WAILUKU, MAUI, Hawaii -- A brief glimpse into King Kamehameha Golf Club's brief history and characters reads like a Hollywood screenplay: big dreams, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Frank Lloyd Wright, desertion, a second chance.
At now it appears the story is nearing a happy ending.
The club originally opened as Waikapu Valley Country Club in the early 1990s, aimed at attracting Japan's flourishing elite business class. No expense was spared in hoping to build Hawaii's premier, exclusive club. Designs for the clubhouse centerpiece was acquired from a Wright apprentice, who had plans originally intended for newlyweds Miller and Monroe. But when the couple split up, the plans were never realized.
To serve as a clubhouse, the original plans were modified and enlarged to 74,000 square feet -- intended to become Maui's most famous structure -- and its location high into the mountains meant most inhabitants could see the pinkish, mysterious structure from miles around. But few people ever really saw the circular rooms inside. Japan's economy crashed shortly after the club opened, making the $250,000 initiation fee a thing of dreamers -- and the club was eventually deserted in 1999.
Its new owner, Makoto Kaneko, revived the property in 2005, and today the membership is finally filling up thanks in part to new, more reasonable dues.
But it's the member-for-a-day green fee that beckons the Hawaiian golf traveler.
The member-for-the-day experience at King Kamehameha Golf Club
Rather than the more bustling atmosphere of one of the island's multi-course resorts, King Kamehameha G.C. is exclusive, with open fairways and what can feel like a 1-to-1, guest-to-employee ratio. Each has an earpiece and they communicate back and forth with one another to ensure someone is always around to help a member or guest at the drop of a dime.
One such fellow somehow found my girlfriend's ring in the grass on the driving range -- before we had even reported it lost.
And here's another bonus to the club life beyond the resorts: cheap halfway house prices. Beers are just $3 to $4 and sandwiches are about $6.
Even better, this isn't the kind of private club experience where guests are kept out of certain areas. Guests are welcome everywhere and encouraged to come well before their tee time and stay late. Lunch is included in the green fee, plus access to the clubhouse's locker rooms, which is one of the best you'll ever step inside. You can even try out one of the Japanese-style, sit-down showers in the locker room, or just relax in the sauna, equipped with a TV inside. For the non-golfer, you can set up a massage and day use of the clubhouse.
You're a "member for the day" here, and you should squeeze every drop out of the privilege.
King Kamehameha Golf Club: The course
Asked to built a golf course that would live up to the Frank Lloyd Wright clubhouse was Ted Robinson Sr. (who passed away in 2008). Robinson isn't a household name compared to Wright, but his career featured more than 160 credits all over the world. When the club was revamped, his son, Ted Robinson Jr., came along and tidied it up for the new era.
Set high into the west Maui mountainside, no development is anywhere near the course, and most holes play parallel along the mountains, making for fairways that generally feature side or downhill lies. At more than 7,000 yards and with the trade winds a factor on many days, the design is worthy of being considered one of Maui's toughest tests from the championship tees, up there with the Kapalua Plantation course on the west side.
Every few holes, the sound of rushing water over black rock emerges, usually near the green, making for a scenic and intimidating approach shot. The 18th is a fitting grand finale before moving on to the 19th hole back inside, complete with a large pond and a cart path beneath a waterfall.
Membership opportunities at King Kamehameha Golf Club
At one point during your vacation on Maui, your mind will likely wander to the thought of moving here. And while enjoying King Kamehameha's amenities for the day, you'll ponder the thoughts of membership.
Under Kaneko, today's King Kamehameha is far more reasonable than Wailuku Valley back in 1993 and offers a tiered membership plan for individuals, families and corporations.
The current roster of about 250 members are from all over the world, including some familiar names such as actor Clint Eastwood and NBA coach Don Nelson.
Single member initiation is $40,000 with annual dues of $5,080 (no cart fees). The club has a variety of memberships ranging from social membership to other options that offer limited rounds.
If you're considering buying a time share or spending some time each year in Maui, consider their new "Hoapili" membership that includes 15 rounds per year at less than $2,000 annually after a $10,000 initiation, with the option to upgrade to a more inclusive package.
Or, try one of their new trial memberships, which start at $5,400 and include unlimited golf.