By Ted McIntyre
When Captain James Cook’s landing party came ashore on the island of Kauai on January 20, 1778, they discovered a most curious thing: people. For, by all logic, nobody should have been there at the time. At just under 4,000 kms from the nearest appreciable landmass (California), Hawaii accounts for the most remote islands on earth. It’s believed, as unlikely an excursion as it was, that the first migration arrived from Polynesia’s Marquesas islands as early as 300 A.D. Without any charts, they somehow navigated—and survived—3,700 kms of unpredictable ocean to arrive at this remote string in the Central Pacific.
My somewhat more uneventful excursion consisted of back-to-back five-and-a-half-hour flights—from Toronto to Los Angeles to Kahului Airport in Maui. While Hawaii’s “Valley Island” is home to such esteemed courses as the Dunes at Maui Lani, Ka’anapali’s Kai and Royal courses, as well as a trio of exceptional layouts at Wailea, it’s the Plantation Course at Kapalua that’s the true jewel in the crown.
Part of a huge master-planned resort community in the northwest corner Maui and home to the PGA Tour’s annual Hyundai Tournament of Champions, the Plantation course sits within a 23,000-acre property of working pineapple plantations, surrounded by two huge nature preserves, with commanding westward ocean views to the neighbouring islands of Molokai and Lanai.
Although dramatic at every turn, routing the course along fingers of land that trace up and down the West Maui mountainside and skirt multiple ravines and ancient lava flows was no mean feat for the vaunted design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Faced with the sheer size of the property, they built the Plantation Course on a big scale—expansive fairways up to 90 yards wide in spots, with sprawling bunkers and greens the size of Olympic swimming pools. But those protective features were also necessitated by the strength of the trade winds and Kapalua’s heaving slopes, not to mention the dreaded, choking kikuyu grass that swallows balls missing those big fairways.
Consequently, this is far from target golf—it requires thought, imagination and the aptitude to play the ball low when the elements call for it. It also demands a rhythmic swing, as you’ll be regularly tested by the wind and the variety of uphill/downhill/sidehill stances that are sure to accompany your game.
Accompanying my May 24 visit, however, was something rare indeed: barely a breath of a breeze. After a 15-minute drive north of the Sheraton at Ka’anapali in Lahaina, I found myself compelled to stop my rental car halfway up the Plantation Course entrance to take in the view. It looked as though God had, amid a violent hurricane, frozen a boiling sea and turned it green. Even the driving range was memorable. Draped by forest, it sat in the early morning sun as silent as the grave, and every contact I made as the solo player on the teeing ground sounded like a gunshot, while even the distant thump of the ball landing was clearly audible.
But that just sets the stage for the first tee shot. With a downward view across hundreds of acres and the Pacific in the distance, the plunging opening hole will traditionally leave a mid-iron forced carry over a gorge for your approach, with little room for error. But the true drama begins at No. 5, a potentially reachable par-5 that doglegs right, skirting a deep canyon of foliage that yields jaw-dropping views of the next three holes.
No. 6 leads with a blind tee shot (aim to the right of the bunker atop the fairway). The second shot plays at least two full clubs less, as it dives down a steep ramp of fairway toward the green, with the entire fairway canting hard from left to right. Continuing the run toward the sea, the dogleg-right tee shot at par-4 7th is the most intimidating—and deceiving—at Kapalua. Cutting over a small national park’s worth of dense underbrush, there looks to be about 10 feet to land you tee ball, but there’s actually an ocean of fairway to the left of your perceived target line. That’s followed by a scenic gem of a par-3 over a valley to a well-protected green that falls sharply from back to front.
If the ocean view there is sufficiently arresting, try the short par-3 11th overlooking Honolua Bay, site of a women’s surfing tour stop in December.
By the time I reached the green of the almost drivable par-4 14th, the West Maui mountains had finally relented to the encroaching clouds. The remainder of the morning would be contested beneath steel grey overcast, but it was no less spellbinding—from the elegant par-5 15th, which slingshots right and slightly uphill to a sloping greensite, to the very long, very punishing, dogleg-left par-4 17th, with a gorge short and left of the putting surface.
Then came the epic finale, ingrained in my memory from its regular TV coverage during the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Despite the fact that it tumbles downhill from tee to green, without the heavy trade wind at my back, its 585 yards (from the regular tees!) felt as long as an inter-island flight as I tried desperately to avoid the ravine that runs all the way down the left side.
Perched in the Plantation House restaurant afterward, a staff member informed me that the club has brought back a caddie program that disappeared seven years ago. But I was too distracted to take in the details as I gazed out toward the sea and caught a few holes of Kapalua’s Bay course, a 1973 Arnold Palmer design.
“The sun won’t set for six hours,” I figured. “Plenty of time!”
Standard rates of $278 US (plus tax) for the Plantation and $208 (plus tax) for the Bay course ($228/$188 if you’re staying at the Ritz or in the Kapalua villas).
Where to Stay: The Sheraton at Ka’anapali Resort in Lahaina (the impeccably conditioned Ka’anapali GC, is another must-play if you’re in the area. And check out the Sheraton’s daily sunset cliff-dive ceremony.) Sheraton-Maui.com
Maui Tourism: GoHawaii.com/Maui
Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours – www.bluehawaiian.com