LIHUE, Hi. – As you fly across the Pacific and begin your descent into Kauai’s Lihue Airport, look out the left side of the aircraft and you’ll see the 13th hole of the Kauai Lagoons golf course.
That’s right about the point in the course where you take off. Where you land it is the tougher proposition.
The final five holes at Lagoons, 14, 15, 16 (pictured above), 17 and 18, are as fun and as challenging as any stretch on the Hawaiian Islands. They’re imaginative and deceptive, fascinating and frustrating.
It begins with perhaps the most beautiful hole between Seattle and Sydney, the par-3, 210-yard 14th. It’s a terrible beauty. You are standing high on a elevated tee box trying to figure where on earth – as opposed to water – you can position your ball.
To the left is the crashing Pacific and a slope of impenetrable scrubs and brush. Should you venture there, no hope of recovery.
To the right is safe, although plenty of slopes and uneven lies await. You might think you’re lucky to land in the trap on the right of the green. Perhaps, but your second shot had better be controlled because you are facing the ocean and any stroke too far and you are over the green’s sharp edge and likely out of play.
Further, most of the time the pin is on the upper tier. If you don’t hit your drive far enough, you’ll roll back onto the lower tier, looking at quite a long putt.
It’s hard to walk away with even a par from this one, but you do take away a mental snapshot of one of the prettiest holes in free world.
The 15th is 473 yards and you won’t believe it’s a par-4. It takes two good pokes and still you may be 50 yards short.
This is a new hole, renovated a couple years ago by the course’s original designer Jack Nicklaus. You might have heard of him. Previously, the course worked its way inland around a condo complex. But Nicklaus keeps the golfers on the ocean’s edge.
“He figured out a way to put another hole right along the ocean,” said Kenneth Kimura, the Lagoons’ Golf Operations Manager. “Everyone loves being next to the ocean in Hawaii. Now you have a whole stretch of ocean holes.”
There are two ways to work the 15th and the right way, for most of us moderate hitters, is to just ride the dogleg right to left down a slope, avoiding trouble on far left. For the big hitter, carrying it down the left side is a shortcut. But the approach will be over an all-carry canyon, with a lake at the bottom, for about 200-plus yards while dealing with swirling winds. That approach takes muscle, precision and steady nerves.
The Lagoons’ signature hole is 16 (aerial picture at the top and to the right), although that’s a bit subjective since there are so many candidates. Standing on the tee you can’t see the green. You hit toward a small lighthouse and the harbor with anchored cruise ships in the distance. To the left is the bay, where the humpbacks play, but block that out. If you hit left it’s only about 170 yards to the cliff’s edge. Stay away from left.
“It’s about 300 yards downwind and the approach is downhill, too,” Kimura said. “You can go for the green there. We’ve had some holes-in-one in the past. What you want to do is a 200-yard shot and try to keep it to the right. Then everything kind of slopes to the left toward the ocean.”
If you hit too far right you might sail over a hill full of coconut trees. Straight is ideal. Straight and long is even better because you may catch the slope that will take you down to the flat area near the green. You can putt from there.
Most golfers settle about 80 to 100 yards short, but likely with a down-slope lie.
“The fairway tapers in and it might be about 10 yards wide (at the green opening),” Kimura said. “The slope is on (the right) side and ocean is on the other side. Even an 80-yard shot is a little intimidating with the ocean in back.”
You have to be careful because a line drive approach could roll across the green and settle either in a deep bunker well below the green or trickle into the brush and disappear. And it’s hard to get loft on a downhill lie. You can take the shock out of the shot with a bounce on the right-side slope, that can gently roll the ball toward the pin.
No. 17 turns away from the ocean but that doesn’t mean away from water. It’s a 173-yard par three and the green is framed by water in front, on the right and behind, part of the 38-acre lagoon system. It’s not difficult if you remember to keep it left. The tendency for most golfers, however, is to pull the ball too far left in an effort to avoid the water right.
Lagoons’ finishing hole is the No. 1 handicap hole on back nine. It’s a 459-yard par-5 with a lagoon waterway as your constant companion.
Long hitters may be in danger of reaching the water on the drive. Moderate hitters would be wise to laid up on their second shot, short of the water. The green is surrounded all in front by water. Your approach will be around 60 to 80 yards over the lagoon, a naturally receptive ball-catcher.