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Unbelievable back nine makes The Experience at Koele a must-play golf course in Lanai, Hawaii

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
Experience at Koele - No. 17
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The Experience at Koele's 17th is a mouth-dropping shot down the trees. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)

The back nine on The Experience at Koele golf course on Lanai will make you think you died and went to Hawaiian golf heaven.

LANAI, Hawaii -- Before long, you're asking yourself if this is it. Every tee seems to bring new hope and fresh disappointment.

Playing the front nine of The Experience at Koele golf course is like paying money to watch a Wayan brothers movie. You almost can't believe you spent this much time and effort. It's no easy effort to get to this Hawaii course after all. It's one of only two golf courses on Lanai (population less than 2,000).

You need to take the ferry from Maui or hop on a small plane to even reach the island. Then getting to the course itself requires a shuttle drive up to the high forest part of Lanai on windy one-lane roads. That much work screams for a big reward.

Instead, you're playing holes that weave around big houses. You could do that in almost any U.S. town. Some of the holes on Koele's front nine are interesting, but you might as well have stayed home.

Relax. Take a deep breath or three. Find an Oprah calm. There's no need to worry.

The wonder is coming. And it's going to blow your golf spikes right off. It might leave you muttering like a Southern Baptist on moonshine who's convinced the Lord All Mighty came down to visit him at the local Piggly Wiggly.

Once you putt out on Koele No. 9 and start on the long uphill climb to No. 10 -- and long means long, some people have a shorter subway commute than this up, up, uphill climb -- you're in another land.

It's 2,000 feet above sea level and any complaints about the golf are sure to be left far below. As mundane as the front nine at The Experience at Koele can be, the back nine is sure to be one of the best two hours of golf you've ever had. Maybe the single best.

That may sound like a bunch of mumbo jumbo, the hyperbole of a golf writer gone mad. Until you're standing on Koele's 10th tee, staring out at nothing but towering pine trees and a rolling fairway that looks like it could swallowed up by all this nature at any moment.

The holes only keep getting better and better on The Experience at Koele's backside too. On No. 12, you can see the ocean far down below over your shoulder on the tee. Only, you can't concentrate on the ocean. Not with a huge canyon to clear just to reach fairways and more monster trees.

Yes, Koele's ocean hole is trumped by its forest clear. And it's not even close. When the ocean is outshined by trees, you know this is rollercoaster forest golf with a drama streak greater than Jack Nicholson's.

"It's just such a different golf course than anything else you'll see in Hawaii," said Linda Gehringer, assistant professional at Lanai's other course, The Challenge at Manele.

In truth, The Experience at Koele is very different from almost any course anywhere.

They just don't make golf like this. There is usually a limit on the number of showy, oh-my holes you can work into any nine holes. Designer Greg Norman and on-the-ground course architect Ted Robinson somehow managed to get nine of them into Koele's back nine.

There's the par 3 with the waterfall (No. 13). There's the shorter par 4 with an up-and-down fairway that looks like a blanket blowing in the wind (No. 14). There's the long par 5 that starts with a shot from a high, high tee down into a valley and ends at a green surrounded by the perfect amount of trees to produce a sunlight theater (No. 15).

Then, there's 17.

This is the hole that most vacationing golfers leave Koele buzzing about. Or wobbly describing in a dazed did-that-really-just-happen tone. It's a 250-foot drop straight down from the where-hawks-fly high tee onto the valley fairway floor on this 444-yard par 4.

Mere measurements don't do it justice though. When you're standing on Koele's 17th tee, it feels like you're shooting from the moon back down to earth. You're surrounded by trees everywhere too. The 17th fairway sits down there, a sliver of open green grass elbowed by thick trees on the hills all around it.

It's like the hole's been carved right out of the forest.

Good luck maintaining those even-keel swing thoughts.

Pain to get here? What pain to get here? Play The Experience at Koele's back nine once and you'll all but volunteer to swim over next time.

The Experience at Koele: The verdict

The Experience at Koele's back nine is worth planning your Hawaii trip around. It's that good, that unique.

Find your way to Lanai and get on Koele. Lanai's other course -- the excellent Jack Nicklaus The Challenge at Manele -- receives much more play because it's right on the ocean, close to the ferry, next to the much larger of the two plush Four Seasons Resorts on Lanai. Going there over Koele is a mistake though. The pine forest course with high tees, big drops and swerving greens is the one you'll never ever forget.

You play the front nine of The Experience at Koele to get to the back nine. Yes, the front nine will make you wonder what happened to that supposedly near-deserted island, but again don't wig out. It's so much cooler when you take the climb up for the backstretch -- literally too. It can get damn hot on Koele's front side, so much so that you'll swear those tall trees are sweating right along with you.

On the higher backside though, it's all cool breezes and house-free shots. In 10 days of Hawaii golfing, with island hops and long drives inland and out, I didn't find anything even slightly similar to The Experience at Koele.

That's no false hype.

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Experience at Koele - greensExperience at Koele - front nine

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • LanaiExperience at Koele

    Harry G. Wilson wrote on: Jun 5, 2008

    I have stayed at the Lodge and played the Experience many many times. It is my favorite place and course of all that I have played. Breakfast at Gingers tops it off.