The recently transformed Kapalua Resort is located on Maui's northwest shore and the Hawaiian resort can boast two world-class golf courses. The Arnold Palmer and Francis Duane designed Bay course was the first layout at Kapalua, and it’s a decent resort course in its own right, but the Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw designed par 73, 7,411-yard Plantation course is in a totally different league.
In Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses You Can Play book by Brian McCallen, the author has this to say about the course: “Tall native grasses frame the fairways, with a few stands of Norfolk Pines scattered around the perimeter. No water comes into play, but there’s an abundance of luxuriant growth sprouting from the gorges. The antithesis of a target-style course, the Plantation offers oodles of options, along with its grand ocean vistas. Greens are open at the front; barely airborne bump-an-run approach shots are not only encouraged, they’re necessary to control the ball in the wind.”
Host to the annual Tournament of Champions, the Plantation course was fashioned around the closing hole, a 663-yard downhill and invariably downwind par five. The panoramic backcloth of the glistening Pacific Ocean and the distant mountain peaks take your breath away as you stand on the elevated final tee. The wide fairway tumbles downhill inviting a booming drive. Despite its downhill and downwind design, only the biggest hitters will be brave enough to take this incredible hole on in two shots because the approach shot must carry across a chasm which cuts into the fairway from the right. The green is huge and inviting, but unless you can hit the ball more than 300 yards, you’ll be left with a similar distance for your second shot. Are you up for it?
In March 2018, it was announced that Kapalua’s Plantation course will undergo a multi-million dollar renovation project under the stewardship of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the original design team. Work will include new tournament and forward tees, greens resurfacing with Tif Eagle Bermuda, fairways with Celebration Bermuda and renovation of every bunker.
“We look forward to the opportunity to restore many elements of the Plantation Course and implement a few ‘refinements’,” said Bill Coore. “It’s like when you have a special piece of art, or something really special to you, and you get a chance to dust if off and make it new again. This will be a very thoughtful restoration and refining process, but it’s not a redesign. We are very happy with the way the course looks and the way it has gone through the past nearly three decades.”
Work is due to begin in February 2019 and complete in November 2019.
Playing Kapalua two days after the PGA tournament was slightly unsettling. However, I did man up. It was a day of stark contrasts; I was either in there or out of there. I shot an 84 with 5 birdies. On the first hole I lost my tee shot even though my drive landed in the right side of the fairway and rolled less than three yards into the rough. As soon as I hit it, the caddy, Steve, said, “That could be trouble.” Steve explained that typically the rough is not too difficult but in an effort to toughen up the course they had let it grow out. The first hole is a 450 yard downhill double dogleg and is tough enough without losing a ball on your first swing.
One of my first perceptions of Kapalua, which means embracing the sea, was one of scale. It is vast. Situated on the elevated downhill side of the island; one has a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean and Molakai. The views are indeed breathtaking and as they seem a constant, I will try to restrain myself from referring to them. Kapalua entices like a Siren; it has very broad fairways and large greens, but beware, many of the greens that look so inviting are sloped front to back and are just daring you to try to stick it tight. On the other hand the uphill holes tease you into thinking you have hit a good shot only to kneecap you as your ball trickles to a rest 30 yards short. In many ways the way to play Kapalua is reminiscient of some of the old Scotland courses, where the ability to bump and run the ball for yards is a real skill. This is especially the case when one factors in the wind. As with most Hawaiian courses, it seems that a one to two club wind is the rule rather than the exception due to the trade winds.
I earned my first birdie on the 500 yard downhill par 5 fifth hole. Big hitters can get there in two by playing down the right side, but beware, a little too far right and there is a ravenous gorge. I opted for the conservative left side and other than my playing partner calling me a few names, it proved to be wise. I did roll my second shot which allegedly jinxed my partner who promptly did the same thing only his went into the canyon. My third shot was just short to set up a chip that I nestled into the cup.
The eleventh is a relatively short par three where it is easy to lose focus due to the beauty of the surrounding environment. In our group we were very fortunate in that everyone hit excellent tees shots. It was magical watching the ball flight against the blue sky and an amazingly bluer ocean. Pretty cool.
For the grand finale, seventeen and eighteen are two of the finest finishing holes I had ever played. Leading up to the seventeenth tee box had been a gradual ascent. The elevated tee box provides an expansive view. The 467 yard seventeenth is a slight dogleg left with a forced carry. The fairway is quite expansive. I was told it was 100 yards wide in one section. Even with that large a target, only two of us ended up in it! This is another hole that favors a high draw to a huge green.
Ahead was the big finish; rumor has it that the architects, Coore and Crenshaw, found the 585 yard 18th hole first, before laying out the rest of the course. What a hole! Even if you could forget the panoramic setting, it is a risk reward’s risk reward hole. I was the short knocker in our foursome off of the tee and had 290 yards to a front pin. I grabbed my five iron when my caddy corrected me and said I needed to go for it. I said there was no way I could get there. He then pointed out that I had just hit a 295 yard drive and besides, was I planning on coming back? I said okay and with my trusty five wood, which was really a bent original Big Bertha driver (I know, probably an illegal club) gave it a go. I nailed it, there was a beautiful high arching right to left ball flight that landed on the right side of the fairway and trampolined forward and downhill. It rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled. Just when I thought it was going to stop, it rolled some more. The story would be better if it did reach the green, but alas, it stopped 4 yards and 9 inches short of the green. Yep; I have no pride, I measured it. I was feeling pretty smug and I said to Steve, “That ball must have rolled fifty yards. “ He just smiled and shook his head and said, “No, just under 100.” To put that in context, evidently the shot carried 190 yards in the air and rolled another 90 plus yards. One of my player partners did reach the green in two. The other two had pitch shots of between 30-40 yards. Steve said those are amongst the toughest shots on the course. This puzzled me as there was no trouble between where the balls were and the pin. Steve said, “The first one will be 10-15 yards long and the second will be ten yards short.” Sure enough, he was right. Steve said what tends to happen is the slope downhill is much steeper than people can believe. Hence, the first one will be long. The second player will be so petrified by what they have just witnessed that they will leave it way short. He said this was one of the reasons he encouraged me to go for it. Lastly, he said, “Besides, it is not often that I caddy for someone who has five birdies on the Plantation Course.” Once again, he proved to be prophetic as I made the up and down.
The Plantation Course can only be described as a wonderful experience that will touch all of your senses. I believe the developers wanted a hillside course so that they could then develop the more profitable waterfront with real estate instead of a golf course. What a great decision. The only drawback is it is another one of those snoogy, but in a nice way, nonwalker friendly golf courses.
Right off the bat the essence of the Plantation Course rests squarely on its location. The views, both on and most certainly off property, are spectacular. To their immense credit, co-architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore wisely fashioned a layout where much needed fairway widths would be the rule to deal with the ever changing and high velocity at times trade winds.
Unlike the bulk of the vapid courses that dot the Hawaiian islands this is a resort course laced with plenty of classic architecture elements. The 1st is a strong downhill par-4 opener -- and then you reach the par-3 2nd with its reverse Redan green. There's the punchbowl green at the 6th, the fall-away green at the 7th and the standout par-3 8th. The inward side is hillier and the range of holes is quite impressive. You have plenty of scoring opportunities but only when positioning your ball accordingly. Crenshaw and Coore allows players to go full tilt with the driver -- just match your execution with your ambition.
The ending stretch has been chronicled so no need to rehash except to say the stroll down the 18th with Molokai in the background is one that's seared in your memory long after the round concludes.
When the Sentry Tournament of Champions is played the professionals walk the layout but frankly the course is not an easy stroll and therefore power carts are the norm. My only issue with Plantation is the degree of firmness. The key to the architecture rests on this dynamic.
With the Hawaii location and the build-up of underlying thatch under the existing fairways the limited roll can undermine the conceptual heart of the design. Fortunately, in early February, the course will be upgraded in a variety of ways through the involvement of Crenshaw and Coore. The work will include resurfacing the greens with Tif-Eagle Bermuda turf, renovating the bunkers and re-grassing tees, fairways and roughs with Celebration Bermuda turf. The renovation will also add new tee complexes -- most notably new tournament tees on key holes such as a shared rear tee for the 3rd and 9th holes -- as well as the 18th, among others.
For die-hard Crenshaw and Coore groupies -- the Plantation may not be the at the level they are expecting but that's because the bar this talented duo later achieved with other notable efforts -- such as Sand Hills, Friar's Head, Bandon Trails, Lost Farm, among select others -- is so high. Nonetheless, no visit to the islands should miss the opportunity to play Plantation. The Crenshaw / Coore handiwork proves meaningful modern resort golf with playability and architectural interest are not mutually exclusive and can be successfully attained. I look forward to seeing how their effort in shining this jewel turns out.
M. James Ward
Set on the hills of Maui overlooking the Pacific, this course is one of a kind. Most golfers know it well from TV golf. The main aspect that surprised me were the links-style characteristics around the greens and the steep elevation changes. It is easy to get a tee time online on most days.
The course features four par 5s but only three par 3s, the last one being the 11th hole. Towards the end of the round the golfer wonders if the chain of 400+ yard par 4s ever comes to an end. Coore and Crenshaw designs can get a bit repetitive.
Notable holes: Many signature holes on this course. The back to back uphill par 4s 3 and 4 with right hand target bunkers off the tee demand precise tee shots. The 6th hole is extreme golf with a blind tee shot and a large vertical drop. 9 is really fun depending on the wind direction. The 14th green is surprisingly small, which is appropriate for a short wedge shot in. But it seems out of place compared to the other large green complexes. The tee box on the 16th slopes upwards like a launch pad. 17 and 18 are spectacular downhill but would have been more fun with firmer fairways.
I played the course in November and expected it to be firmer. It would be better with more roll so that the links-style features of the course come into play. The course remains natural and does not feature any man-made lakes or kitsch waterfalls a la Trump. Many holes are unique to Kapalua. The sheer amount of imagination of the designers makes it well worth a visit. Crazy golf at its best!
This course is fantastic and to me is the best in the state and one of the tops in the country. The views, amazing. The course, in fantastic condition. Plus, despite being so high profile, the course adheres to the Troon pace of play standards and everyone is spaced out well and you get around quickly (although you wish you could play there all day).
What they say about the wind is true, the day I played it was blowing 20-30mph and hitting a driver praying to God it makes it to the top of the hill 150 yards away is a fascinating experience.
Favorite hole is #11, a downhill par 3 with the back edge of the green seemingly falling away into the sea. If I could play one hole over and over again it would be 11.
Can't wait for the next time at Kapalua!
I cant think of another course where I’ve been presented with a 473 yard 1st hole and went driver 8 iron 10 foot putt for birdie. That kind of immediately endeared the course to me and boosted confidence above the norm. I found the greens in excellent nick, I would however thoroughly recommend substantial practice on the practice putting green to get a feel for pace and also the way putts always break toward the ocean. With the Hyundai tournament less than a month away it was cart path only which was mildly irritating but entirely understandable.
Memorable holes? yes there are plenty, the 1st delighted me. For some bizarre reason the short par 4 4th messed me up 2 of the 3 times I played it (a conspiracy of blind tee shot and undulating green, great hole though). 5 & 6 with the huge ravine on the right are spectacular. One piece of advice...DONT try and bump and run an approach to the 6th, you WILL just run through the back leaving a difficult chip back. Fly it all the way with plenty backspin. The 484 yard 7th is a wide fairway’d grip it and rip paradise and the sight of the longest drive I’ve ever hit in my life, I still struggle coming to terms with the fact that I actually hit a golf ball over 400 yards leaving an 80 yard sandwedge 2nd shot. Especially as 2 holes later. A similar crushing drive the rescue club left me 30 yards short of a 520 yard par 5....like I said, you need to think differently about yardages here...that was in just light winds, I shudder to think how the normal trades would exacerbate those differences.
The back 9 starts rather gently with definite birdie opportunities on the first 3 holes, all with great ocean views across to Molokai. 13th presents a bit of a tougher challenge as does the bunker riddled 14th. 15th will be a 3 shotter for most so par is a good result. Then there’s the 2 finishing holes, both big downhillers doglegging left before the green 17 being a par 4 smaller brother version of the looong Par 5 18th. Even with well placed drives these 2 holes leave lots to think about with the approach shot. Even just a tug left could easily result in a lost ball. Get 18 right though and you could be chipping or putting for eagle despite its colossal length.
In summary it’s a lovely course, spectacular scenery, a good varied challenge but not brutally difficult, plenty of chances to score well if you’ve brought your A game. The staff I found to be extremely polite and helpful and the clubhouse bar/restaurant offer great views over the 18th, 1st and beyond. Comparatively it’s not the most difficult course in the islands, I beat my handicap off the blues twice (although to be fair I never got it with the tradewinds blowing normally). The Prince on Kauai and Ko’olau on Oahu are much tougher and I like tough, I like to be challenged but in terms of just sheer pleasure to play though I think this course is right up there.