Puakea Golf Course on Kauai: A two-volume tale with a happy ending

By Mike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

LIHUE, Hawaii -- Ideally, Puakea Golf Course is either the first or the last course visitors play when traveling to Kauai for a golf vacation.

Puakea Golf Course - No. 6
The par-3 sixth hole at Puakea Golf Course makes a big impression.
Puakea Golf Course - No. 6Puakea Golf Course on Kauai - No. 13Puakea GC on Kauai - No. 15Puakea Golf Course - No. 17
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Puakea Golf Course

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Ranked the 13th Best Golf Course You Can Play in Hawaii by Golfweek Magazine in 2009, Puakea is a one of Hawaii's best kept golf secrets. Designed by Robin Nelson, Puakea is a fun golf experience for the recreational golfer while still a challenge for the better player when played from the back tees

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 6954 yards | Book online | ... details »

If it's the first, this Robin Nelson design, just minutes from the main airport on the island, will serve as a good preview of golf to come on the Garden Isle. If it's the last in the tour, it will be a nice send-off.

Completed in 2003 after life as a 10-hole course (and a dormant golf course five years before that), Puakea G.C. is unassuming upon arrival. Departure, though, leaves an entirely different impression.

"The golf course starts out rather easy," General Manager Dave Werner said. "The first few holes are a nice warm-up, and it gets better and better as you go."

Indeed, there are streams, elevated tees, ocean views, Jurassic Park jungle mountain backdrops, and plenty of difficulty at Puakea, especially from the tips of this 6,954-yard, par-72 course. Early on, there's a ho-hum par 5, which is soon followed by the backdrop of a Costco store. But soon after, the remaining holes make them a distant memory.

The twists and turns of Puakea Golf Course

The intent was always there, but Mother Nature and the economy had different plans. Construction on the golf course started in the early 90s but was interrupted by the worst storm in modern history for Hawaii, Hurricane Iniki.

"The whole island came to a standstill," Werner said. "And there were only 10 holes substantially completed."

The local economy didn't exactly bounce back, either. For the next five years, the course just stood there until the owners decided to open the holes that were completed.

Like Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, Puakea held its own. In fact, it was widely regarded as one of the best nine-hole courses in the country. When AOL co-founder Steve Case, who was originally from Hawaii, bought the course and an adjacent development, he decided to complete the course, and the new holes were born.

Those new holes include the first five, the first two of which afford a prominent view of the shopping center. The ninth, 10th and 14th holes are also new, and any thoughts that they don't measure up to the rest of the course are just plain wrong. While the most memorable holes are indeed the original ones, golfers playing the course for the first time would have a hard time trying to pick out the new holes on their own without a cheat sheet.

In fact, among the new holes, the fifth, a 359-yard par 4 that wraps around a lake with a series of bunkers and lush mountain views in the background, is just the beginning in a long line of memorable holes. The next stop, the par-3 sixth, is one of its signature holes. The green, fronted by a pond, is perhaps 60 feet below the tee, and trouble looms long as well.

There are holes, such as the par-5 11th, where the Pacific Ocean comes into view. Then the golf really gets good. Lakes and streams and elevated tees and views of the Haupu Mountain Ridge set up one cool hole after another, including another par 3, the 228-yard 13th, which plays over water.

Puakea Golf Course: The verdict

By the time you get to the end of Puakea Golf Course, you can't help but be impressed. If it's your first golf experience off the plane, you can't wait to see what's ahead. If it's your last course before boarding, it's a nice transition back to real life.

Unlike some of the more ballyhooed resort golf courses on Kauai, Puakea G.C. won't overwhelm you with luxury. The clubhouse is a large trailer, and the grille is blue collar. But you'll find warm friendly service everywhere and some of the best hamburgers on the island at the course's 19th hole.

Practice facilities, which include a grass range and short-game area, are more than adequate, and lessons are available from the professional staff, which includes a dedicated teacher. With an exceptional golf course, great views and exceptional service, every golfer should put Puakea on the beginning or end of their must-play list of Kauai golf.

Mike BaileyMike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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