Teeing off on Kaua’i

Robert Trent Jones II and Jack Nicklaus agree that golf on Kaua’i is among the best.

Internationally renowned golf architect Robert Trent Jones II designed golf courses in almost every corner of the globe. But when asked about his personal favorites, he’s quick to answer: “Kaua‘i is a perfect landscape for golf. Although everyone immediately recognizes the dramatic beauty of the ocean, Kaua‘i also has spectacular inland views of the rugged mountain ranges.”

He’s right, though perhaps he’s not the most impartial commentator. In addition to owning a home in Hanalei for many years, Mr. Jones has stamped his signature on several of the island’s best golf courses, including the Princeville Prince course, which annually ranks as one of the top courses in Hawai‘i, and its newly renovated sister, the Princeville Makai course.

Both Princeville designs take full advantage of the panoramic ocean and mountain views Jones describes: the Makai with its forgiving, resort-style round, and the Prince Course, since its 1991 opening, a challenge to better golfers.

In addition to new grasses and bunker sand throughout, the renovation of Makai combined what formerly were known as the Ocean and Lakes nines into one 18-hole layout. The third nonet, Woods, will be used as a family-friendly, nine-hole loop. A new fitness center, pool and tennis courts were also recently constructed at Makai.

The Prince Course, meanwhile, commands respect on every shot. Its resistance to scoring is found in many forms: forced carries from a number of tees; both grass and sand fairway bunkering; wind; hillside lies; and fast, undulating greens. The layout’s demand for accuracy is nowhere more apparent than on the signature par-four 12th hole, where you are asked to clobber a long and straight tee ball off a cliff with enough accuracy to land in the middle of a narrow, jungle-sided fairway 100 feet below and then place a wedge shot over a stream and onto a green surrounded by tangled trouble. One half expects genetically reinvigorated dinosaurs (a la the movie “Jurassic Park,” which was filmed nearby) to charge from the jungle to enhance the challenge of No. 12.

Across the island on Kaua‘i’s south shore is the Po‘ipū Bay Golf Course, another Robert Trent Jones II creation. Located adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i Resort & Spa, Po‘ipū Bay is a bluff-top course that lacks trees, but boasts several downwind, cliff-side holes overlooking the Pacific Ocean where golfers pull out cameras along with their drivers.

The PGA Grand Slam of Golf was held here from 1994 to 2006, and the late-season event brought together the winners of the year’s four “majors.” Over the years, champions such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Ernie Els participated. A course that should make everyone’s Kaua‘i “must-stay-and-play” list, Po‘ipū Bay recently installed new grasses throughout to enhance the playing experience. Don’t miss lunch at the clubhouse restaurant with its scenic views of the 18th green.

Less than two miles away in Po‘ipū, Kiahuna Golf Club, also a Jones design, underwent a $4 million renovation in 2004 that added new length to the course (though still par 70, it now plays 6,925 yards) and gives players more than a few challenges. The course’s replanted greens and fairways and new tee boxes (expert to junior) lead golfers past the archaeological remnants of an old Hawaiian fishing village and some spider caves that are home to a rare sightless species. The course also boasts the wonderful ocean and soaring mountain views for which Kaua‘i is famous.

In Lihue, adjacent to the Kaua‘i Marriott Resort & Beach Club, a Jack Nicklaus design called Kiele is part of the Kaua‘i Lagoons Golf Club. A redesign under Mr. Nicklaus’ watchful eye is adding three holes (two to the front side and an ocean hole on the back) to what is already one of the best finishing stretches in golf. But call ahead and make sure hole 16 is open the day you want to play, as it’s one of the most beautiful golf holes in the state, with its green jutting out into Nāwiliwili Bay and a small lighthouse on lava rocks just left of the putting surface.

Nearby, the Puakea Golf Course opened as an 18-hole course in the summer of 2003, after several years as “the best 10-hole course in the world,” as described by the Sports Illustrated magazine. Designer Robin Nelson created a routing that plays around deep ravines and streams, with dramatic mountain and ocean views so stunning that even the most obsessive golfers pause to take them in.

Many local players prefer Puakea, a fun daily-fee course. Actor Craig T. Nelson, who has a home in Princeville, calls it one of his favorites, and rates here are under $100.

Another favorite of locals is the Wailua Golf Course, a municipal layout that fronts the ocean on several holes and has played host to three Amateur Public Links Championships over the years. Non-resident rates on this walkable layout range from $48-$60.

And the latest course to soon open belongs to Timber Resorts' new Hokuala, a 450-acre, 10-year development that, at completion, will include a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course. 

“I think of Kauai as a laid-back tropical paradise," Nicklaus says on Hokuala's website. "I put forth my best effort in the design process. The quality of conditioning, maintenance, and playing experience is important to me. It all reflects on my name and brand."

Nicklaus offers further advice: "The 16th hole on the Ocean Course at Hokuala is a standout. Be careful playing the drivable par-4," he warns. "It challenges you to make the right club selection. If your tee ball travels down the slot, then you have a chance to drive it on the green and putt for an eagle. A tee shot miss and you have an awkward pitch to the green. The smart play is usually to hit a hybrid or a 3-iron, leaving you a little wedge down to the green.”

Tough or tame, high-priced or downright inexpensive, golf is always a worthy adventure on Kaua’i.