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Puakea gets to the finish line in fine style

Rebecca LarsenBy Rebecca Larsen,

LIHUE, Kauai - Hurricane Iniki in 1992 left a lingering mark on the island of Kauai. Homes were destroyed; businesses were wrecked; building projects were stalled, including what is now called Puakea Golf Course in Lihue. Originally named Puakea at Grove Farm for the sugar plantation that once stood on the site, the course was started in 1990-91 when 10 holes were designed by architect Robin Nelson, well known for his work on the Dunes at Maui Lani, Royal Kunia and Mauna Lani.

Then came Iniki and a recession, and construction stopped. The finished 10 holes remained closed while the owners waited, expecting to finish the course. But in 1997, the 10 were opened by themselves and play began. Sports Illustrated even named the truncated course one of the best 9-hole courses in the United States.

Finally the golf course, plus an adjoining residential development, shopping center site and other property, were sold to Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL and a native of Honolulu."He's our hero for stepping in and finishing the course," says Kellie Pleas, the director of golf at Puakea.

Case brought back Nelson to create the eight final holes of this par-72, 6,900 yard course. Finally, this past summer, the completed Puakea opened its doors.

In the intervening years, Nelson had played his original 10 nearly 40 times. As a result, when he finally got his second chance, he changed direction a bit."Playing the course so often enabled me to better understand how the wind comes into play," says Nelson, a resident of Mill Valley, Calif."As a result, I was able to tweak the holes from my original design and make them play differently from any of the existing ones."

His new holes, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10 and 14, also provide some ocean views and feature three new lakes and a stream. The water helps create great scenery, but some of the best backdrops are along holes next to the emerald green slopes of the famous Ha'upu Ridge, where you can allegedly spot a profile of the face of Queen Victoria. This is also the area where Steven Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park. Interspersed among the golf holes are tracts of land still used to grow coffee, corn, taro and papayas.

From a scenic standpoint, the downside is at the start of the course where you're on the fringes of the back parking lot of the shopping center. The course is still operating out of a temporary clubhouse.

One major question you have before you tee off: How does the whole package blend together after so many years of waiting? Remarkably well, actually. One of the few noticeable differences, as might be expected, is on the greens. The old greens where grass is more established putt much more slowly than the new.

The course starts out now with two fairly straightforward holes with very generous fairways and then gets more difficult with the par-4 No. 3, which has a wide fairway ending up next to a lake on the left. You want to stay to the right with your tee shot, but not too far right or you'll lose your ball in the thick rough - or, worse yet, a grove of trees.

To tell the truth, the original 10 are probably the most memorable holes on the course, like the dramatic par-3 No. 6. While birds caw in chorus from a snarled jungle of green far below, you have to fire over the tree tops and a pond to the green. The distance is not all that far (176 yards from the back tees and 113 from the forward), but the sight is intimidating.

When the course had only 10 holes, players also faced a tougher start on what is now No. 11, an amazing par 5 (560 yards from the back tees and 446 from the forward). There are two fairways on this hole, where strategy is key. After a long drive down the middle of a lower fairway, you take a second shot up a steep incline to the second fairway and then up again to the green, heavily bunkered on the right and backed by swaying palm trees. You probably have to play this beautiful hole two or three times to get it right.

"Your second shot has to go up to the top in order to make par. You're hitting into the wind and you're going uphill. It is hard," says Kawika Oliver, a member of the golf course staff.

Among the favorite holes of Kellie Pleas, the director of golf, is No. 12, a par 4 measuring 397 yards from the back tees and 298 from the forward. The fairway bumps and rolls around a lake off to the right. There is also trouble on the left from a row of mango trees and fairway bunkers.

You'll find a mixture of holes on this course - some fairly difficult and some pretty relaxing. That could be said of lots of courses, but at Puakea, there are definitely spots to catch your breath and save your score.

Where to stay:

The course is not part of a resort; it's a daily-fee facility just 10 minutes away from the airport and between the town of Kapa'a and the resort area of Poipu Bay, both loaded with resorts, condos and motels. So if you're staying in one of those locations, this is an excellent place to play. The closest major resort hotel is the Kauai Marriott on Kalapaki Bay in Lihue (808-245-5050 or 800-220-2925). The Marriott is close to another golf area, Kauai Lagoons (800-634-6400 or 808-241-6000), which has two courses.

Off course:

Once you've played the course, you may be interested in the history of the site. The Grove Farm property was originally bought in 1870 by George Norton Wilcox, the son of early missionaries on Kauai. It was turned into a successful sugar plantation, but his heirs found it difficult to keep the business going after the 1970s. They then turned to land development and management.

You can find out more by visiting the Grove Farm Homestead, located a mile or so from the course. Tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; reservations have to be made in advance by calling (808) 245-3202.


Scenery: 4
Layout: 4
Value: 3.5
Conditions: 4
Overall: 3.9

Fast Fact

The only female head golf professional in the state and the first female to serve on the Aloha PGA Board, Kellie Pleas, director of golf at Puakea Golf Club, serves on the Aloha PGA Board and coached the Kauai High School girls golf team to the 2000 state championship.

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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
  • Played Puakea

    Randolph M. Rainey wrote on: Jan 16, 2009

    Played golf at Puakea in August 2008
    It was one of my best memories of golf
    in my entire life. The course was in excellent condition and the staff was
    very professional. Made me feel welcome and at home. Wonderful experience. Recommend it to anyone.


  • Puakea Golf Course

    Michael Wilson wrote on: Sep 25, 2007

    Played this course in late Aug and it was in terrible shape and poorly managed. Not sure what has happened but will not spend good money here with so many other great courses on the island.