Courses and Travel

Kauai Golf Beauty Lies in its Landscape

Photo: Evan Schiller

The 12th hole at Puakea is a 397-yard par 4

With postcard views of the Pacific and the soaring cliffs surrounding Mount Haupu, century-old former sugar plantation Grove Farm provided an ideal setting for a golf course. Construction of Puakea ("white flower" in Hawaiian) was well past the halfway point when disaster struck.

In 1992, Hurricane Iniki ravaged the garden island. Damage estimates topped $2 billion. In the face of physical and financial ruin, the course sat like a toy left out in the rain, until new owners opened a 10-hole track in 1997. In 2000, Hawaii native Steve Case, former chairman of AOL Time Warner (which owns GOLF MAGAZINE), purchased the property and gave its designer, Robin Nelson, the green light to finish the job.

Puakea opened in July, finally a course in full. Instead of tacking eight new holes onto the existing 10, Nelson smartly wove them through the course (par 72, 6,954 yards, 73.3 Course Rating, 135 Slope).

Wind is always in play and usually blows left to right at the 3rd hole, a 407-yard par 4 with a lake along the left side and behind the green. "People play their tee shots over the right-hand fairway bunker only to find there is not much room there," says club pro Kellie Pleas, Hawaii's lone female PGA head professional.

The first par 3, the 180-yard 4th, plays into the teeth of the wind. When the hole is cut behind a spiderlike front-right bunker, it is practically impossible to attack. The 6th is another testy par 3, 176 yards downhill over water to a shallow green.

Then the fun starts. Holes 9 and 10 are new, and while the former, a 438-yard par 4, comes with a less-than-picturesque view of the Kukui Grove shopping center, most golfers will be too consumed to notice: The number-one handicap hole will have their complete attention. The 12th and 13th holes are back-to-back beauties: a 397-yard par 4 featuring mango trees skirting a tranquil pond, followed by a 228-yarder that plays between the pond and a hillside favored by wild chickens. The 14th tee boasts Puakea's best ocean view, past Nawiliwili Harbor and Kalapaki Bay (try saying that three times fast), not to mention fairway bunkers resembling massive dinosaur prints. They're appropriate -- Steven Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park just next door.

The beauty of Kauai lies in its lush landscape. Stop and sample the zesty scent wafting from the lemon gum eucalyptus trees along hole 17 and spy the vibrant orange blossom of the African tulip trees that frame the 18th green.

And Another Thing...

A second Nelson course, this one on Oahu, made an overdue debut this spring. Nelson finished Royal Kunia Country Club in 1993, after it spent a decade as one big, unplayable lie. The club was mired in controversy over a $25 million impact fee levied by the Honolulu mayor's office as part of a law intended to curb runaway golf expansion. A compromise with new owners in 2002 paved the way for golfers to get the royal treatment at last. The course (par 72, 7,007 yards, 73.5 Course Rating, 132 Slope) sits high above Pearl Harbor and offers commanding views of the Pacific, Honolulu and Diamond Head -- most notably from the tee at the 432-yard 3rd hole.

A redistribution of yardage would have given Royal Kunia better balance. Its four par 3s play about 200 yards, par 5s at holes 9 and 10 stretch 600-plus yards each, and the par 4s average less than 400 yards. But anyone complaining about golf in this tropical paradise has bigger issues.

He's No Don Ho

"I'd like to shed my nickname, 'Mr. Hawaii,' " says course designer Robin Nelson. He means no disrespect to the Aloha State, where he lived for 18 years and has designed or remodeled a third of the state's 90-odd courses. But "Mr. Universe" may be more apt. Over his 30-year career, the California-based Nelson, 52, has crafted courses in 10 foreign countries and five U.S. states. Still, he has never stayed away for long. "Hawaii is in my heart," says Nelson. "But I have to be honest: I only own a couple of Hawaiian shirts."

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