PRINCEVILLE, KAUAI, Hawaii -- It took 16 months, but the Makai Golf Club at the St. Regis Resort Princeville on Kauai is back and better than ever.
In 2008, the Starwood-operated Princeville Resort on the North Shore of the island made the decision to upgrade to a St. Regis. It's Starwood's most elite brand, and the Makai Golf Club, built in 1971 didn't make the grade.
But the potential was there, full of oceanfront property ("makai" means ocean) and more beautiful holes inland. The course formerly hosted the LPGA Kemper Open from 1986-1989.
Makai Golf Club at St. Regis Princeville: A Trent Jones design
The Makai closed two of its three nines in October of 2008 in conjunction with the closure of the hotel, and Troon Golf, a leader in managing top destination golf courses, was signed on to manage the course -- its first in Hawaii.
The Bermuda greens, tees and fairways were reseeded with seashore paspalum turf -- the second course on Kauai behind Kiahuna Golf Club to go to the more eco-friendly and salt water tolerant grass that also produced firmer playing surfaces. The course also only stretched to about 6,700 yards, so a new, fourth tee box was added to bring the maximum length to more than 7,200 yards to challenge scratch sticks.
The architect of the original Makai, Robert Trent Jones Jr., oversaw the redesign and was on property often. Not only does Jones have a residence in Hanalei, but Makai was his first golf course design on Hawaii in 1971, making the Makai an especially personal project.
"Jones was very eager to hear the feedback of the new course," recalled Alex Nakajima, general manager of the Makai Golf Club. "He was calling the course every day the first week to hear the comments from golfers."
Other than the turf switch, the most significant overall change to the design was in the green complexes, which will now help to defend the course against the many modern advances in the game. No longer are many of the greens going to be easy to hit as they used to be. White, G-3 Silica sand from Vietnam also replaced the reddish sand bunkers.
Some hole alterations were drastic, most notably the 14th (formerly the fifth hole on the Lakes nine). Despite utilizing more than 300 yards of prime oceanfront property, the hole's design was not as dramatic as it could be. Jones likely wanted a mulligan on this hole for years and finally got his chance, adding bunkers to make the tee shot more and moving the green closer to the coastline.
The rest of the holes saw more subtle changes. Some green settings were enhanced, such as on the 12th hole. About 300 yards from the coast, the green was raised in order to improve the ocean views. The hole prior, the par-5 11th hole, formerly had a raised green with a steep front slope to it that prevented run-up shots to the green. Now, it's a gradual raise to the green that will encourage players to run shots up -- as long as the trade winds into your face aren't too strong.
Makai Golf Club at St. Regis Princeville: The verdict
With the design upgrades and installation of faster paspalum turf, Makai Golf Club now has what it takes to throw its name into the hat of the top plays in Hawaii, especially when conditions peak in the summertime. For top players, Makai will now be a better test, but remains far less penal compared to Jones' infamous Prince course creation.
Each nine has a seriously good stretch of holes blending both hole design and scenery: Nos. 2-7 on the front side and Nos. 12-15 on the back. Three of Makai's four par 3s are spectacular, from the sharply downhill third hole to the famous seventh played over cliffs. Then the 13th hole is a 200-plus yard shot into the trade winds towards the coast.
Formerly a 27-hole club, now the Makai is an 18-hole course, while the Woods course is now a separate nine-hole course that will encourage family, local and walker play for a reduced rate. The Woods was slightly renovated, but paspalum turf was not planted here. The Makai is also traditionally routed and walker-friendly, opposed to many of the other resort golf courses in Hawaii that do not allow walking.