out one snifter of what Baker implied would be an expensive drink. But Baker, I maintained, was wearing the scarlet letter, having wildly overclubbed me on a blind approach shot earlier in the round. Several times I alluded to the incident, doing my best to elevate it from a mistake to a fundamental character flaw. My tone was one not of anger, but of unctuous sympathy.

On the last green we both looked at birdie. He was left with a tap, but my putt for par was a mile long, or four feet, anyway.

"Make it and we're even," he offered, and I suggested he really was feeling bad about that mis-clubbing. He allowed not. I shoehorned the ball home and Jack said with deep and genuine pleasure; no two shots the same and I love every one. Golf. We shook on it.

The Makai Course's third nine is Ocean, which features its own version of the loveliest cliché in the world; a cliff-to-cliff par-3 of 200 or so yards with the Pacific snorting hungrily below. I played that hole with my son, as the sun fell behind Bali Hai in long spindles of mauve and lurid orange. Between the unforgiving nature of the hole and the wet, silvery shimmer of fast-gathering dusk, I rushed and took a soaking. Those mistakes always hurt a little more because the opportunity for a shot to be remembered goes glimmering.

The next day I played Princeville's other layout, the Prince Course, which when criticized is usually condemned for sheer difficulty. Forced carries, zero bail out space around the greens, and trades typically blowing at 20 knots make for a long day. Countering the difficulties — and I've never played a more exacting layout — is its perfect conditioning, wonderful hole to hole flow and rhythm, and its views of the sea.

As the Makai course typifies good, solid resort golf, The Prince represents another facet of the game in Hawaii; a diamond of a championship course. One must simply remember that diamonds are very hard, and when cut with lapidary precision are sure to have some very sharp edges.

Both Makai and the Prince were designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The evolving nature of a golf course architect's ideas and methods are every bit as apparent in his or her work as that of a sculptor or a writer. The Makai course was Jones' first solo effort. A hundred or so courses later he came back and delivered himself of the thing called the Prince. It is an apocryphal but telling comment on the Prince's back nine that Jones was having trouble in his personal life when he drew up the blueprints.

Leaving Princeville, the golfer heads for the island's southeast quadrant, Kauai at its busiest. The Lihue airport and a necklace of towns stretch down to the island's triangle of oceanfront golf courses: the Kiele and Mokihana Courses at the Kauai Marriott, and Poipu Bay at the Hyatt Regency.

There is much to savor here. The weather is likely to be sunnier than in Princeville, and the beaches at both resorts are excellent. Both hotels are large, in the 500 room range. Good restaurants both on hotel grounds and in the small towns are strong on local foods ranging from fish (ahi and mahimahi) to Waimea lettuce and Maui onions.

By then I had so often noticed a genuine warmth and easygoing attitude: an auto parts store salesman who took a good half hour to help me fashion a jury rig for our baby stroller; Poipu Bay head pro Mike Castillo, who never tired of answering questions about the name of trees and bushes unfamiliar to the mainlander, and also took the time to teach me a low punch shot designed for playing under the wind that I started asking about it.

The locals offered theories, half in jest, among them the idea that the island's lush vegetation, along with the eons of weather that have softened the contours of this oldest of the inhabited islands, beget a particularly balanced, serene character. I was also advised to go to the hotel bar at the Hyatt — Stevenson's Library — named after author and island habitué Robert Louis, at 6:30 any evening.

I did, and saw the nightly showing of a half-hour videotape of Hurricane Iniki, a Force 5 storm that flattened Kauai in 1992. The destruction was near total; complete loss of tourism and agriculture, the island's twin economic engines, and a devastated infrastructure. One example: 95 percent of the island's power poles were knocked down.

How easy to throw in the towel. Some did, heading for other islands or the mainland. But most stayed, and for them the storm proved first a solvent and then a glue, eroding all kinds of barriers, between managers and workers, natives and immigrants, even the traditional ambivalence toward tourists. For in the economically hard, tourist-barren years following the storm, islanders who thought they couldn't live with visitors found out they couldn't live without 'em.

The bonds they forged while rebuilding the island's economy have endured in the form of a warmth toward one another and visitors alike, along with an admirable ability to live life in the moment. Today, Kauai's 56,000 people are as friendly and as much in love with where they live as any population could be. They've earned that.

The island's southern tip offers three excellent golf courses and as many styles. Of the two Jack Nicklaus-designed courses at the Marriott complex, Mokihana is a somewhat refined version of the classical resort course, while Kiele Lagoons, a significantly tougher layout, stands out because it affords some great views of the Pacific and Nawiliwili Bay. It is also rich in memorable holes, as well as some very fine ones so subtly laid into the landscape that you might not realize until you've putted out what a graceful design you've just played.

This is especially interesting given that Nicklaus, as a designer, often uses brute force to effect his intentions. But Kiele Lagoons is almost always about positioning the tee shot and making high percentage plays into greens. The hole is often taken out of safe play if the tee shot lands in the wrong spot, and while some holes demand length and accuracy, it's a course that rewards the thinking golfer.

It's a bit ironic that the Kiele's signature hole, number 16, is really more eye candy than substance. Yes, it plunges downhill parallel to the Bay's channel and finishes next to a lighthouse, but it's a brochure cover one could par with two 8-irons. In contrast, the final hole, a par-4 of 431 yards from the back tees, playing into the trades to a peninsula green, is a demanding examination that one can play tactically, staying safely left and bidding for an up-and-down par, or else gambling on a long carry into the wind over the water to a tight green.

Poipu Bay, built just at the time Iniki struck, didn't have a great many mature plantings to lose, and so emerged relatively unscathed. Today it hosts the Grand Slam of Golf, a convocation of the winners of the sport's major championships that year (The Masters; U.S. Open; British Open; and PGA Championship). Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., Poipu Bay is by no means an overly difficult layout (unless the wind is blowing, in which case an executive par-3 course grows teeth), but it is cleverly laid out to take advantage the rises and falls on what is a relatively flat site. It pleases the eye with explosions of bougainvillea in hot pinks and purples and silver button trees whose foliage shines in the sun. With a dearth of water and forced carries, it is playable course for both sexes.

It's best feature, and no small thing to pull off, is a really magnificent run of finishing holes. Jones shrewdly saved his oceanfront acreage for late in the round, allowing him to run 15, 16, 17 and 18 along the coast. It's visually stunning. The roar of the ocean and the beachfront breezes pressure the player even though the water never need be crossed. It is just there, ready to turn a leftward drift into a disaster. The 18th, a reachable par-5 with a green protected along the left side by a pond, caps the round. It is a great finishing hole because anything from birdie to double bogey is possible depending on how the golfer handles the second shot.

There is a botanical note about Kauai that, as we prepared to move on to Maui, seemed more like a metaphor for the island than anything else I'd seen. The route from the Marriott complex down to Poipu Bay includes a brief connector road. Along both sides of the highway run half-mile long columns of eucalyptus trees. Their crowns, 70 feet up, interlaced like fingers and prompted the name Tunnel of Trees. Until Iniki, which sheared away those crowns and left the islanders with a memento mori they christened, with mordant wit, Tunnel of Sticks.

Now, nearly 10 years later, the restorative power that animates people and flora alike on this island has worked its healing magic. The treetops again reach across and embrace one another in lovely ligatures of leaf and wood that imprint the road below with a soft intaglio of sun and shadow.

Maui is a bustling island, geographically speaking the Times Square of the chain. At 727 square miles, compared to Kauai's 533, Maui's population of roughly 120,000, along with its status as the second-most popular visitor destination in the state (trailing Oahu), make it a busy island. Like that of all the islands save Oahu, Maui's highway system is meager. Rugged geography contributes. So does a culture biased by eons of history — and a very modern understanding of what butters the local bread — to rip the delicate fabric of its environment. So traffic jams, incongruous as they seem in mid-Pacific, are a fact of life, especially during periods of road construction and during the morning and evening rush. Plan to travel Maui by car at other times of day.

From Maui, the islands of Lanai and Molokai seem close enough to touch, and they change form and color constantly as clouds move overhead and the sun angle changes through the day. As a golfing prospect, Maui works 24/7/365: loads of courses, a broad palette of styles, some oceanfront, some slightly inland. Degree of difficulty ranges from low (gentle, restorative layouts for the inexperienced and those incapacitated by some bully that just has gotten done with them) to high, in the form of several handsome brutes for those who wish to test themselves.

My favorite is one of the latter, the Plantation Course at Kapalua on the island's west end. Owned by the Kapalua Company, the Plantation Course, along with two other 18-hole layouts, the Village and Bay Courses, has playing arrangements with the Kapalua Resort Hotel and the Kapalua Ritz-Carlton. A brand new golf academy, overseen by three-time US Open winner Hale Irwin, is the latest addition to a very strong set of facilities.

The Plantation Course, set back on the hills above the hotels, was designed by the tandem of Ben Crenshaw — another great player and one of this era's most knowledgeable golf historians — and Bill Coore. With the near-certainty of stiff tradewinds to protect the course, the architects painted with a broad, slashing brush, creating an expansive, (7263 yards from the back tees) wild beauty.

The Plantation's fairways are exceptionally broad, the greens outsized, the views back down to the sea phenomenal. While in no way a links course — it is, after all, built into a hillside — Crenshaw and Coore recognized that some key characteristics of seaside golf (lots of wind, few trees, pili grass that, allowed to grow high, adds drama and beauty as it waves in the breeze) were salient features of the rolling, former pineapple acreage they were working with. Long par-4s down the wind, par-3s in crossing breezes that need to accurately sized up, and the occasional striped directional pole to help the player target a blind shot — all are part of the lexicon. So are enormous bunkers, edged with high, wheat-colored eyebrows of pili grass.

Digging a pond or two into the Plantation Course would have been easy. It is a measure of the architects' clarity of vision that they recognized doing so would have hit the wrong note on a golf course that states its theme on the long, wide-open first hole, and restates it with crystalline finality on the 18th, a 663-yard par-5 that looks absurd on the scorecard. Yet because it plays down the wind and funnels right to left down a chute toward the green, 18 is easily reachable in regulation for an amateur who can follow a strong drive with a solid fairway wood. If you play on Maui, do not miss this course. It is a joy, beautiful to look at, challenging to play, and a lesson in how good architecture grasps the salient aspects of a site and creates a consistent, lucid track.

Between the Kapalua area and Haleakala, the 10,000-foot high dormant volcano that dominates the island's east end, runs what the island bills as the golf coast, a run of resorts embracing nearly all the island's other golf courses. Traveling east from Kapalua, Kaanapal'i (soothing, resort-style golf all the way, remarkable most for the friendliness of the hotel staff) is first. The three courses at Wailea (Emerald, Blue, Gold), and two at Makena (North, South), offer more formidable challenges.

Wailea's three distinctly different courses are linked by the common thread of impeccable condition. The marquee Gold Course, a Trent Jones Jr. design of 7,070 yards from the back tees, features fairways lightly lined with palm trees, along with backdrops of Lanai and the intervening sea. The Gold Course is resort golf togged out in spats and a derby, crisp, handsome, well-bunkered with blindingly white traps of silica sand flashed up high like a dandy's shirt cuffs. Menacing looking they are. And the putting is tricky. The greens are not large, but they are fast, sculpted with gentle rises and falls, and they break hard toward the water.

Wailea's Emerald Course, also designed by Trent Jones Jr., is worth noting because it was designed with the specifics of a woman's game in mind. Virtually all golf courses have women's tee boxes, but that is the beginning and the end of their concession to the fact that women don't hit the ball as far or as high as men. The Emerald allows women to make tactical choices, setting up ideal landing areas, constricting other positions with bunkers to create risk/reward propositions-tactical issues a well-designed course presents to men throughout the round.

Wailea is also a firm believer in equal off course amenities; its women's restrooms and locker rooms are fully the equal of those supplied for the men, and its pro shop has as much shelf space devoted to women's products as to men's.

Maui's golf coast ends with the Makena Resort. Both the hotel — part of the Prince Group that includes Hawaii's seminal high-end resort, the Big Island's renowned Mauna Kea — and the golf, are a fitting close to a golf-centered tour of Maui.

Makena's two courses, both of which reach about 7,000 yards when played from the tips, are distinctly different from one another, a function of both design and geography. The South Course grades gently down to the Pacific in a series of fairly generous, palm-lined fairways.

It's hard to lose a ball, and even the prodigal tee shot can be cleanly hit and advanced, leaving the door ajar if not agape for an up-and-down par. The South Course reaches the water at a spot so popular with the area's sea turtles it's called Turtle Town. Several miles out into Auau Channel, which separates Maui and Lanai, the crescent of tiny Molokini, a popular snorkeling spot formed by the remains of a cinder cone, is clearly visible. The South Course is, in short, a solid resort course, not terribly penal and strewn with great views.

The North Course, in contrast, is strewn with problems. Lava boulders, forced carries over brushy defiles, and greens that can be very touchy for Bermuda grass. It demands accurate play off the tees and a sure touch on the greens. Perhaps as much as any course with the exception of The Prince, it requires that you have some game, along with focus, and a dollop of sheer nerve. A breezy afternoon can make for a long day on this rugged track.

For a taste of the more rugged side of Maui, round the island to the north beyond Kapalua. No resort clusters or heavy traffic on this 5 M.P.H. ribbon of road through the foothills of the West Maui Mountains with the gunmetal blue Pacific just a plunge below. Truck farms and some ranching punctuate the thick green undergrowth. Horseback is a great way to see this high country at your own pace, and is easily arranged by a concierge or, for that matter, a flip through the Yellow Pages.

The path from Maui to Lanai is short, and if you choose, watery. Unlike most inter-island crossings, a ferryboat covers the seven or so miles separating the graceful old whaling port of Lahaina on Maui's south coast to Lanai's Kaumalapau Harbor in about 45 minutes. In late winter the relatively shallow waters of Auau Channel make it a favorite spot for calving humpback whales, who join year-round residents such as spinner dolphins, and the trip itself is something to relish.

Lanai has always been, for me, the dream isle. Privately owned and off limits, I often admired its various symmetries from both Molokai and Lanai. It is all but perfectly round (as an island should be). Rises as regularly from the sea as a set of stairs to a height of just over 3,000 feet (I never drew an island otherwise.) Over it hovers a cap of luminous, billowy cumulus clouds (what is a tropical islandscape without a cap of whip cream clouds?)

Lanai was an agricultural island, devoted to the pineapple culture and wholly owned by Dole. As global economics eroded Hawaii's ability to produce pineapples at competitive prices, developer Castle & Cooke bought the island. They made a bid to capture some of the state's tourist economy, creating a division called the Lanai Company and building two luxe resorts on the island; Manele Bay and The Lodge at Koele.

They present a strong contrast, as do the golf courses associated with them. Manele Bay is a beachfront resort opening onto Hulopo'e Bay, one of the best swimming and snorkeling spots in the state. The Lodge, most of the way up to the island's top, is a rare bird in Hawaii; no beachfront, plenty of clouds (that beautiful cap the island wears) and a comfortably cool, moist environment that trades palm trees for deep green glens of Norfolk and Cook Pine trees.

Some question the sense in traveling to the subtropics and vacationing in a cloud. The Lodge, reputed to be the largest wood-framed building in the state, offers a variety of reasons beyond easy shuttle access to the sunny beach at Manele if you'd like an afternoon swim. Its rustic ambiance is everywhere in evidence. The main dining area, for example, is an architectural pleasure reminiscent of the 19th century Adirondack "camps," elegantly roughhewn affairs that played the role of a sportsman's backcountry estate. It rises airily to a cathedral ceiling and is dominated by a commanding stone fireplace.

Outside, a wide wraparound porch invites reading, conversation, or simple relaxation. Its guests include visitors who simply don't crave sun and sand or get enough of it at home, as well as Hawaii residents who are looking for a break from their customary climate. It is — and few places in Hawaii can be described this way — cozy.

The Experience, as the Lodge's Greg Norman/Ted Robinson-designed course is called, is equally offbeat. For one thing, it is the only course I know of in the state using bent grasses, a quirk enabled by its cooler upcountry microclimate. Beyond that, the course can be best summed up by one word: water. Rilles, ponds, streams — water everywhere. Certainly not an unforgettable layout, it is very pretty, and will test your ability to make good swings when a bad one will get you wet. It does require accuracy, and its 17th hole, a par-4 with the tee box set 250 feet above a narrow fairway that leads to a green hemmed in on the right by trees, is unforgettable. And its bent grass greens mean some of the fastest putting in the islands.

Back down at Lanai's beachfront, Jack Nicklaus, who handled the Kiele Lagoons course with such a light, sure touch, such aplomb, used a cleaver to hew a tough, grinding layout out of a volcanic cliffside for Manele Bay. Aptly called The Challenge, it winds its way home along the island's seaside cliffs, providing the golfer with some very queasy moments and a rare sight: four of the islands in view at once (Hawaii, Kahoolawe, Maui and, of course, Lanai.)

The Challenge is fraught with peril. Driving the ball well is especially important because Nicklaus sets up preferred sides on most fairways, and many holes begin with a forced carry over a brush and rock-filled draw or, in some cases, the ocean itself. The de rigeur par-3 over the ocean is number 12, which plays over 200 yards and feels longer, perched as it is atop sheer drops of 150 feet at both the tee and green. The best hole on the course might be the 17th, a long, gently twisting, downsloping par-4 requiring a drive over an inlet and a strong middle iron into a well-bunkered green.

That's one last superior golf hole in an island chain full of golf — good golf, great golf, soothing golf, golf that teaches you a lesson, even some golf that will take you out to the proverbial woodshed. And there's always Jack Baker up at Princeville, who I figure gets as much fun out of giving you a mini-lesson as he does fooling around with your head just enough to see if you really trust your own club selection. There's a lesson in that, too. It's good to know these golf courses and the people who run them are there, waiting for you.

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