Golfers take note: Kauai no longer just for the honeymoon set

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

KAUAI, Hawaii - Move over, Maui. Bug off, Big Island. When it comes to Hawaii golf, Kauai, the least commercial of the islands, tends to be overshadowed by its larger, more developed siblings. But that may be changing.

Maui's claim to fame, Kapalua Plantation, is arguably Hawaii's most famous golf course, due to the Mercedes Championship, the PGA Tour's annual inaugural event hosted there. And the Big Island has sheer numbers on its side: with 20 courses, including six along the famed King's Trail, the Big Island has become synonymous with Hawaii golf.

So where does that leave Kauai? Well, what the Garden Isle lacks in quantity and fame, it makes up for in quality and service, according to readers of Condé Nast Traveler. The publication recently posted the results of its 10th-annual "Top 100 Golf Resorts" poll, and three of Kauai's five golf resorts made the list.

Of all United States golf resorts, Princeville comes in at No. 12, Poipu Bay at No. 14, and Kauai Lagoons at No. 47 - no small feat considering the thousands of U.S. courses with which it was competing. To put it into perspective, keep in mind that the Lodge at Pebble Beach came in at No. 28, Pinehurst at No. 60, and The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., No. 79.

Steve Murphy, head golf professional at Princeville, showed no surprise at Kauai's good showing.

"Here in Kauai, people want to get away from things," he said. "When you're thinking of a Maui or Oahu, they don't give you that reclusive feeling. Here, you can get away and have top-quality golf. You just can't get that feeling at other places. It sets us apart from all other golf courses in the world."

As with most top Hawaiian courses, it's all about the setting. What the three courses have in common, besides top-notch service and facilities, is location, location, location. From Princeville's dense tropical jungle foliage, to Poipu Bay and Kauai Lagoon's Pebble Beach-like ocean holes, complete with crashing cliffs, the Kauai golf experience is one like no other.

Kauai golf began with Princeville. In 1972, Princeville's original developers set out to create the island's first golf community, for residents and tourists alike. The end result was a world-class resort that offers two Robert Trent Jones Jr. courses: the Prince and the 27-hole Makai course.

Down south, Kauai Lagoons followed suit in 1987, and Poipu Bay Golf Course shortly thereafter in 1991. Now five Kauai resorts offer 135 golf holes, with the original three earning top honors in the industry.

Unlike many awards, which are based on the opinions of the few, the Condé Nast Traveler poll represents the impressions of 1,576 readers who've played these courses in the last three years. Properties were rated on six criteria - course design, speed of play, rooms, service, food/dining, and other facilities.

Said Murphy: "A poll like this, since it comes from the people who've come here and played it and enjoyed it, is one of the best things we can ask for."

Poipu Bay, set on the relatively dry southern side of the island, between rugged mountains and equally rugged ocean bluffs, is no stranger to golf awards. It consistently ranks high in Golf Digest's top Hawaiian courses. It has also enjoyed extra exposure as 12-time host to the annual PGA Grand Slam of Golf, in which the winners of the four majors compete for a $1-million purse. This year's Grand Slam will see Tiger Woods, Michael Campbell, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh teeing it up.

And Kauai Lagoons, with its two Jack Nicklaus courses, has plenty to offer as well. The lush, 750-acre resort, secluded on gorgeous Kalapaka Bay, emanates a romantic tropical ambiance that has led to its placement on Golf magazine's list of Gold Medal golf resorts since 1998.

Kenneth Kimura, golf operations manager at Kauai Lagoons Golf Club, is satisfied with their ranking.

"We think we should rate as high as the other two, but to be on the list is an honor, so we're happy," Kimura said.

Kimura points out that Kauai Lagoons's Nicklaus design sets their resort apart from the pack. "Our design makes us a little different from the other courses. We have two courses - Kiele is the harder course, but Mokihana is great for families. In terms of difficulty, we probably rank in the middle, a little harder than Poipu, but easier than Prince. And we work very hard to make sure conditions are always great."

Kimura may have a point about the Nicklaus design: the No. 1 golf resort in the U.S., according to the Condé Nast poll, is another Nicklaus Hawaiian design: Hualalai at the Four Seasons Resort on the Big Island.

Can Kauai escape the prejudice among so many golfers as being merely a honeymooner's spot, and become Hawaii's next great golf destination? Craig Sasada, director of golf at Poipu Bay, thinks it can.

"In Kauai, all of these great courses are in close proximity of each other," Sasada said. "That's the advantage of being such a small island. You can play a lot of these courses within just a couple of days, whereas with the other islands, it's hard to get a lot of courses in on a three-day trip. You can get all these courses in on a short trip here on Kauai, and that's a great opportunity for a golf nut."

Competition between players may be fierce, but the competition between the courses works to everyone's advantage.

"We're all competing for the golfers, obviously, but at the same time we all want to work together," Sasada said. "Everybody can have their piece of the pie out here. We don't say 'we're the best, don't play the rest' out here. We all work together."

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.

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