Golfing in Paradise

Extensive renovations at Makai Golf Club and the Prince Course offer an unmatched experience like no other, but that’s par for the course.
By Rob Duca
 Is it plausible to improve upon perfection, to craft a flawless, enchanting piece of land into something even more magical? The thought of renovating two of Hawaii’s most captivating golf courses might seem foolhardy. That is, until you stroll the seductive fairways of the Makai Golf Club and the Prince Course at Princeville, both set on the extraordinary north shore of the island of Kauai.This pair of Robert Trent Jones Jr. designs has consistently been honored by golf and travel publications across the world for their exceptional beauty and breathtaking challenges. They remain a magnificent golfing experience, now enhanced by a multitude of improvements that will leave visitors spellbound.

The legendary Makai Golf Club, lauded by National Geographic on its list of Top 5 Great Golf Settings, reopened in 2010 following a $6 million renovation. Originally opened in 1971, the Ocean and Lakes courses were combined to form an 18-hole championship layout, with the nine-hole Woods course set aside for golfers seeking a more casual round. The result is a 7,223-yard par-72 tour de force that blends astonishing panoramic views of Bali Hai and Hanalei Bay with steep elevation changes and fairways that wind around tranquil lakes and through native woodlands.

Major alterations were made to the famed course, beginning with the introduction of seashore paspalum turf grass on all tees, fairways and greens, resulting in a more durable grass that allows for quicker greens and a variety of options when chipping and putting. The changes also gave Jones the opportunity to reconfigure the greens and the surrounding areas with additional undulations and definition.

Bunkers were boldly reshaped and filled with G-3 silica sand, while a fourth tee box was added on all holes. The practice facility was upgraded with the completion of two new practice tees, a fairway bunker, seven target greens with bunkers, a teaching tee, a short game practice complex and an expanded putting green.

Thrilling Holes

The par-3 third and seventh holes of Makai remain a timeless experience of uncompromising splendor. The 181-yard third hole, which sits next to the elegant St. Regis Princeville Resort, features a precipitous 100-foot drop from the tee to a green fronted by a lake, with eye-catching views of Hanalei Bay and the north shore’s mountains framing the backdrop. The 213-yard seventh is arguably Hawaii’s preeminent hole in terms of demand and grandeur. The tee shot, a spot from which golfers gaze upon Bali Hai, the bay and Mount Makana, requires a white-knuckle drive over a 160-foot ravine to a green fronted by a cliff of tropical vegetation.

“This is it. This is the reason to play here. Golfers get a little bit of everything,” says Alex Nakajima, general manager at the Makai Golf Club.

The 13th and 18th holes offer alternative challenges. On the par-3 13th, a shot of 174 yards into stiff trade winds must carry a steep ravine. The Pacific Ocean lies beyond the hole, offering glimpses of humpback whales and soaring albatross. The par-5 closing hole requires golfers to negotiate on successive shots over a lake before reaching a shallow green.

Robert Trent Jones Jr.

“People can’t believe it’s the same golf course,” Nakajima says. “We cleared out a lot of the vegetation and made the course cleaner. And Jones’ architectural changes are stunning. The beauty of the property has been enhanced. That’s why people come here and think it’s a brand new golf course.”

Royal Treatment

Similar praise is being heaped upon the Prince Course, which reopened in March 2012 following a $5 million, 13-month renovation. Jones, who returned to tweak his original 1990 design, says, “The prince got the royal treatment it deserves.”

Like Makai Golf Club, the Prince Course was rebuilt using seashore paspalum grass. Tee boxes were renovated or added, bunkers were given fiber mesh liners and buff-colored white silica sand to blend in with the luxuriant surroundings, and several holes now boast up to nine tee boxes. Bunkers that once suffered from poor drainage are softer and easier to play from. The grainy-looking sand has been replaced by a clean, clear appearance. Fairways now resemble lush, emerald green carpets, while putting surfaces roll smooth and true.

Most significantly, site lines were opened up and fairways were widened by cutting back on the encroaching jungle. “We’ve made it more player friendly,” says T.J. Baggett, general manager of the Princeville Golf Club. “We’re mowing the fairways differently to make it easier by cutting them right up to the tees, eliminating forced carries through rough.

“But what makes this property unique is that it’s laid right into the land,” he continues. “It’s really a unique golf experience.”

Many consider the Prince to be the most strikingly beautiful golf course in the world. Nearly every hole features a spine-tingling ocean view. Holes are designed on top of ridge lines and surround a jungle gorge, creating dips into valleys and glittering vistas from 300 feet above the Pacific Ocean that make it difficult for even the most passionate golfer to remain totally focused on the task at hand.

The compelling 215-yard seventh hole is a masterpiece of exquisite beauty and challenge. The tee shot plays over a coastal ravine with views of the beach below. The 390-yard 12th is a noteworthy three-story drop from tee to green and requires a precise drive to a tree-lined fairway. The 13th hole, a par-4 of 432 yards, finishes with a 30-foot waterfall behind the green.

By definition, perfection is “the quality of something that is as good or suitable as it can possibly be.” But along Kauai’s enthralling north shore, the Makai Golf Club and the Prince Course have managed to defy that characterization.

“Come see the new golf in Kauai,” Baggett says. “Everything is new and changed for the better.”

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