WAILEA, Hawaii -- When you take in the view from the first tee on the Gold Course at Wailea Golf Club, there's a lot to absorb.
This beautiful downhill par 4 of 422 yards gently doglegs left with the Pacific Ocean shining in the background along with the partially submerged Molokini Crater, a long-time haven for snorkeling. Coconut palms wave in the forefront along with the lush gardens that surround the outstanding clubhouse, built in 1994. Look the opposite direction and gaze upon Mount Haleakala, the 10,023-foot dormant volcano.
But few golfers can imagine that this was once land where Hawaiian cowboys called "paniolo" drove their cattle by moonlight down the volcanic slopes and into the ocean, where they swam out to ships waiting to take the cattle to other destinations.
Today Wailea Gold, with the sun just rising, is my playground for world-class golf, a 7,078-yard, par-72, Robert Trent Jones Jr. gem, also recognized by the Maui Historical Society for its preservation of prehistoric black lava rock walls during construction.
Wailea Golf Club's Gold Course: Find the mood and rhythm
"All great courses express a mood or rhythm that inspires anticipation mixed with nostalgia in players when they reflect upon the course," Jones said. "The best courses are those where nature has provided the canvas, and my job is to discover her secrets and reveal them, as opposed to imposing a philosophy. Golf is a nature walk through a garden, which in every culture is an extremely important place of sanctuary and restoration and re-creation."
"Wailea Gold is what golfers envision when they think of golf in Maui," Head Professional Rusty Hathaway said. "And no. 8 is a perfect example. With the ocean in the background, it's so perfect you don't think you could miss, but it has teeth. It is a 218-yard par 3 with palm trees framing the back, a huge green with a high spot in the middle and a massive bunker behind the green that collects a lot of shots."
Hathaway, who has been around Wailea for more than three decades, said the Gold is a thinking man's golf course.
"You've got to club correctly, know the distances and factor in the elevation changes. But at the same time the course gives you plenty of options, and that's why it is so much fun to play."
No. 6 is a perfect example of thinking and precision. It is one of those challenging but driveable par 4s, only 287 yards. The tee shot can be an iron over a lava ravine to a wide fairway, but if you go for the green with a driver, the green is surrounded by seven bunkers of different shapes and sizes.
The hardest hole on the scorecard is no. 7, the par-5, 590-yard double dogleg that requires strategy to avoid the trouble, an uphill sloping fairway and crosswind.
"This is a true par-5 test," Hathaway said. "If you make par you feel like you made birdie because it is so challenging."
The par-4 ninth is only 353 yards -- the tee shot carries one of the lava walls to a wide fairway, but the approach must be precise. The green is shallow and is engulfed by sand.
Wailea Golf Club's Gold Course: Final thoughts
If you come to Maui for golf, don't dare miss the Gold Course at Wailea Golf Club.
Distraction will be a factor all day on this signature layout. There's the ocean backdrop, the topography, the lava rock walls, 200 feet of elevation changes, tall native grasses, 92 difficult bunkers and just enough doglegs to make you carve some shots. GPS on the carts help solve some of the mysteries of scoring better.
"Wailea has the best weather in the world -- that one reason I decided to live here," Hathaway said. "Last year when the PGA Tour was playing at Kapalua and the wind was howling it was almost windless here on the Gold Course."
Wailea Golf Club -- which includes the Gold, Emerald and Old Blue golf courses -- has a 12-acre driving range at the Gold and Emerald layouts. You can get individualized or group clinics by Hawaii's only David Leadbetter Golf Academy.
Shaped like an amphitheater, this practice grassy venue even hosts dinner picnics, concerts and special events. Private fireworks have been staged here and even a helicopter flyover for a thousand-person group photo.
Also staged here: the Wendy's Champions Skins Game from 2001-2007 and the LPGA Skins Game in 2003.
The clubhouse, host of many weddings, also has chef Bev Gannon's A Pacific View Restaurant.
Wailea has numerous high-end resorts including the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, only a short drive from the golf course. You can also enjoy tennis at the Wailea Tennis Club.