At Ka'anapali Golf Resort on Maui, the scenic Kai Course shines in its own spotlight

LAHAINA, MAUI, Hawaii -- Bigger isn't always better, especially in the golf world. Take Ka'anapali Golf Resort, for example. With two 18-hole layouts, it's a wonderful place to tee it up. Of the two golf courses, Royal Ka'anapali gets the majority of the rave reviews. At 6,700 yards, this par-71 layout is quite a test.

But players need to remember that the sister course, Ka'anapali Golf Resort's Kai Course , is also a tremendous golf challenge. How tremendous? Well, it was featured in the Golf Channel's "Big Break Ka'anapali" show where some of the world's top women golfers took on the 6,400-yard Arthur Jack Snyder layout. And it will certainly provide a stern test to even the best players.

"It was always considered the 'other' course," Head Professional Sutee Nitakorn said. "But after the recent renovations (by Robin Nelson), it's considered just as good a course as the Royal."

How good? "The greens are very, very consistent, and the views are great," Nitakorn said. "It's a course that is getting more and more play. And it's getting great reviews from players."

It's time to grab your clubs and tee it up.

Ka'anapali Kai: On the course

Ka'anapali Kai is a golf course for the thinking man (or woman). The elevation changes and wind conditions and direction make club selection a challenge. Here, 150 yards doesn't always mean that 7 iron. If you're hitting to an elevated green or into the wind, you've got to take that into consideration.

During the round, players' senses will be bombarded. Lava rock outcroppings, canals and gulches add to the challenge of the course, while native wildflowers border the course as pines, and coconut trees stand tall along the fairways.

Kai's first hole is one of the most level holes on the layout. At 376 yards from the tips, it's a solid starting hole. A good drive will set up a short iron into a green fronted by a bunker. Two good shots will give players an early birdie putt. Then hang on, because the wild ride is about to begin.

"The course is shorter, by design," said Nitakorn. "But just because it's shorter doesn't mean it's a pushover. You have to think your way around on this course. End up on the wrong side of the fairway, and you leave yourself a difficult shot to a protected green."

The second hole is a par 4 at 370 yards that climbs dramatically up to a green perched high above the fairway. Contrast that with the par-3 third (225 yards) that drops some 30 feet to the green, and you get a great idea of the rolling course ahead of you. With canyon carries, dense foliage, water features and smooth bunkering, the Kai Course will test your ability from start to finish.

The 18th on the Kai Course is a simple-looking, 348-yard par 4. But what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in difficulty. Water runs down the left side of the fairway, and a lagoon guards the front of the green with three bunkers surrounding it. It may look easy, but pin-point accuracy with the approach shot is the key to finishing the round strong.

Ka'anapali Kai: The views

The views are second to none. On the 11th tee, players will see one of the most stunning views around.

This par 3 heads back toward the ocean. At 182 yards, it's not a tough hole until you factor in the menacing bunkers around the green and the pond to the right. While you're waiting to hit, check out the ocean in the background.

"You just may see the whales putting on a show," Nitakorn said. This was one of the holes redesigned during the 2005 renovation to better take advantage of the view.

The Sugar Cane Train

On several holes, players on the Kai Course will see and hear the Sugar Cane Train, a vintage-looking locomotive used on tours of the area. Far from being a distraction, the train adds to the unique charm. The tracks border right next to the fourth green, and players just might get a rolling gallery while they are putting out. The railroad was once used to transport sugar cane from north of Ka'anapali down to the Pioneer Sugar Mill in Lahaina.

Ka'anapali Kai: The verdict

Hidden gem isn't the right term for the Kai Course at Ka'anapali, because it's not hidden at all. But gem definitely describes the course to a tee.

"It certainly complements the Royal Course ," said Nitakorn. "But it also can stand on its own. It's a great test of golf with fantastic views."

It's a course that has it all, from breathtaking views and scenery to enough rolling fairways and undulating greens to test even the best players.

"With the wind, the elevation changes and the undulating greens, you're going to find a beautiful, yet challenging, course," Nitakorn said with a smile. "And that's a good thing.

Bill Bowman is a Las Vegas-based writer who has more than 40 years in the sports-writing business. He's spent the past 16-plus years covering the golf scene in Vegas and has teed it up for magazine profiles with celebrities including comedian Bill Engvall, actor Jeffrey Donovan (USA's Burn Notice), ESPN personality Colin Cowherd, NASCAR's Kurt Busch, Collective Soul's Ed Roland, the Baltimore Ravens' Jonathan Ogden and many others.
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The Kai Course might be the easier of the two layouts at the Kaanapali Resort on Maui. But it's by no means the less popular. The Kai might seem short at 6,388 yards, but because some of the holes play uphill, into the wind or both, there is plenty of challenge. It's also replete with great views, both of the West Maui Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Taking your girlfriend or spouse on a golf vacation to Maui is a win-win for the both of you. She gets to enjoy a little fun in the sun. And you won't have fine china hurled at your head when you walk out the door for the airport alone. When selecting courses to play, forget how they would rank on a top 100 list. Instead, consider how playable they are for her and whether the atmosphere of the club is intimidating or not. If both of you can walk off the 18th green and a smile is still on her face, it's a successful afternoon. And that's easy to find on Maui.
Royal Ka'anapali dates back long before many of Maui's championship golf courses opened, and it continues to pass the test of time. The Robert Trent Jones Sr. design is the most consistent blend of championship-caliber, resort friendly golf that can be found in Maui, Brandon Tucker writes from Hawaii.
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At Ka'anapali Golf Resort on Maui, the scenic Kai Course shines in its own spotlight
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