Every January, when wintry weather grips many parts of the country, the eyes of the golf world turn to Maui for the PGA Tour’s winners-only event at the Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course.
The visuals from Hawaii’s lush valley isle are breathtaking, especially for those whose home courses are buried in snow, and those gorgeous views are a 12-month occurrence in Maui (except for maybe the seasonal visits of humpback whales off the coast).
“Maui No Ka Oi” is an old Hawaiian saying that means “Maui Is The Best.” Once you make the trip, it’s a meaning that becomes abundantly clear.
Maui is a favorite of many Hawaii visitors, boasting more miles of accessible beach than any of the state’s other islands, a wealth of spectacular resorts, restaurants and shopping, and the world’s largest dormant volcano in Haleakala.
There’s so much to see and do: snorkeling, whale watching, boat and helicopter tours, surfing, paddle-boarding, ziplines, trail rides, biking down Haleakala after sunrise, driving the winding road to Hana, swimming in waterfalls, experiencing luaus or just relaxing poolside with a tropical drink in hand.
But Maui is also home to don’t-miss golf.
Often a tack-on activity for those on a Hawaiian honeymoon or a vacation, the golf in Maui deserves prominent billing of its own.
About 10 miles north of the quaint but bustling harbor town of Lahaina, the rugged Plantation Course tumbles down the side of a mountain at the Kapalua Resort, boasting views of the ocean and neighboring islands from every hole. In addition to being the home of the Sentry Tournament of Champions, this is the course that helped launch the design career of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, two of the most preeminent golf architects in the game today.
Built on a former pineapple field, the lush Plantation Course features major elevation changes and deep ravines. It also recently underwent a massive renovation project to make it play firmer and faster – like Maui’s top layout originally did when it first opened in 1991.
For many golfers making the long trip to Maui, the Plantation Course is their first choice because it’s the one that is seen on TV every January. It’s a rare par-73 layout that features wide fairways and generous greens. The elevation changes make for some great downhill tee shots, too. None are more inviting and memorable than the final two holes, especially the par-5 18th with its ski slope-like traverse to a green backed by water and the neighboring islands.
The Bay Course is the second layout at Kapalua and this fun design from Arnold Palmer and Francis Duane has some true oceanfront holes. While the Plantation Course has views aplenty from its mountainside elevation, the shorter Bay Course plays down to and alongside the coastline. The 16th and 17th holes are particularly memorable, the latter a par 3 that plays over a cove with crashing surf to a green perched atop an oceanside bluff. It’s not uncommon to have a few tourists watching the scenic tee shots here and if you hit a good one, the audience for your birdie putt might include Mark Rolfing, the Golf Channel personality known as “Mr. Hawaii” whose residence has one of the game’s greatest views overlooking the 17th green.
Closer to Lahaina, near the three-mile stretch of Ka’anapali Beach and its eponymous resort, are two more popular golf stops: the Royal Ka’anapali Course designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1962 and the slightly younger, shorter Ka’anapali Kai Course.
The islands of Lanai and Molokai are visible as players make their way around the Royal Ka’anapali course, which features historical plaques on each tee that share the history and stories of the area – sacred land that was once home to the Royal Chiefs of Maui. The Royal Course offers room off the tee, like a good resort course should, but will challenge golfers with well-protected greens that put a premium on a solid approach game. The Kai course begins oceanside before taking players on a journey into the foothills of the West Maui Mountains.
Wailea’s 54 holes
For those visitors staying further south, near Wailea and Kihei, the Wailea Golf Club is home to three award-winning courses – not to mention the ever-present sunshine and gorgeous views that Maui is known for.
The Gold Course at Wailea is the showpiece, having hosted the Champions Skins Game from 2001 through 2007, and has a strategic design from Robert Trent Jones Jr. that takes advantage of the rugged terrain’s natural undulations. Risk-reward opportunities abound, as do many low lava rock walls that were built by early Hawaiians and add to the course’s charm.
The Emerald Course is lushly landscaped, another scenic and challenging design from Trent Jones Jr. that’s ranked as one of Hawaii’s most female-friendly layouts. The Blue is the oldest of the Wailea courses, an Arthur Jack Snyder creation that opened in 1972 and climbs through the foothills at the base of Mt. Haleakala, offering both ocean and volcano views.
Along with multiple courses, all of the resorts above offer package deals for those who play multiple rounds – from the Champion’s Player Package at Kapalua to the Seahorse Swing at Wailea.
The magical weather
One of Hawaii’s many beauties is the consistency of the weather. With abundant sun and temperatures regularly in the 80s, the weather is almost always perfect for golf. The lies at Maui’s lush courses always seem to be equally ideal.
There’s undoubtedly a lot to do and see on Maui, but do not sleep on the golf. It’s the embodiment of an escape: soothing breezes, lush greenery, vibrant colors, ocean views, mountain surrounds, rustling coconut fronds, tropical bird calls… and of course the high-end courses.
- Take pictures. Lots of them.
- But don’t feel like you have to take your golf clubs. Given that these are resort courses, all will have top-of-the-line equipment offerings if you want to travel lighter.
- Grab some logo apparel at Kapalua. The subtle combination of the butterfly and the pineapple is one of the best, and most iconic, you’ll find.
- Keep an eye on any snacks in your golf cart. Whether birds or some of the island’s feral cats, you could be picked clean while lining up that birdie putt.
- Speaking of snacks, here are two words for you: spam musubi. If you’re going for something grab-and-go at the turn, skip the hotdog and see if spam musubi is an option. You’ll thank us later.
- In many cases, don’t worry if it starts raining. As the locals will tell you, that’s liquid sunshine. And it will likely blow out as quickly as it came.
- Take a day trip to Lanai. Even if you’re not playing golf.
- Hop a ferry from downtown Lanai and cruise across the channel to the neighboring island. It’s a relatively quick and scenic trip; you might see spinner dolphins, sea turtles, flying fish, or, during certain times of year, whales.
- If you can, play a round at the Manele Golf Course at the Four Seasons Lanai. For anyone who even thinks twice seeing that it’s a Jack Nicklaus-designed course, don’t. This very well might be the most spectacularly fun course that Jack has ever designed. It comes with Four Seasons pricing, but the experience and surrounds are so worth it.
- Plus, if you have the time, inclination and adventurous spirit, you can even take a cab into Lanai City in the center of the island for an unrivaled golf adventure. There, tucked amid tall Cook Pines at the end of a non-descript road is a free-to-play, 9-hole course called Cavendish that was built for the Dole pineapple plantation workers in the 1940s. The course is cared for by locals as well as the island’s management company employed by Lanai’s owner, Oracle founder and billionaire Larry Ellison. While Cavendish is a little rough around the edges, it remains the pride of the local Lanai community. Lucky visitors should hope to treat it as such.