If you’re travelling with golf gear, this beats any ol’ welcome sign.
Flights descending into Lihue Airport on the Hawaiian island of Kauai cruise over Kauai Lagoons Golf Club, showcasing the longest continuous stretch of oceanside holes — four straight stunners stretched across a half-mile of cliff-top scenery — anywhere in the Aloha State.
“Every time I fly in, I try to make sure I’m on the left side of the airplane so I can see it,” said Scott Ashworth, the director of golf at Kauai Lagoons. “It’s a great selling point. We’ve always tried to figure out a way to take more advantage of it so people know what golf course it is when you fly in.”
You might not know the name of the course you’re admiring from above, but you’ll immediately know you picked an eye-pleasing spot for a getaway.
Known as the Garden Isle and accessible via non-stop flights from several West Coast cities, including Vancouver, Seattle and Los Angeles, Kauai is not your garden-variety golf destination.
In fact, when Golf Magazine unveiled its latest list of the best public-access options in each state last year, four Kauai courses — the Prince at Princeville, Princeville Makai Golf Club, Kauai Lagoons and Poipu Bay Golf Course — were ranked among Hawaii’s elite eight. The same courses cracked GolfWeek’s top-10 list, an impressive feat when you consider Kauai is the smallest of Hawaii’s four main islands.
“For four of the top 10 courses to be within an hour and 15 minutes of each other in one state, that’s just unheard of,” said Doug Sutter, an assistant professional and sales manager at Princeville Makai Golf Club.
“We have a lot of great courses, especially for how few we have,” added Steve Murphy, the director of golf at the Prince at Princeville.
“We feel that Kauai has enough fun golf and enough different golf to compete with anywhere.”
The Prince Course at Princeville has often been rated as Hawaii’s best course. With thick jungle framing many of the fairways, the Prince offers up a good mix of intimidation and beauty and, just in case you want to scout it out before your trip, has also been featured on EA Sports’ Tiger Woods PGA Tour video-game series.
Just down the road is the Princeville Makai Golf Club, giving Kauai’s north shore an impressive one-two punch. With several signature holes along the coast and spectacular views of Hanalei Bay, Makai was Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s first solo design and is now one of many award-winning works on his resume.
For more than a decade, Woods and other PGA Tour stars made a trip to Kauai’s south shore for the Grand Slam of Golf, an annual gathering of the four major champions that was hosted at Poipu Bay Golf Course from 1994-2006. You’ll find reminders of Woods’ seven wins on the clubhouse walls, plus proof Phil Mickelson once fired a 59 — shaving 13 strokes off par — at the wind-swept course, which includes a hat-trick of cliff-top holes on the home stretch.
Kauai Lagoons’ link to the legends of the sport is through course architect and 18-time major champ Jack Nicklaus, who returned to oversee an extensive renovation project that included the construction of three brand-new holes on the Ocean Nine that look just as good from ground-level as they do from the sky. Only a five-minute commute from Lihue Airport, it’s an ideal first — or last — stop on your golf itinerary.
Puakea Golf Course is also located in Lihue, and although it doesn’t crack the best-in-state rankings, it’s arguably the most popular 18-hole hangout for locals and also attracts scores of club-toting tourists anxious to see the mountain backdrop used for the filming of Jurassic Park.
Add it all up, and that’s a lot of top-notch golf options on an island with less than 70,000 full-time residents.
“The difference with Kauai is just the amount of people and the serenity of the place,” said Craig Sasada, the director of golf at Poipu Bay Golf Course. “You know how Tiger gets bombarded by people all the time, just because he’s Tiger Woods? When he was here, he was kind of left alone. He was taking normal runs out here. He would go into town and be fine. That’s the part I think he liked here.”
“A lot of people come to Kauai and then keep returning because of what we have to offer and because of the people that live here. We’re very welcoming,” agreed Kellie Hines, a lifelong resident of Kauai and director of golf at Puakea Golf Course. “Kauai is, they say, the oldest island that was formed, and, I don’t know, maybe we have an old soul over here.”
Old soul? Sure.
New turf, too.
Over the past few years, Kauai’s top courses have invested millions to improve their product, transitioning to paspalum grass because it’s best-suited to salt-water surroundings.
The main course at Princeville Makai Golf Club — also home to the Woods Nine — was re-surfaced from tee to green, while the putting surfaces at the Prince and Poipu Bay were also replaced.
The Ocean Nine at 27-hole Kauai Lagoons was closed for more than three years, although the addition of extra seaside holes was worth the wait, and Puakea Golf Course is slowly switching turf, too.
“People are just blown away by the quality of golf now,” Sutter said. “They always loved the views — there was nothing wrong with those — but now, for the avid golfer, they just can’t get enough.
“They’re definitely bringing their clubs and rather than playing two rounds, they’re playing four or five because they want to get to every golf course.”