PRINCEVILLE, Hi. – The first 180-some-odd swings (some more odd than others) of golferswest.com’s Kauai Grand Slam occurred at the Makai Golf Club at the St. Regis Princeville Resort, where the wind was howling at between 30- and 40-mph, periodically accompanied by drenching rain squalls.
To say Day One our golf adventure went off without a hitch is not really being accurate. But despite high winds, sideways rain, a skinned knee, and a bump on the head, the first of our four rounds on some of the island’s most luxurious layouts was completed.
From afar, the recently-renovated 7,223 yard Makai 18 course, located on the north side of Kauai, is probably the least-known resort course on the island.
“We don’t get as much hype as Poipu (Bay), Kauai Lagoons or Prince,” Makai’s head professional Ryan Forster said, “but when you talk to the people who live here, the Kama’aina, they say Makai is the best. You can’t beat the layout, the challenge, or the views. You have it all here.”
This was the second time I had played it, while colleague Bob Sherwin played it for the first time. He came away extremely impressed, especially with the par 3s.
Makai, which means “Oceanside” in Hawaiian, is a 27-hole layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 1971. It currently features the renovated Lakes and Ocean nines, known as “The Makai 18”. The Woods nine, which is designed for the casual golfer, also is open but was not included in the renovation. The Lakes and Ocean courses were closed for nearly 11 months in 2008-09 for a $7.6 million makeover, reopening on Jan. 16, 2010 to rave reviews, including the second-best “Renovation of the Year” honor in the U.S. in 2011.
The accolades keep coming.
* In its annual ratings of “America’s 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses”, to be announced in the February issue of Golf Digest, Makai Golf Club checks in at No. 80, the highest-ever ranking for the course.
* In 2012, Makai was rated No. 10 in statewide rankings for “Hawaii’s Top Courses”, a list that includes all private clubs, and was No. 5 among the “Best Public Courses in Hawaii” category.
* Golf Inc., Golf Magazine and Golf World are among the publications that have praised the Makai courses since the renovation.
In other words, the Makai Golf Club is making a grand name for itself, largely because of the new turf installed on the tees, fairways and greens — Seashore Paspalum, a drought- and salt water-resistant grass so smooth that it almost looks like a carpet. Also, nearly 20 bunkers were added, bringing to 84 the number of sand traps on the Makai 18.
I must have landed in about half of them during the round, something that made me think less of Mr. Jones than before my first tee shot. Jones, a third-generation course designer known for the number of bunkers he puts on his courses, has a house in nearby Hanalei and also did the renovation project that was toned down considerably by the recession.
“Back in the day when the courses were first designed, they didn’t have the equipment like we have now,” Forster said, “so the bunkers were made by putting dirt in a pile, digging a hole and filling it with sand. Therefore, all of the bunkers were above ground.
“Now, we are able to make them below ground.”
Whereas the bunkers can cause agony, the views are absolutely breathtaking on much of the course. You quickly forget the agony and move on to the beauty. The ocean is visible on Nos. 3-6-7-8-12-13-14-15.
Your first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean comes on the third hole, a 150-yard par 3 (from the white tees) with a serious elevation change.
The starter suggested that we “club up” two or three clubs on the hole, which was located 143 yards from the tee on the day we played.
I usually would hit a 6-iron from 143 yards, so I used an 8-iron instead. I hit the ball crisply and it sailed high and majestically – over the green and into the yuck. I tried my 9-iron on my “mulligan” shot but pulled it badly into the yuck on the left side of the green.
I took an uplayable lie, took a “5” and moved on to No. 4, where I hit one of my best drives of the day, on the 312-yard, par-4. I was left with a sand wedge, which went long and settled in the fringe. I two-putted for par, a three-letter word rarely used during the round.
It was, in fact, one of just two pars I had en route to a 48-49–97 – six shots behind Sherwin.
Hole No. 15 was among the double-bogeys on my card. It also was the hole that saw us get soaked by the mother of all rain squalls. It was a downpour! We decided to finish the hole and by the time I got to the green, Sherwin already had putted out and found cover. I finished the hole and ran back to the cart.
Just as I stepped on the cart path, my feet slipped out from under me. My left knee hit the asphalt cart path and my head hit the back of the cart, not nearly hard enough to cause any permanent damage. Sherwin was oblivious. When the rain subsided a little, he walked over, grabbed a club and proceeded to hit his shot on the 171-yard par-3 16th to within 10 feet of the cup, the shot of the day by either of us.
I limped to the tee, rubbing my head and bloody knee with my free hand, and then scuffed a drive to the left of the green. Bogey.
Next came a triple bogey “7” on No. 17, followed by a par on the par-5 18th.
Once inside the friendly confines of the clubhouse, we had a brief chat with Forster and other employees, who could not have been nicer.
“What I want people to do when they come out and play is to say, ‘the golf course is awesome and the staff is awesome,’”, he said. “That’s what I want. We try to keep everything real personal here. There are great golf courses everywhere in Hawaii. Every course has palm trees, and almost every course has ocean views – though maybe not as nice as ours. I want it to a memorable and pleasant experience.”
Aside from the scars on my knee and the bump on my head, mission accomplished. Sherwin made it through the round unscathed and a round of 19-over 91.
WEDNESDAY: Poipu Bay