Standing on the back tee box of the par-3 seventh hole at the Princeville Makai Golf Club on the north shore of Kauai—with the mid-afternoon sun on my back, the rhythmic sound of the ocean in my ear, and the majestic image of Mt. Makana in the distance ahead of me—I’m met with conflicting emotions. The magnificent clifftop locale, with its panoramic views of the Pacific, epitomizes tranquility. Yet, my heartrate quickens when I catch a glimpse of the hole’s undulating green set 213 yards away, precariously positioned at cliff’s edge and encircled by four deep greenside bunkers.
“If you’re putting on the green, you’re five yards away from the bluff,” Doug Sutter, the club’s general manager tells me. “There’s the fringe, five yards of rough, and then boom! You’re within three or four yards of yourdoom if you were to take a wrong step.”
The tee box, by comparison, feels much safer. The shot that you must hit from it is not.
After a few deep breaths, I set up to the ball; and with a 3-hybrid in my hands, I swing. It’s a swing I fully commit to—a task that isn’t easy given the deep and expansive chasm that I know my golf ball must carry and the worrisome premonitions that pop in my head of my shot coming up short and the ball plunging helplessly into the abyss.
Stoically posed at the finish of my swing, I watch as my ball sails out over the cove, gradually curving from right to left away from the ocean. At its apex, the shot is perfectly in line with the flagstick and the white swatch of cloth fluttering in the breeze at the end of it. Where the ball lands remains the only mystery. Will it pitch and roll to a stop on the putting surface? Or will it come up a few yards short, pinball off the scrub-covered cliff side and eventually fall to the sea-splashed cove below?
For an agonizing few seconds, I can only hold my breath and wait. Finally, my ball lands on the front of the green, bounces once, and rolls to a stop—an outcome that makes this dramatic and visually stunning hole all the more memorable.
Kauai’s Golfing Heritage
Hawaii and golf have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for decades; yet when it comes to golf tourism, the mountainous island of Kauai on the west end of the archipelago is at times overshadowed by the isles of Maui and Oahu, mostly because the latter two islands play host to annual PGA Tour events.
Although Kauai isn’t showcased on PGA television broadcasts each year, the isle’s stature as a golfing destination is on par with—perhaps even surpasses—those other islands thanks to its diversity and the density of championship-level courses that have been built on the island over the last four-plus decades. Even the island’s lesser-known courses shine for their exceptional quality and striking locations. Wailua Municipal Golf Course on Kauai’s east coast, for example, features a handful of oceanfront holes (and remarkably inexpensive greens fees); while the landlocked Puakea Golf Course, five miles south, routinely delivers dramatic mountain views that remind you why significant portions of both Jurassic Park and Jurassic World were filmed on the island.
“The landscape on Kauai is amazing and so diverse,” says Sutter. “We have resort courses in a ‘desert’ climate and also in a rainforest climate, and they’re only an hour away from each other. To play multiple Top-100-ranked U.S. golf courses—and for them to be so close to each other but so diverse in their landscapes and climates—it’s something every avid golfer should experience once in their life.”
There was a time when Kauai did host the world’s top professional golfers. The PGA Grand Slam of Golf, an off-season exhibition that matched the previous year’s major championship winners, was created in 1979 and initially designed to travel to new courses each year. In 1994, Poipu Bay Golf Course on Kauai’s south coast hosted the event for the first time, an arrangement that would endure for the next 13 years.
The tropical links-style holes at Poipu Bay lead golfers over and around rolling hills punctuated by numerous palm trees and the occasional ancient heiau (protected Hawaiian places of worship). The course’s pastoral beauty reaches its zenith on the back nine, as the 15th and 16th holes run parallel to the Pacific Ocean.
Over the course of more than a dozen years, Poipu Bay became synonymous with the PGA Grand Slam of Golf; however, the event made its first stop in Kauai at The Ocean Course at Hokuala (then known as Kauai Lagoons Resort) in 1991. Hokuala recently made headlines when it was purchased by Timbers Resorts, and the Hawaiian property captured even more attention after it broke ground on an exclusive ocean club and affiliated private residences. On the subject of memorable golfing experiences, Hokuala’s Jack Nicklaus-designed course delivers in numerous ways, including one opportunity that feels distinctively Hawaiian.
Links to the Sea
Curving gradually around the backside of The Ocean Course’s fifth green, the cart path plunges down a steep hillside, carving out a shady route under a canopy of mango trees, lush with tropical flora and accented by a cacophony of calls from native songbirds. If I were behind the wheel of a traditional golf cart, I’d let my gaze drift to the tree branches as I pass them by; but today I’m riding one of the resort’s GolfBoards, a motorized vehicle that can best be described as half-scooter, half-longboard. Drifting too far to the edge of the path on either side is asking for trouble. Not wanting to wipe out, I keep my gaze focused intently on the cart path in front of me.
To operate a GolfBoard, riders take a surfer-like stance, moving a throttle switch on the handlebar with their thumb to accelerate or brake, and they steer by shifting their weight aggressively forward and back on the platform. It takes a few holes to get generally comfortable, but there are a few stretches on Hokuala’s Ocean Course—specifically the cart path leading to the sixth tee box—where the ride can produce white-knuckle grips and elevated adrenaline levels.
“We’re all about trying to be new and unique, providing different amenities for our guests,” says Fran Roach, the course’s general manager. “Guests who utilize our boards just love them. They’re surfing the earth with the GolfBoard, and they get to enjoy the golf course in a different way and in Hawaiian island style. They truly love the experience.”
Hokuala can deliver memorable moments on the course aside from its unique transportation offerings. On the back nine, players putting on the 13th green might catch a glimpse of commercial jets landing on one of Lihue Airport’s two runways only a few thousand feet away; and they’ll be equally enthralled by the views of Nawiliwili Bay that the 14th and 16th holes provide. “Our golf course has the longest stretch of continuous ocean holes in all of Hawaii,” says Roach. “Finishing up on the back nine, the views are just spectacular.”