Kauai compensates for a lack of golf options with premium quality.
Hawaii's oldest and northernmost island features just nine golf courses, a small sample considering how large the island is. Fortunately for vacationing golfers, four of them rank among the top 10 in all of the Hawaiian islands. A fifth option, Puakea Golf Course, might offer the best value of any Hawaiian golf course.
The visions of lush jungles and oceanfront holes on Kauai stay with golfers long after the memories of their scores have faded. Here's a quick primer on where to play:
This 27-hole Jack Nicklaus facility has evolved over the years into a dramatic 18-hole loop and an extra nine for overflow play. Nicklaus debuted the revived Kiele Moana nine in 2011, creating the longest continuous stretch of ocean holes in Hawaii. Moana translates to "open ocean," which waves hello behind the fourth green. The par-3 fifth hole soars magnificently over an oceanfront inlet. The new sixth hole doglegs to the left along the rocky coastline. The tiny seventh green sits well below the fairway of a 331-yard par 4, overlooking the lighthouse of the Kalapaki Bay and the Kauai Marriott Resort and Beach Club. The Moana nine then turns into the prevailing trade winds for two watery brutes -- the par-3 17th and the par-4 finisher with an island green. The Mauka front nine, which means "to the mountains," plays equally tough with three par 5s in the first six holes and a do-or-die par 3 at No. 5.
Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s first course, which dates to 1971, has come of age since a multimillion-dollar renovation finished in 2010. A mandate to keep up with the highbrow St. Regis Princeville Resort next door has the course's main 18-hole loop looking immaculate (The Woods nine wasn't renovated). Seashore paspalum now covers the fairways, greens and tees, including a new fourth set that added roughly 500 yards in length. Green surrounds were reshaped. New white Silica sand from Vietnam created bunkers that visually pop against a panoramic backdrop. Makai, run by Troon Golf, translates to "ocean." Five clifftop holes rule the round.
"The views are spectacular in both directions," Hanalei resident Mitch Haynie said. "You could just spend a lot of time sitting on the tee box looking into the ocean if you are not careful."
A $5 million facelift finished in March 2012 added tee boxes, rebuilt bunkers and covered all the greens with seashore paspalum while enhancing playability in certain areas. The holes twist and turn through narrow corridors of thick jungle that gobble up golf balls. Distant ocean vistas and a waterfall behind the 13th green provide striking natural beauty. A rejuvenated 13-acre practice area includes a unique driving range that transforms into a six-hole par-3 course in the late afternoons. The "Mini Prince" -- designed for beginners and families to walk -- consists of holes ranging from 65 to 91 yards. Guests tend to walk into the 66,000-square-foot clubhouse star-struck, gazing out beyond the course to the ocean through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Lunch or dinner at The Tavern Restaurant, run by celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, completes the experience.
Poipu Bay still basks in its glory days as host of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf from 1994-2006. An electric Tiger Woods won it seven times. Never one to be outdone, a magical Phil Mickelson shot a 59 on the final day to win in 2004. This RTJ Jr. design, situated next to the excellent Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, climaxes with three holes along a 150-foot sea cliff. Its exposed site remains one of the windiest on the island, making scoring a real chore. A greens renovation added seashore paspalum in 2011, ensuring good conditions year round.
Puakea opened as a 10-hole course in 1997 after a hurricane halted construction. It was rescued when AOL founder Steve Case purchased the land in 2000. Original architect Robin Nelson was brought back to complete all 18 holes, which opened in 2003. The 6,954-yard layout sputters through the first five new holes before diving into the jungle for a spectacular run on the original holes. The par 3s star throughout the day. The sixth hole requires a heart-stopping 176-yard downhill shot over water. The two par 3s on the back nine -- the 228-yard 13th hole and the tiny 134-yard 16th hole -- are quite the contrast. All greens are in the process of being converted into seashore paspalum, another step in the fascinating evolution of Puakea.