“Ready to get beat up today?”
Those were the prophetic words from Steve Pike, a fellow golf writer and member of my foursome as we exchanged greetings near the first tee of what is arguably Maui’s most famous golf course -– the Plantation Course at Kapalua. I confidently responded that I was ready. Of course, Steve wasn’t the one preparing to hit me in the face -- the course would inflict all the damage on this day.
The PGA Tour will swing through the 7,411-yard, par-73 Plantation on Jan. 5-8 for its annual season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, and the track was tournament-ready during my visit –- and so was the clubhouse grill, the Plantation House Restaurant. If you’re ever fortunate enough to hit the Plantation, arrive early so you can try their eggs Benedict breakfast special and hit a few putts on the practice green near the first tee. Those greens aren’t easy. More on this shortly. Standing on the tee at No. 1, I found a straightaway par 4 with the Pacific in the background, but there’s also a ravine jutting into the right side of the fairway that isn’t visible from the tee box. This ravine gobbled up what I thought was a solid drive, producing Lost Ball No. 1 on the day.
The carnage can pile up quickly.
The par-3 second hole usually plays into a cross-wind, and even though the green looked inauspicious from the tee box, it runs hard left-to-right thanks to the grain and breeze. No. 3 is an uphill, blind tee shot. No. 4 is straight into the wind. Come to think of it, I don’t think I saw the same wind direction on consecutive holes, which added to the challenge, frustration, and overall Plantation experience. (Let’s face it, playing Plantation with no wind would be like playing St. Andrews with no rain.) One thing that does remain consistent from hole to hole is the dramatic landscape. Ocean views, lush forests and deep, rugged ravines are the common setting. But those greens were murder on my scorecard. Let me put it this way: At the Plantation Course it’s very possible that an uphill putt that’s downwind and downgrain moves faster than the comebacker straight down the hill. It’s an optical illusion that can mess with your head.
Because of the views, perfect landscaping, lost balls and mountain of three-putts, the whole experience was probably the most enjoyable miserable round of golf I’ve ever had, if that makes sense. By the time I reached 18, I was wind-burned and tired and had given birth to a unique putting problem I dubbed “green yips,” where I lost all belief in my ability to read a putt of any length. But at 18, I did summon the perfect blend of confidence and stupidity to play the hole from the tips. From there, it’s the longest hole on the PGA Tour at 663 yards. Here’s my tee shot. Upon arriving at my ball, the cart GPS said I had 326 yards left, which meant my drive sailed and rolled 337 yards –- about 70 yards farther than my average drive. It helped that the fairway is essentially a ski slope, and at a course filled with memorable moments, that famous finishing hole truly is the best. I reached the green in regulation, then –- wait for it -- three-putted from 20 feet for a bogey.
Golf is the main attraction in Kapalua, but there are also great spots to grab a bite within minutes of the Kapalua Golf Villas, my comfortable, condo-style accommodations at this stop. The Pineapple Grill is adjacent to the Bay Course –- the second of the two championship courses at the Resort -- and if you don’t order the pineapple upside-down cake at a place called Pineapple Grill, I can’t help you. There’s also a great sushi joint called Sansei right in the town square that has daily specials and was made somewhat famous in 2011 when Ben Crane and Ryan Palmer's karaoke endeavor hit YouTube. The Honolua Store is the resort’s only grocery store, but the prices are reasonable, and it doubles as a restaurant with a budget-friendly lunch.
Then there’s the Kapalua Spa, an off-the-charts luxurious spot that’s frequented by the Tour pros and their wives during the event. If you enjoy relaxing in a horizon pool overlooking the ocean and having a rubdown as a Pacific breeze rustles the palms, you might find this spot worth a stop. The Bay Course, which hosted an LPGA event in 2008, is not as famous as Plantation, but it is no slouch. Like the Wailea courses, it offers plenty of “visual hazards,” especially on the oceanside par-4 fourth and par-3 fifth holes. On this morning, there were a few sea turtles bobbing around in the water below the fifth tee, and I was also informed that the stately home next to the fifth green belongs to none other than NBC golf announcer Mark Rolfing. (You can see it on the left side of the photo at right.) Mark Rolfing: I envy you. And yes, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.
Anyway, while Plantation heaps abuse on players of all abilities, the Bay Course is much tamer and also offers a set of uber-forward tees dubbed the “Bay Express” that cuts the course down to 1,700 yards and makes a nice option for seniors, juniors and tourists in a hurry. Before skipping town for the next island stop, I swung by the Kapalua Golf Academy to meet head teaching professional Jerry King. The high-energy instructor is one of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers, and if he ever decides to give up teaching golf, he could probably run for mayor of Kapalua. I stopped in just to say hello, but when I casually mentioned that my golf game was in a death spiral, he quickly said, “Let me see your action!” and proceeded to offer a few simple tips as I flailed away at a tee station. King’s mantra is to “train it dramatic,” which means overemphasizing each step until it becomes secondhand –- and it’s a fitting expression given that his school sits on a hill with a dramatic view of the Pacific. King also gave me a tip for reading those grainy, island greens that was so good I thought you might like to see it, too. With that, we’re off to the next stop. Watch out for those three-putts, America. More from Maui coming soon. - Part I: Solid Gold at Grand Wailea - Part III: Kaanapali and the legend of Tommy Tang (Photos: Jeff Ritter, Kapalua Resort)