Playing the Green Links of Kauai, Hawaii

Wailua golf course with a stunning ocean view. Photo by: Lois Friedland
Playing golf in Wailua. Photo by Lois and Richard Friedland

Playing golf on Kauai, Hawaii, is a memorable experience, regardless of which courses you choose. The vegetation is lush, the mountains provided a beautiful backdrop and the holes along the Pacific are breathtaking. The volcanic terrain creates some dramatic-looking holes, the trade winds add additional challenges, and it’s the only location where we’ve run into golfers playing barefoot.

There are 10 golf courses on Kauai, so this is just a sampling. Here, we’ve included some of most popular with locals and vacationers.

Poipu Bay, a Robert Trent, Jr. course, is one of our personal favorites. In 2010, the owners redid the greens and installed a grass called Sea Shore Paspalum. Now, you no longer have to worry about the grain when you’re putting, just the undulating greens, which are sorely lacking flat terrain. The forward tees play at 5,372 yards and are friendly for intermediate and less-experienced golfers, while the tips come in at 7,123. The white tees play at 6,127 yards and offer lots of challenges.

The grounds are beautiful and surround a number of Hawaiian heiau, which are sacred places and out of bounds. Some of the lava walls on the sacred grounds are reported to be 500 years old. To add to the challenges, you must deal with buffeting trade winds from the bay, and they can be maddening. For example, hole number 7 is a beautiful, relatively short par 3 that’s heavily bunkered front and back, with a pond on the right. The wind can make you carry the green. If you do hit it, we wish you luck, reading your putts. Holes 15, 16 and 17 play along the ocean, where the wind really comes into play. Number 16, the signature hole, is a monster of a par 4 which plays downhill and hopefully downwind. (It’s a hole Richard was thrilled to bogie.) The finishing hole is a nice par 5, but be aware the green runs toward a bunkered back. The sand is silkier on the 18th hole than in the course’s other bunkers. Watching golfers deal with the unexpected change is a source of amusement for observers on the clubhouse patio.

The Makai Golf Club in Princeville, also designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., was extensively redone in 2009, and we love the changes. The fairways are like velvet, much appreciated by players using the forward tees, because your golf balls seem to roll farther. Here, too, the greens now have Sea Shore Paspalum grass.

A beautiful view of the Napali Mountains from Makai Golf Club. Photo by: Lois Friedland
A beautiful view of the Napali Mountains from Makai Golf Club. Photo by Lois and Richard Friedland

The setting is gorgeous, with views of the Napali Mountains to the west, and the holes that require carries over ravines plummet to the ocean below. The course plays 7,223 from the tips and 5,466 from the forward tees. The trade winds blow here, too. The first real inkling of how Jones used the terrain is hole 3, a par 3 that drops about 100 feet to the green (a two-club difference).

Hole 7 is another maddening par 3. It’s 213 yards from the tips and 155 from the white tees over a ravine. If you don’t make the green, your ball may end up in the landing area that has a minefield of bunkers. Hole 13 is a very long par 3 into the wind that could require two extra clubs. Hole 15 points you to the twin-peaked mountain the locals call the “witches tits.” It has an undulating fairway and a green that looks like the back edged disappears. Makai isn’t an easy course, but one worth playing.

The Prince Golf Course at Princeville at Hanalei is one of the most renowned courses in Hawaii and on many top 100 lists. The first time we played here, the fairways were lined with cacti and other thorny bushes, and the beverage cart sold more golf balls then tuna fish. Reportedly, Tiger once referred to it as the “unfair” course. We were pleased to find it redone, and suspect the golf balls they found when they cut the “brush” helped pay for the new Sea Shore Paspalum grass greens.

Frankly, this is a great course, with five tee-boxes ranging from 5,402 yards to 7,378, which means that there’s something for everyone. The ocean and jungle views can slow play, because golfers are enjoying the scenery. Robert Trent Jones, Jr. made great use of the existing terrain, so the course is anything but flat, and the fairways are not overly wide. Whoever heard of a dogleg par 3? Check out number 7 and go over the trees. Wait until you see the par 5 hole number 15! More trees. And don’t forget the trade winds, which do come into play. All in all it’s a great course and is no longer “unfair”.

The Prince Course now has a Par 3 Mini Prince! It’s carved out of the Prince Clubhouse is 13-acre practice facility, where the existing practice greens have been enhanced and expanded into six complete par 3 holes. The driving range closes at 3pm, when it’s transformed into a family friendly 6-hole course.

The Wailua Municipal Golf Course is a surprise and a great bargain in Hawaii, at $65 with a cart. Playing almost 6,000 yards from the forward tees and 6,600 from the whites, with a slope rating of 127, it’s long and pretty tough. The greenside bunkers are deep and make you pay for invading their space. Holes 1, 2, 14 and 17 are right beside the ocean, and the trade winds can require two extra clubs on the par 3 17th hole. The back 9 has more elevation changes than the front, but number 15 is a real hero hole. Number 18 is a doglegged hole to a green protected by two bunkers the size of the beach at Hanalei Bay. It ate my lunch and I can’t wait to get back and play it again.

Kukuiolono Golf Course was originally a plantation willed to the people of Kauai. Who says golf can’t be played with two barefoot locals, while laughing the entire time. (Here’s what it’s like to play it. ) It’s not Poipu Bay, but it’s lots of fun. To play 18 you do 9 from the reds (2,708 yards) and 9 from the whites (2,981 yards), or the blues (3,171 yards). Don’t be surprised by hole number 2, which is almost 600 yards. The wind at your back helps. If nobody is available to take your greens fees ($9) and cart fee ($9), just place it in an envelope and slide it in the door. The views alone are worth the price.

Golfers love to play barefoot in Kauai. Photo by: Lois Friedland
A barefoot golfer in Kauai. Photo by Lois and Richard Friedland

Puakea Golf Course is a local favorite, not on the radar for many visiting golfers. The course, which plays 5,225 from the forward tees and 6,954 from the tips, is another course with spectacular scenery, with views of mountains, ravines and jungle. Who knows? Maybe you’ll come across a raptor or T-Rex. Jurassic Park was filmed here.

Go Hawaii, the state’s tourism office, has an overview of the courses on Kauai at Kauai Golf ( ).

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