Mauna Kea Resort BEST OF 2003

Hawaii's best has
more luster in 2003

By Don Chapman,

MAUI (Jan. 15, 2004) -- Mark Twain was right when he called the Hawaiian archipelago the loveliest strand of islands anchored in any sea. What he didn't say is that a big part of what makes Hawaii so lovely is that each of the seven inhabitable islands is so different. No two are remotely alike, from Kauai, the oldest and greenest at the northern end, where they play "jungle golf," to the Big Island in the south, where emerald fairways run through black lava flows barely a century old.

Nearby fresh flows continue to create new land where before there was sea and coral. Like the islands, Hawaii golf continues to grow and mature.

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A building boom during the 1990s, already being called the "golden age" of golf design in the 50th State, doubled the number of courses. The quality of those courses turned it into one of the world's great golf destinations. The two new courses unveiled in 2003 add more lustre. And you can play golf on five islands -- though at this time we recommend just four -- so there is great variety in Hawaii's 89 courses.

That's true, too, of price range and quality. Most of the best courses are part of resorts, were designed by famous architects, and tend to cost rather more than $100. But there are plenty of good public-access courses where you can pay $65 and feel good about it. The islands also offer several private country clubs (including Waialae CC, home of the PGA Tour Sony Open in January), as well as munis and military courses.

Here's a golfer's guide to island hopping:

Puakea GroveBest new course: Puakea (formerly called Grove Farm) on Kauai and Royal Kunia on Oahu opened within weeks of each other in mid-2003. Both are designed by Robin Nelson. Both are beauties, built on varied and interesting terrain -- Puakea at the foot of the Haupu Range adjacent to the Jurassic Park set, Royal Kunia above Pearl Harbor with ocean views all the way to Diamond Head. Not a repetitive hole in the bunch. Vegas oddsmakers might call this a Pick 'Em, but we'll give the edge to Puakea. But just barely, and for reasons that have more to do with feeling than intellect.

Best service (resort): Getting you and your bag pleasantly from car to first tee has become an art form at many Hawaii resort courses. Nobody does it better than the Kapalua Resort's three courses on Maui -- Plantation, Bay, Village -- giving high-handicappers the same service PGA Tour champions receive every January at the Mercedes Championship.

Best service (public): Waikele and Coral Creek on Oahu and the Big Island CC bring resort-style service to mid-range daily fee courses.

Best resort: This is rather like choosing which of Don Ho's hula dancers has the prettiest eyes, and comes down largely to what kind of golf vacation -- and off-shore views -- you seek.

Maui: Kapalua combines world-class elegance with a casual plantation air -- it's part of a working pineapple plantation. Kapalua has an end-of-the-road feel, but lively Lahaina is just 15 minutes away. It offers three very different courses and the Kapalua Golf Academy. Lodging includes two beachfront hotels plus ocean and golf villas. Wailea and Makena have their own charms and tend to be somewhat sunnier in the lee of Haleakala.

Mauna Kea ResortBig Island: The Mauna Kea Resort is the standard bearer, as it has been for 40 years, with two great courses (Mauna Kea and Hapuna) and two hotels with broad beaches. The Kohala Coast is also home to several newer resorts that are up to the competition: Mauna Lani, Waikoloa and Hualalai.

Oahu: Though this is Hawaii's epicenter of commerce, politics and population, the island has only two resorts. Both are well-practiced in giving great service to demanding customers. Ko Olina annually hosts the National Football League all-stars during Pro Bowl week. Turtle Bay, recently renovated, hosts the players of the Champions Tour for the Turtle Bay Championship.

Kauai: The Princeville Resort combines great architecture and the beauty of nature -- on two Robert Trent Jones Jr. courses and at the Princeville Hotel and various villas. If you're looking for opulence, it's Kauai Lagoons, which offers two courses. At Poipu Bay, the course that hosts the PGA Grand Slam and the adjacent Hyatt Regency hotel and spa are so good, well, no wonder Tiger Woods was bummed about not winning a major in 2003.

Lanai: Located at 2,000 feel elevation, Koele is often misty and cool. Set above a turquoise bay where dolphins leap, Manele Bay is sunny and Mediterranean. Each has an adjacent course. Just 20 minutes apart by shuttle, they're part of the same world class resort.

Kapalua Golf AcademyBest golf school: The Kapalua Golf Academy boasts 85,000 square feet of grass teeing areas, six practice putting greens, an 18-hole Hale Irwin-designed putting course, fairway and greenside practice bunkers, eight target greens and a short-game practice area. Indoors there's a golf-specific workout room and the holy-of-holies, the computerized video analysis bay. Three lessons here from head teaching pro Jerry King changed not just my swing, but my life - both for the better.

Best course you can play: Unlike the Mainland, Hawaii's best courses tend to be public access. In fact, of the five courses that currently host PGA or Champions Tour events and the 12 courses that have hosted those tours and the LPGA, all but two are open to public play. Maui: the Plantation Course at Kapalua annually hosts the Mercedes Championship in January and the Gold Course at Wailea hosts the Champions Skins Game later in January. The Bay Course at Kapalua previously hosted the Kapalua International and World Cup, Kaanapali North hosted the Champions Tour and World Cup, the Blue Course at Wailea hosted the LPGA.

Big Island: Hualalai is host to the Champions MasterCard Championship. Mauna Lani hosted the Senior Skins for a decade, the Beach Course at Kona CC hosted the LPGA, and Mauna Kea was the site of memorable Big Three (Palmer, Nicklaus, Player) battles on Shell's Wonderful World of Golf.

Ko OlinaOahu: the Palmer Course at Turtle Bay hosts the Champions Tour Turtle Bay Championship in October. The Fazio Course at Turtle Bay hosted the Senior Skins Game (Sam Snead played here!), and both Ko Olina and Kapolei hosted the LPGA.

Kauai: Poipu Bay hosts the winners of the four majors in the PGA Grand Slam in December. Kiele at Kauai Lagoons previously hosted the Grand Slam and for years Princeville Makai hosted the LPGA.

Best course, period: I love Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s Prince Course at Princeville on Kauai, which many have rated No. 1 in Hawaii. My problem with it is the two closing holes are so anticlimactic after the previous 16.

A great course needs memorable closing holes. My pick for Hawaii's No. 1 is Jack Nicklaus' Kiele at Kauai Lagoons. Great seaside holes, including the par-3 13th from promontory to promontory, lots of option golf and a bear of a closer - uphill into the trade winds, OB left, lake right and a peninsula green. The Prince hangs in at No. 2, Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s classic Mauna Kea on the Big Island is No. 3, Robin Nelson's new Puakea on Kauai is No. 4 and the Palmer Course at Turtle Bay on Oahu is No. 5. So three of the top four are on the Garden Isle.

Royal KuniaRounding out the top 15: Ko'olau, Ko Olina and Royal Kunia on Oahu; Kapalua's Bay Course, Wailea Gold, Makena North and the Dunes at Maui Lani on Maui; Waikoloa Kings Course, Mauna Lani South and Big Island CC on Hawaii Island.

Toughest course: Ko'olau on Oahu, a Dick Nugent/Jack Tuthill. Set at the windward base of the sheer, green Ko'olau Range, this is both beauty and beast. It was once called the toughest course in the U.S., but new owners have eased up a bit, grassing in several sand bunkers, and macheteing back the jungle that surrounds fairways. Not much they can do, though, about the 10 forced carries of at least 110 yards. The par-4 18th requires two carries of at least 200 yards. Other tough guy tracks include The Prince on Kauai and the Palmer Course at Turtle Bay on Oahu.

Robin NelsonBest local architect: Though Robin Nelson recently relocated to the San Francisco area, he worked out of Honolulu for 20 years while building courses from France to China, and created masterpieces at home: the Dunes at Maui Lani and Sandalwood (since closed) on Maui; a new 18 at Mauna Lani and the back nine of the Mountain Course at Kona CC on the Big Island, and Royal Kunia, Coral Creek, New Ewa CC and West Loch Muni on Oahu.

Biggest distraction: Humpback whales leaping and splashing in your field of vision as you're lining up a putt. When the Ladies Kemper Open was played at Wailea, several LPGA players got warnings for slow play because they kept stopping to watch the 20-ton humpbacks frolic.

Best 19th hole: After putting out at Ko Olina, enjoy a chilled beverage from the bar above the babbling waterfall that cascades beside the 18th green and watch other golfers play an approach shot of at least 125 yards over water to a dramatic two-tier green. Now that's entertainment!

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.

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