Kauai is the Garden Island. Maui is the Valley Island. Hawaii is the Big Island, and Oahu–well, Oahu is the Layover Island, with most seasoned travelers using Honolulu Airport as a hub on their way to a more authentic Hawaiian vibe on the other lush rocks in the mid-Pacific. But while Waikiki may deserve its rep as a tourist trap, Oahu gets a bad rap. Surfers know the north shore is Lani (heaven), and golfers should take note: The Turtle Bay Resort on the island’s northernmost tip has completed a $60 million renovation that promises a real island experience right here on Oahu.
The north shore is an hour’s drive from Waikiki, but the two destinations are as different as China and Chinatown. Pineapple and sugar plantations once dominated the landscape between the steep Punamano Mountains and the blue Pacific. For ages, migrating humpback whales had the waters between Kuilima Point and Waimea Bay pretty much to themselves during the winter when the thundering surf produced taboo waves, mountains of water three stories tall that were thought to be unrideable.
That was until a merry band of ’60s surf bums conquered Waimea, and its leader Greg “Da Bull” Noll achieved legend status by catching the biggest wave ever.
In 1972, Del Webb opened a resort on Kuilima Point that went on to fly the flags of Hyatt and then Hilton before its current incarnation as Turtle Bay Resort. More impressive than the $60 million investment are the resort’s 880 acres and 5.5 miles of coastline. The aforementioned overhaul, completed in December 2003, added a new spa, spruced up the 401 rooms and suites and 42 luxe beach cottages–each sporting an ocean view–and breathed desperately needed new life into the only resort on Oahu with 36 holes of tournament-caliber golf.
The Fazio Course (George, not Tom) debuted with the original Del Webb resort and played host to Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Sam Snead and Chi Chi Rodriguez in the inaugural Senior Skins Game in 1988. Four years later, the back nine closed to accommodate construction of a new Arnold Palmer-Ed Seay track, but money matters hampered the reopening of the full Fazio–for 10 years. Back now with an all-new inward nine, the Fazio is the friendlier of the two courses: fairly flat with ample greens, back tees measuring 6,535 yards and bunkers that are as lenient as a favorite uncle.
Mid-irons are all that’s required at any par 3 (the longest is 180 yards), and the toughest holes are a pair of par 5s, Nos. 7 and 10, marked at 544 and 502 yards, respectively. Doglegs and OB stakes make you think twice about unleashing the heavy metal, particularly at the tantalizing 277-yard, par-4 14th, but the steel-wool-wiry rough is really the biggest worry. Still, when the trade winds blow–at times upwards of 35 mph–all bets are off.
Recommended options for post-round relaxation are the Kukui & Macadamia Nut oil massage at the new Spa Luana or one (or more) of bartender Diane’s mai tais at Lei Lei’s next to the pro shop. Lei Lei’s serves up the best golf club grub on this or any island–save for the Spam sushi. It’s so good that locals come to the resort to eat.
The Palmer Course is in danger of being nicknamed the Irwin Course given that Hale has won all three Turtle Bay Championships since the Champions Tour started coming here in 2001. The tournament has moved from October to a better late-January slot this year that should draw a stronger field of players on the heels of the MasterCard Championships, and come February the resort will also host a new LPGA event.
The course bends like a horseshoe around the 100-acre Punaho’olapa Marsh. Following a linksy front side, the back nine delves deep into a jungle. Hard to know what kind of mood the usually affable Arnie was in when he sketched this track because there are some spots where the design can be so punitive they ought to add a penal-code page to the yardage book. Like the first hole, where a sumo-size banyan tree blocks the corner on a sharp dogleg-right. And the second, with big boulders in the fairway bunker. And the third, a par 5 with a sneaky bunker not visible from the fairway set smack where you think you want to hit your third shot. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
Neither course at Turtle Bay has a postcard hole that plays along the Pacific like Mauna Kea, Mauna Lani or Manele Bay, but teeing off through a gauntlet of ironwoods at the 452-yard 17th and staring down an approach backed by the light blue sky and deep blue ocean, you’d swear you were anywhere but here–just as Turtle Bay promised.