Around this time of year, my thoughts always drift west. Way west, as in the South Pacific and the paradise of the Hawaiian Islands. All of them are different, of course, and depending on what type of experience you're looking for, each of them have a certain kind of appeal. What they all have in common is great golf, even Lanai with its singular golf course.
I've been fortunate enough to play golf on each island multiple times. Here are my favorites among the courses open to the public -- if I could only play one course, no matter what the cost, by island:
Maui: Plantation Course at Kapalua
Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: The Plantation Course at Kapalua is the best course on Maui and it might be my favorite in all of Hawaii. Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the views are amazing, starting with breakfast on the veranda at the Plantation's magnificent clubhouse. From there, it starts with a spectacular tee shot on the par-4 first hole, which has a difficult approach shot, and it never lets up. I even love watching this course on TV during the PGA Tour's SBS Tournament of Champions, but TV doesn't do it justice. The slopes -- the downhill and uphill nature of the holes -- can only be appreciated in person, and you have to be precise with your yardage calculations. Where else can a mortal golfer play a par 5 that's more than 600 yards and hit an iron to the green on the second shot? That's the 18th hole at Kapalua, and it's a fitting crescendo to a round that never, ever gets boring.
Hawaii (Big Island): Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea Golf Course will always be dear to my heart because of its incredible ocean vistas, splendid Robert Trent Jones Sr. design and the fact that it's the first course I ever played in Hawaii. It really set the bar high. It also has a wonderful history and terrific restoration story. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hit the first shots there in 1963 on the signature hole, the breathtaking par-3 third that plays over an ocean so blue you'll think you're looking at a painting. The hole can play as long as 272 yards, and the course is some 300 yards longer than it used to be thanks to a renovation by RTJ's youngest son, Rees Jones, in 2008. With its new greens, turf and bunkers, it's still in incredible shape, and you can still see the ocean from the majority of holes. You also get first-class service along the way, including two comfort stations stocked with complimentary snacks and sodas and an impeccable range and short-game area and great weather on the Kona Coast. And for a double bonus, stay at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort. With its private beach, great dining and wonderful rooms (the bathrooms are incredible), it's one of the most romantic spots in Hawaii.
Oahu: Turtle Bay, Palmer Course
Ironwood trees mark the dogleg on the ninth at Turtle Bay's Palmer Course
Unlike the other islands, public golf on Oahu isn't replete with ocean views. In fact, my favorite course on Hawaii's most populated island, the Palmer Course at Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore, has only one ocean view -- the 17th -- but it's more than worth the wait. Meanwhile, the rest of the course is more than interesting. The former home of both Champions and LPGA tour events works its way around the Punaho'olapa Marsh, a 100-acre preserve that is home to many endangered species of Hawaiian birds. But the Palmer Course is really two golf courses in one. The front nine has sort of a links feel; the back nine has plenty of majestic trees, many of them tall ironwoods that can definitely influence your shot making. There is also water on all but one hole, and if the wind is up, be prepared to dunk a few golf balls. And the 17th is beautiful and difficult with length, bunkers and an incredible view of the ocean.
Kauai: Makai Golf Course at St. Regis Princeville
With the indefinite closing of the top 100 Prince Course, the Makai Course at Princeville Resort was an easy choice -- although I really am a big fan of Poipu Bay and Hokuala (formerly Kauai Lagoons). In fact, Makai is my favorite Robert Trent Jones II design of all time, especially after he came back 40 years after it first opened and renovated it with new pure white sand bunkers, grasses and a few more features. I could play the Troon-managed layout over and over again and never get bored. It's definitely a tale of two courses -- one that plays inland, but doesn't disappoint with the scenery and the ocean holes that are as good as anywhere in the world. The par-3 third, with its ocean and mountains in the backdrop, is reportedly Jones' favorite hole. You start getting stunning ocean views on the sixth, and the variety and views never stop.
Lanai: Manele Golf Course
The clubhouse Manele features an exceptional ocean view.
This was an easy choice since the only other course on the island owned by billionaire Larry Ellison was shut down a couple of years ago. The Manele Golf Course, however, is worthy no matter what, because if it were on another island, it would definitely be in the running for best public course there. Designed by Jack Nicklaus as an amenity of the recently renovated Four Seasons Resort, the course is visually stunning, with black lava outcroppings to red cliffs that jet out of the deep blue sea. Playing more than 7,000 yards from the tips, the course sits above the crashing waves of Hulopoe Bay and features three holes that play along 200-foot cliffs. The signature hole is the 12th, known for its 200 yards of carry over the churning ocean below. Said Golf Advisor reviewer Marshcid, "Beautiful views from every hole. Best course we played in two weeks in Hawaii! The course conditions were perfect …"