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Using the “Golf Digest” list of 15 best courses in Hawaii as my guide, I packed my Mizuno irons and TaylorMade woods into my golf travel bag and headed to Los Angeles International Airport. I could have given my clubs a vacation and left them in the closet, since high-end courses these days have excellent rental sets — even for lefties like me. Alex Nakajima, general manager of Princeville Makai Golf Club, told me that many of his guests prefer to show up with just their golf glove and shoes and use the opportunity to play with other manufacturers’ clubs.
I’ve sorted the “Golf Digest” list by island, as well as incorporated some of my own “golfers on a budget discoveries,” to help lovers of the game find their ideal course.
The Big Island
The Mauna Kea Golf Course on the Kohala Coast has been a longtime favorite of locals and visitors alike. Robert Trent Jones, Sr., when envisioning what he could create as a third hole, is quoted as saying, "Mr. Rockefeller, if you allow me to build a golf course here, this'll be the most beautiful hole in the world." In the years since his wish was granted, the course has been enhanced by Rees Jones, including replanting the course with ultra-dwarf TifEagle Bermuda grass on the greens and Tifway 419 hybrid Bermuda grass on the tees, fairways and roughs, as well as increasing the number of bunkers to 99 and expanding the length of the course to adjust to the advances in golf-club technology.
The par 72, 7,329-yard course at Kohanaiki in Kailua-Kona was designed from the ground up by Rees Jones. Its oceanfront holes 12 through 17 bring sand, surf and lava into play, making it both a challenging back nine and a visual feast.
The David McLay Kidd-designed Nanea Golf Club in Kailua-Kona, meanwhile, was opened in 2003 to highlight his clients Charles Schwab and George Roberts’ desire to create a challenging course in the style of their favorite courses in Great Britain and Ireland. With a course set on the slopes of Mount Hualalai with ancient lava flows integrated into play, Kidd succeeded.
The Kukio Golf & Beach Club’s Tom Fazio-designed course in Kailua-Kona winds its way through dramatic scenery, as well, always keeping players on guard, especially when taking on the par 72, 7,419-yard Mamao Championship tees.
The Club at Hokulia in Kailua-Kona is rated as one of the finest oceanside clubs in the world. This Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, which rises from sea level to approximately 400 feet, is the only private, oceanside golf course on the Big Island. Nicklaus also designed the par 72, 7,117-yard Hualalai Golf Course in Kailua-Kona, home to the PGA Champions Mitsubishi Electric Championship tournament. This course is available for play to Hualalai Club Members, their registered guests, registered rental guests and the guests of Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.
Tom Weiskopf — another golf great turned golf-course architect — created the course at The Club at Kukuiula, Koloa, featuring 64 bunkers and a lush environment incorporating unique tropical plants and trees.
Golf enthusiasts will have no shortage of course options in Hawaii, including the Palmer Course at Turtle Bay Resort. // © 2016 Turtle Bay Resort
Robert Trent Jones, Jr. standing in the tee box of the par 3 seventh hole on the Makai Golf Course in Princeville, Kauai. // © 2016 Mark Edward Harris
Puakea Golf Course on Kauai // © 2016 Mark Edward Harris
The 16th hole on the Ocean Course at Hokuala on Kauai // © 2016 Mark Edward Harris
Kauai more than makes up for its diminutive size when it comes to world-class golf.
When Princeville Resort became The St. Regis Princeville in 2008, the Makai course, which opened in 1971, was given a multimillion dollar makeover by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The redesign included the use of seashore paspalum, a salt-tolerant, warm season grass that provides golfers with faster, better playing surfaces. Bunkers and greens were reconfigured, adhering to Jones’ “landscape harmony” approach. The 18-hole, par 72 Makai Golf Course at Princeville re-opened in 2010, with its signature par 3 seventh hole challenging players to attempt a spectacular cliff-crossing tee shot.
Its neighbor, The Prince Course at Princeville, also designed by Jones, shows off the golf architect’s Zen-landscape gardening influences, brilliantly integrating the wild beauty of Kauai’s north shore into 18 holes.
Not to be outdone by his other designs — and also on “Golf Digest”’s top 15 this year — is Jones’ Poipu Bay Golf Course, adjacent to Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa in Koloa. Poipu Bay, home of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf from 1994 to 2006, is a links-style course that includes three holes where the ocean comes into play and many a golf ball finds its final resting place.
For budget-minded golfers heading to the Garden Island, the Kauai Golf Trail Card provides players with savings of more than 15 percent off standard green fees on a number of the isle’s top courses. Players can choose three rounds to play from among the Ocean Course at Hokuala, Puakea Golf Course, Princeville Makai Golf Club and Poipu Bay Golf Course. The rounds must be played at three different courses. Cardholders also receive a 10 percent merchandise discount on regular-price items on the day of play.
Lanai has one course on the “Golf Digest” top 15 list — and what an amazing one it is.
Built on lava outcroppings, the Nicklaus-designed Manele Golf Course features three holes on cliffs and uses the Pacific Ocean as a giant water hazard. The course is an exclusive amenity of Four Seasons Resort Lanai.
The Plantation Course at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua on Maui is consistently ranked at the top of everyone’s list. The 7,411-yard, par 73 course designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore has dramatic elevation changes and exciting downhill tee shots, with wide enough fairways to keep high-handicap players from going through endless sleeves of golf balls. The Plantation Course is the site of the PGA Tour Hyundai Tournament of Champions.
The Wailea Gold Course at Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea was the home course of The Champions Skins Game from 2001 to 2007. The rugged 7,078-yard Wailea Gold, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., utilizes the natural undulations of its dramatic surrounding landscape. Strategy and finesse are key components of a successful round, with players often trading in distance for a carefully placed approach shots. Its signature number eight, par 3 has golfers teeing off into a breathtaking view of the ocean and Molokini, with danger lurking for those whose launches go astray.
Traditionally, playing the best courses in Hawaii meant venturing beyond Oahu. That has changed with the Arnold Palmer-designed par 72, 7,218-yard course at Turtle Bay Resort. The course weaves its way through dense wetlands and tree-lined fairways and on several holes reveals spectacular North Shore ocean views. Its signature par 4 17th hole often causes jaws to drop, as well as causes several over par strokes on the scorecard.
All the islands have less expensive alternatives to the bucket-list courses. The Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed Beach Course at Waikoloa Beach Resort, for example, weaves its way through a dramatic landscape of ancient lava flows, palm trees and bunkers and features an oceanside par 5, dog-leg left seventh that is arguably one of the most scenic holes in the game of golf.
THE GOLF DIGEST 2015-2016 LIST:
1. Nanea Golf Course, Kailua-Kona
2. Kapalua (Plantation), Kapalua, Maui
3. The Prince Course, Princeville, Kauai
4. Kukio Golf & Beach Club, Kailua-Kona
5. Mauna Kea Golf Course, Kohala Coast
6. Manele Golf Course, Lanai City
7. The Club at Hokulia, Kailua-Kona
8. Kohanaiki, Kailua-Kona
9. The Club at Kukuiula, Koloa
10. Makai G.C. (Makai), Princeville, Kauai
11. Turtle Bay Resort (Palmer), Kahuku, Oahu
12. Hualalai Golf Course, Kailua-Kona
13. Wailea Golf Course (Gold), Wailea, Maui
14. Poipu Bay Golf Course, Koloa, Kauai
15. Keolu Golf Course, Kailua-Kona