LAHAINA, Maui, Hawaii -- Few golf courses in the world give you views like the Plantation Course at Kapalua, host to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the PGA Tour's first event of the 2014 season.
The West Maui Mountains are behind you, and the Pacific Ocean is seen from just about every shot you will play. But upon even closer inspection you might be lucky enough to see a whale breaching and surfers. The day I played, an amazing number of swimmers were in the ocean participating in the XTERRA World Championship off-road triathlon.
"I have players tell me every day they think our views are better than Pebble Beach," said Chris Noda, Kapalua's Group and Reservations Manager. "This is a big golf course with big challenges when the wind is howling. And many tour pros will comment on the grain of the greens and that it takes more than one round to figure out how to read them."
Noda tells first-time golfers to use the cart's GPS flyover feature to learn the lay of the ground, because this is certainly one course where there are sweeping downhill slopes, and playing to the high side is paramount. The alternative will be a jungle search for your golf ball.
Plantation's superb layout
When Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore attack a piece of ground for a golf course it is usually a masterpiece. This 7,411-yard par 73 is beautiful, difficult and demands creativity.
And it all starts at the first hole, a par 4 that goes downhill 520 yards for the pros. If you play the resort tees at 417 yards, it takes a drive down the left fairway boundary. Hit it far enough, and you might just carry down to a low spot that demands an uphill -- sometimes blind -- shot to a green that is guarded short by a ravine of no recovery. It can easily be a birdie or a double bogey.
It is hard to pick favorite holes, but Noda likes the par-3 11th, a 164-yarder slightly downhill. "Just off to the right you can see Honolua Bay and surfers in the distance," Noda said. "It's a fun hole that Fred Couples aced and a neat place to watch the tournament -- you can see the 13th green and 14th tee shots, too."
The finish is pure fun. No. 17 sweeps downhill, 428 yards from the resort tees. Too long and too straight toward the green will find a rugged ravine. But if you nail one between the cart path and the ravine you are set up for an approach that will kick right.
Same for the famous 18th hole -- everything kicks left on this downhill par 5 that is 663 yards for the pros. Aim toward the clubhouse on your drive and hope for one that catches the slope and rolls out at 300 yards. That gives you a chance to get home in two and an eagle putt. All the trouble is down the left side.
The Plantation Course at Kapalua: Final thoughts
Feel blessed if you get to play this fun golf course, opened in 1991, on a fairly calm day like I did. The notorious but cooler tradewinds will bend the flag stick over like a stormy day at Pebble Beach. But even if you arrive on a blustery day, take it in stride and enjoy the views and the challenge.
The GPS is very helpful, but try and schedule your round with a member or a native who regularly tees it up here. That person will be a godsend on reading these sloped greens.
Kapalua is situated on a quiet spot on Maui's northwest shore with towering Cook Island pines lining the narrow road through 23,000 acres of Kapalua. Pineapples once grew here, but this is the best of ritzy and down-to-earth Maui. An organic pineapple farm is still next door, and the old plantation roadside stop -- Honolua Store -- dates back to 1929 and reminds you of another era.
Make the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua your home while playing golf. It has 54 acres, maintaining the Honokahua Preservation Site that is adjacent to the resort's beach. There are 463 guest rooms, suites and Club Level accommodations featuring dark wood floors, marble bathrooms, vibrant island-inspired décor and designs. Also check out the six dining experiences, the spa, fitness center, tennis courts, basketball court, swimming, surfing, boogie boarding, sailing, kayaking, sport fishing and whale watching.
Tune up your game at the Kapalua Golf Academy where Ben Hongo was just named the best teacher in Hawaii.