There's only one island in the world where your two playing partners for the round could be a head pro named Sutee and a former fire-dancing Samoan named Fa’a. And it’s the same place where you can get ice cold Tang from an 85-year-old Japanese man nicknamed Tommy Tang.
The place? Maui. The layout? The Royal Course at Ka’anapali.
On the coldest winter day back home, Maui is the place to dream about. The weather, the palm tree-lined fairways, the fresh fish dinners (try the monchong) and the Kona Longboard Lager(s). You get the picture. But where to begin?
Start at the former playground of Hawaiian kings: Ka’anapali. Roughly a 40-minute drive from Kahului International airport, this resort underwent a $13 million renovation five years ago and is still reaping the benefits (not the least of which was a Big Break season and an ongoing Senior Skins game). The par-71, 6,700-yard Royal Course, which turns 50 years old in 2012, is all you want from resort golf: wide fairways, just tough enough greens, elevation changes, ocean views (especially on the par-4 No. 5) and plenty of fun. The adjacent Kai Course, a par-70, 6,400-yard design, can get a little tighter off the tee but has plenty of ocean views too. A great view of both courses can be had by staying on an upper floor of the Hyatt Regency (ask for Fa’a there), one of a number of hotels lining the beachfront.
A 15-minute drive north will bring you to the famed Kapalua Resort area. The Bay Course here is more than a decent warm-up track, but if you have traveled this far, you have to play the Plantation Course. The Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The huge size of the property, the spacing of the holes and the long-distance views to the islands of Lanai and Molokai combine for an overwhelming experience. As for the golf itself, you will likely be playing in the wind, dealing with uneven lies and struggling with aggressive grain both on and off the putting surface.
“Knowing how your ball will react both approaching and on the green is very important to scoring lower and having an overall more enjoyable experience,” says Jerry King, director of instruction at the Kapalua Golf Academy.
It’s quiet up here on the northwest corner of the island, but there’s still plenty to do. Make sure you get breakfast (try the famous “Hobo,” with meat, eggs and rice) and souvenirs at Kapalua’s Honolua Store, which dates back to 1929. Paddle board some of the calmest waters in Hawaii around West Maui or take on some of the lightest to most aggressive surf breaks for all levels. Get a sunset drink on the deck overlooking the ocean at Merriman’s (dinner there is equally memorable) or head to the Pineapple Grill at The Bay Course, home of the aforementioned monchong and an incredible upside down Pineappple Cake.
After that dinner, you’ll be well fortified for the hour drive to the southern end of Maui, destination Wailea. Rusty Hathaway, head pro at the Emerald and Gold courses, has worked here for 33 years. “My wife and I are from Alaska,” he says. “We got married and spent our honeymoon here. Fell in love with Maui, moved and the rest is history.” Smart man, that Rusty.
He defines the two courses thusly: “The Gold is masculine (lots of bunkers, length and lava rock that leads to some interesting bounces) while the Emerald is more feminine (more flowers, shorter, women-friendly). His two favorite holes on the Gold, the opener and closer, both tumble downward to their respective greens, while his preferred trio on the Emerald (holes 1, 4 and 18) more than hold their own. An uphill driving range is right behind the clubhouse, but take a lesson from Rusty and he may just bring you up to the top, where you get a spectacular ocean view and impossibly long hang time on shots.
Just down the road is Wailea’s original course, the Old Blue, which is highlighted by another memorable view at the crest of the No. 4 fairway and the par-3 finishing hole. Perhaps even better news is having an Irish Pub called Mulligan’s (with properly poured pints of Guinness and stellar reggae music) right next to the small clubhouse.
While no one will confuse the courses on this island with those of St. Andrews in Scotland, one man can provide a unique perspective on both: Charles Head, former general manager of the Fairmont St. Andrews Bay, who transferred to the same position at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea late last year.
“Both destinations have incredibly warm and welcoming people and a great sense of hospitality,” says the avid golfer. “Though I will admit there are a lot more differences than similarities. The golf is almost an entirely different game — more target golf in Maui, completely different playing surface, and the ‘grain’ on the greens in Maui drove me crazy for a while. I don’t miss the gorse. I’ll take palm trees over gorse any time.”
Not only is the game different here; so is the lifestyle. If your heart rate doesn’t slow a few beats after spending some time here, or if you insist on keeping your score religiously, you’ve come to the wrong island.
Just listen to Jerry King, who moved here 15 years ago. “Even though I am such a type-A always going at full speed, it was pretty easy to ‘get it’ and slow it down a notch right off the bat,” he says. “That is the beauty of living in Hawaii, especially in Maui at Kapalua. It’s such a special place that it immediately has a positive and calming effect on everyone who visits or that is fortunate enough to move here.”
And if you don’t believe him, just ask Sutee or Fa’a.