Kapalua Resort: Maui's golf mecca lives up to its reputation

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

KAPALUA, Maui - Perched high on the northwest corner of the West Maui mountains lies the golf triumvirate known as Kapalua Resort. Most famous for the Plantation Course, Kapalua is also home to two other golf courses, the Bay and the Village, offering a total of 54 holes frequented by pros and hackers alike.

Kapalua Resort's Plantation Course: New and improved

When you think of Kapalua Resort, you're probably thinking of the Plantation Course. The pros tee it up here each year for the season-opening Mercedes Championship, and the course has won every award known to the golf world, from GOLF Magazine's Gold Medal award to Golf Digest placing it among the best in the state.

But for the last four months, Plantation has been hiding from the world, closed for the first large-scale renovation since it opened in 1991.

Marty Keiter, vice president of golf and tennis operations, described the $1 million renovation: "When we built this course in 1991, we were never totally happy with the grass that was on the greens. So we re-grassed the greens with TifEagle Bermuda, and (original architects) Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw made some subtle changes on the greens, about five of them. We added two bunkers, and we restored the greens back to their original size. A lot of the native grasses had grown in, so we got it back to the way it originally was built."

The result is a more playable golf course, with better conditions.

"The course will be easier for everybody because the greens will putt better," said Keiter. "That's something that's going to be felt from our Mercedes Championship all the way to our every-day golfer."

So how does the course play since its July 31 reopening? I don't know my TifEagle from my TifDwarf, but I do know that the greens rolled true, lightning fast with the grain, slow and easy against. There were still a few patchy areas, on hole No. 3, for example, that have yet to fill in. But for the most part, the course was in prime condition.

Perhaps the most familiar - and most dramatic - of Plantation's 18 holes is No. 18 - a downhill 663-yard par-5 monster (the longest hole on the PGA Tour, in fact) that architects Coore and Crenshaw designed with tradewinds in mind.

Woe to the poor souls who attack the hole on a day when the warm and humid kona winds are blowing from the southwest - they replace the more common tradewinds, the cooling breezes from the northeast for which Hawaii is justly famous and cause havoc to anyone trying to reach the green in regulation.

Plantation's No. 8 is particularly memorable - an all-carry par 3 you reach from across a gorge - with a steep bunker fronting the green and nothing but trouble on the sides. Oh yeah, and it usually plays against the wind. Do yourself a favor and take extra club.

Now that the grass won't be responsible for inflated scores, what will? According to Keiter, two things: wind and grain. Master those two elements to have the best shot at a low score.

"People can't change their game for a week's trip here," he said. "But if they learn how to hit some punch shots and hit it lower, they'll be able to score better."

As for the grain, "It usually grows toward the setting sun, toward Molokai and Lanai," Keiter said. "It's one of those things that you may remember on the first green, but you've got to constantly keep thinking about it because it always comes into play."

Kapalua Resort's Bay Course

The unsung hero of the Kapalua threesome, the Bay Course doesn't get the kind of press that Plantation gets, but it does get the play. The Arnold Palmer/Francis Duane design, which opened in 1975, is the oldest of the three, and just as popular as the more-hyped Plantation. And for good reason: it offers a wonderful combination of challenge and forgiveness, impeccable conditions, and sweeping views.

Golf for Women consistently ranks it among their top 50 courses in the country, probably because of its forgiveness. Play Plantation and your ego takes a bruising. Follow it up with a round on the Bay Course, and all will be right with the world again.

It's the Bay Course that claims Kapalua's signature hole, the par-3 fifth. You tee off right over the crashing waves of Oneloa Bay onto a green surrounded by black lava cliffs on one side, three bunkers on the other. Of all 54 holes, it offers the most dramatic view of the ocean, รก la Pebble Beach.

Marilyn Nairn, of Uniontown, Pa., played the Bay Course for the first time and gave it a thumbs up.

"I think it's a beautifully challenging course for women," Nairn said. "It played true, long, and fair, with magnificent views."

Her only complaint was the weather, an unfortunate fact of life in Kapalua. It rains frequently here, though rarely for very long.

"The rain made it longer," Nairn said. "The ball would've rolled longer on a dry fairway."

Kapalua Resort's Village Course

Opened in 1981, the Village Course offers a scenic, if not dramatic, trek inland, into the West Maui mountains, and features historic stands of Cook pines, extreme elevation changes (800 feet between holes 3 and 5, for example), and less wind than the more exposed Plantation Course.

The placement of the new clubhouse, built in 2000, required the rearrangement of the course's original layout. The old par-4 18th is now the par-3 first, meaning the course now opens and closes with par 3s, which is a somewhat unsatisfying modification to the Palmer/Ed Seay design.

Many people claim the Village is their favorite of the three courses, but I found that of the three I enjoyed it the least.

It has some beautiful views - the par-4 sixth, for instance, with its combination of Cook pines, a mountain lake stocked with humongous carp and the Pacific backdrop but at the moment, the conditions are less than what you'd expect for the price.

The verdict on golf at Kapalua Resort

There's a reason why Plantation has such a higher slope and rating than its sister courses: 74.9/138 from the blues, versus Bay's 72.1/136, and Village's 71.5/134, and that reason is length. Plantation's blue tees play 7,263 yards, compared to 6,600 (Bay) and 6,378 (Village). Add to the mix the fact that Plantation has more wind, due to its more exposed position on the mountainside, and you've got quite a challenge in front of you.

But that's what you're really paying for on Plantation - a chance to tame the beast. Plantation offers an unparalleled test of golf; score well here and you know you've got game. In contrast, the Bay course offers a chance for golfers of any handicap level to score well while enjoying an equally beautiful layout.

Woman-friendly? Not Plantation. Rated and sloped at 73.2/129, Plantation's ladies tees are rated higher than most men's championship tees. Bring plenty of balls and call off the bets. Unless your name happens to be Annika, the Bay and Village Courses, at 69.6/121 and 69/116, respectively, might be a more suitable choice.

Greens fees on the Plantation Course run $250 standard and $160 for resort guests. On the Bay Course, you'll pay $200 standard and $140 as a guest, while the Village fees run $185 standard and $130 for resort guests. All three offer twilight rates for $100 or less and $55-$60 same-day re-rounds.

A side note: There's good GPS and there's bad. Kapalua offers the good kind. It not only tells you where you are on the course, it also shows the carts in front of you, especially handy on the many blind shots. You can even use it to order your lunch at the turn.

Kapalua/Kahana dining

The Kapalua/Kahana area has tons of dining options. On-property, a popular choice is Vino, a tapas restaurant located in the Village clubhouse that features plenty of local flavor. Another favorite is Roy's, serving "Hawaiian-fusion" cuisine. Try their signature blackened ahi - my favorite dish anywhere.

Where to stay

Kapalua has three options if you're looking to get the resort rate on the golf course: the Ritz-Carlton, the Kapalua Bay Hotel and the Kapalua Villas.

Of the three, the 196-room Kapalua Bay Hotel is the best choice. It offers views of the ocean, the golf courses, pineapple fields and the mountains, plus it has recently gotten better reviews than the Ritz-Carlton. Rates start at $320 a night.

If you're not planning on staying at one of those three resorts, the Kaanapali area, just south of Kapalua, has many hotels and resorts to pick from. Further south, you'll find the best weather - less wind and almost no rain - around the Wailea area.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Plantation Course (Green Fees)on Maui

    Bill wrote on: Jan 2, 2008

    Hello All,
    How much are the green fees to play the Plantation Course? I'm staying at the Ritz Carlton around Feb 14-17th.
    Thinking of playing (1) rd of golf while I'm there.
    Thanks in advance



    RICK LEE wrote on: Apr 13, 2006

    I played the Plantation course in June of 2004. Everything was great. The course condition, the pro shop and bag employees, the restaurant in the club house, the bar, the view, the locker rooms, etc. All were simply first class. One gets what he pays for at Kapalua. I'll defintiely go back. My first visit was in 1976 (Bay Course) and I've been back numerous times since and will be back in 2007.