The Dunes at Maui Lani: Links to golf's past

By Ron Walker, Contributor

MAUI - In American golf, there is no word more misused and abused than "links". Stateside, the word has somehow morphed into a term used to describe any treeless, rolling layout. In order to be considered "true" links, however, the land must be "a waste area near the ocean left over from the receding tides, along with dunes created by windblown sand deposits."

Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course - hole 2
Wind - an essential element of links golf - will prove a constant shotmaking factor during your round at Maui Lani Golf Course.
Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course - hole 2Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course - hole 3Dunes at Maui Lani Golf Course - hole 10
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Dunes At Maui Lani Golf Course

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Looking for great golf in Maui? Visit The Dunes at Maui Lani, the course Golf Digest called the "Best Kept Secret Golf Courses in America." Designed by Robin Nelson, the course features 18 challenging hole of links-style golf. You'll feel like you're in Ireland by way of Maui.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 6841 yards | Book online | ... details »

Roll your eyes indifferently at the point if you must, but it ain't truly "links" otherwise.

Designer Robin Nelson is well aware of this distinction. Having made many pilgrimages to the "birthplace of golf" (often to receive inspiration for his current projects), Nelson is always on the lookout for sites that fit the linksland bill.

Fast forward to the Hawaiian Islands. Almost all the golf courses found throughout the islands lay within sight of, or sidle up next to, the bright blue Pacific. Yet none of them could be accurately described as "links". As it turns out, the only true links course to be found anywhere in this glorious island chain barely peeks at the ocean.

Tucked away inside Maui's Iao Valley lay a odd parcel of sandy mounds and loamy soil that for years remained known only to locals. This peculiar terrain was left behind by the receding Pacific when an ancient volcanic fusion of two land masses created the present-day Garden Isle.

"When I was first introduced to this site by (developer) Bill Mills," recounted Nelson, "I couldn't believe my eyes. Here was an area that could have been transplanted from the Scottish or Irish coasts."

Nelson quickly accepted the opportunity to craft a layout on this site, relishing the opportunity to create a course that would be a "throwback to the origins of golf." The finished product is a course unlike any other in Paradise: The Dunes at Maui Lani.

The Dunes at Maui Lani by the numbers

The player prone to take a quick glance at the scorecard while deciding which tees to play will notice a few things straight off. The golf course, while weighing in a moderate 6,841 yards from the tips, nonetheless carries a hefty slope/rating (73.5/136). No need to wonder why; another essential element of links golf - wind - will prove a constant shotmaking factor during your round.

In fact, it behooves players to practice the "British Open low ball" at Maui Lani's driving range prior to their tee time. As a bonus, this outstanding practice facility also offers some excellent views of the triangular peaks of the distant West Maui Mountains.

The Dunes at Maui Lani scorecard also illustrates that the layout is fashioned with a traditional "out-and-back" routing, much like the links course that started it all, the Old Course at St. Andrews. While most of the front nine plays into the teeth of the easterly trades, the homeward holes gain the benefit of playing downwind. This further explains the disparity in the yardage on the two nines; the back measures some 600 yards longer.

After two interesting, though average opening holes, the dunes that flavor The Dunes at Maui Lani are introduced at the par 3 third. Fashioned partially after Lahinch's "Dell Hole", the third's diagonal green is shoehorned in-between those tall sandy mounds; going after a back right pin placement therefore becomes an act of faith.

"Once you enter the environment of sand dunes," Nelson remarked, "the rules of golf course architecture change. There are all kinds of tricks I incorporated that normally wouldn't be seen on a course without dunes, like the partial blind shots, huge elevation changes, depth perception nuances, and the massive, undulating greens."

The most memorable (and perhaps best), hole on the course follows straightaway at Four. The locals I played with prepped me for the challenge: "This is one damn evil hole," as a member of my foursome grumbled.

Four is a tight par five played through a forest of kiawe trees. Accuracy is essential when threading a tee shot between the thick forest left and a steep dune looming on the right side.

The fairway grows narrower as you contemplate an uphill approach to a blind green surface that is false-fronted and dominated by deep sod-face bunkers. Though the green itself is blessedly flat and a simple two-putt, the number of strokes often required to reach that point make the fact irrelevant.

The true "card wrecker" at The Dunes at Maui Lani, at least for the average player, comes at the par-3 eighth. This may be one of the most miniscule gateways to a green you will ever see. Tradewinds howl directly into the players' face, demanding a ball hit under the tree line. Although left is the only side to miss on, wander too far left and you are O.B. A massive kiawe tree will reject anything hit right, and penal pot bunkers flank a narrow green which is a mere 27 yards deep.

Those who cannot stand a few hours on Maui without at least one peek at the Pacific have their only chance at the highest point on The Dunes at Maui Lani - the elevated tee box at ten, a long and tough test featuring a blind tee shot into a narrow, high banked fairway which cascades to who-knows-where.

Nonetheless, the views provided throughout the golf course, even without Pacific viewpoints, are outstanding. To illustrate the claim, check out the panorama provided at the 12th tee box. Mt. Haleakala stands in mute repose to the east, and the sumptuous verdancy of the surrounding landscape may make you forget all about those obscured ocean vistas.

The Dunes at Maui Lani's finishing hole is a real gem, presented without dunes or kiawe forests or other trickery, just brute length and a menacing lake that dominates the right side of the doglegged fairway. Counted by Head Professional Dave Gleason as among the best he's ever played, this 588-yard monster is typically played into heavy crosswinds that coax your ball into dangerous proximity with the water. If you haven't learned to hit the low ball by now, you may be in serious trouble attempting to make par at the last.

Although the raison d'etre for this marvelous layout is the very American concept of the "golf course community," the good news is that the fragile nature of this loamy land will not allow for the fairways margins to become festooned with homesites. The Dunes at Maui Lani should remain a natural, unspoiled beauty into the foreseeable future.

Overall, Maui Lani represents an irresistible combination of outstanding value, friendly Hawaiian-style service, and an intriguing, unforgettable layout.

Furthermore, given the golf course's close proximity to Kahului International (Maui's main airport), The Dunes at Maui Lani should be either the first course you play when you arrive on the Garden Isle, or the last as you leave. Some may decide to play it on both occasions, and that's a good call; for if you desire a wee taste of the British Isles on your next trip to the Hawaiian Islands, your best bet is The Dunes at Maui Lani.

Ron Walker, Contributor

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