Senior PGA Tour brings spotlight to memorable Maui golf courses

By Tom LaMarre, Contributor

WAILEA, Maui, Hawaii - No man is an island, unless it's Hale Irwin.

The three-time U.S. Open champion is Maui when it comes to golf.

Irwin, who represents the Kapalua Resort on the Senior PGA Tour, continued his domination on Maui in January by winning the Senior Skins Game at Wailea for the second consecutive year.

"I've had such a great run of successes in Hawaii," Irwin said after sinking a five-foot birdie putt on the final hole to collect a record $450,000.

"It's hard to put your finger on it, other than there's something in the air, the people, in the land. You name it. But it seems to work. It's sort of like a coming back home. It's always a treat."

That gave Irwin, who won the Kaanapali Classic in 1997 and 2000, four victories in his career on Maui and eight altogether in Hawaii, even though he has never won on his "home course" at Kapalua.

"It certainly doesn't bother us that Hale represents Kapalua and he's won here twice," said Barry Helle, marketing manager at Wailea. "He's got such a great track record on Maui that it's like a second home for him."

"Hale has been a great ambassador for golf on Maui and even though he represents Kapalua, what he does is great for all of us."

Wailea and its South Maui neighbor, Makena Golf Resort, have never had the high profile of Kapalua and Kaanapali on West Maui, which have hosted televised professional events for years.

But the Senior Skins Game has given the other side of the island a share of the spotlight.

"People knew we were here, but the Senior Skins has just reconfirmed the message that this is a great golf destination," Helle said. "The additional exposure has been good, helping people get to know Wailea a little better."

"The Senior Skins Game has been a good fit for us and we hope to host it for many years to come. It fits the demographics of the area. People can relate to Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. To those who watched them play in their prime, they are like family."

"And next year, the Senior Skins Game will be the television lead-in to the Super Bowl."

Even though Irwin has taken the lion's share of the money since the Senior Skins Game moved to Wailea, the most memorable moment came in 2001 when Nicklaus sank an eight-foot putt that, under the rules of the unique event, would have given him the victory had he missed.

"I never even thought about missing it intentionally," Nicklaus said, proving again that integrity is alive and well in golf.

Another memorable moment that wasn't caught by the television cameras was provided by Fuzzy Zoeller, a Senior PGA Tour rookie this year, who provided the entertainment at a luau one night during the Senior Skins Game.

Zoeller did a hula that looked more like the twist.

"Fuzzy put on a coconut bra and grass skirt and actually went up on stage," said Luly Unemori, director of public relations at Wailea. "The people absolutely loved it. That's just an example of how great the players have been.

"(With the new fan-friendly rules on the PGA Senior Tour), the fans can get very close to the players when they are playing and the players have been fine with it. Somebody asked Arnie to autograph a ball, and he did. Then he teed it up and hit it. A lot of people are going home with those type of stories."

The LPGA Tour's Womens Kemper Open was played on Wailea's Blue Course, designed by Arthur Jack Snyder and opened in 1972, in 1990-92. Wailea lost the event when the sponsor pulled out and resort officials had been shopping for another professional tournament ever since.

The Senior Skins Game is played on the Wailea Gold Course, a par-72, 7,078-yard layout, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 1994.

The most intriguing hole is the par-four sixth, which measures 297 yards from the back tees.

Wailea officials hoped to move up the tee so the Seniors could go for the green but that hasn't happened because the pros wouldn't stand for it.

"We wanted them to go for the green," Helle said. "That's what makes that hole so much fun."

"It measures 265 yards from the blue tees and we hoped to play it there for the tournament so we might have some putts for eagle."

"But the players wanted to play from the back tees all the way around the course. Jack said, 'We've all got enough ego to think we can still hit the ball, so let's play it back.' So they laid up on that hole and it becomes a competition of wedge shots."

The most difficult hole follows at No.7, a 590-yard par five from the back tees that plays slightly uphill and is a double dogleg. The hole, which has a narrow landing area for the tee shot and tightens even more at the green, starts sharply to the right and wanders back to the left.

"This is a true par five," said Rick Castillo, senior head pro at Wailea. "If you make par, you feel like you scored an eagle because it's such a great, demanding hole."

No. 8, a par three that plays 216 yards downhill and is the signature hole at Wailea, finishes off a spectacular set of holes with a panoramic view of Lanai across the water, with the ancient volcano remnant Molokini, in the channel as the centerpiece.

On the back nine, the challenging 487-yard 12th hole begins a demanding run that includes the 530-yard 13th, the 444-yard 14th and the 548-yard 15th, easily the longest stretch at Wailea.

The 438-yard 18th is a sporty, scenic par 4 that doglegs left with a slightly uphill tee shot and an approach that plays downhill to a green that slopes from back to front.

"Both times, the Senior Skins has come down to that hole," Helle said. "The first year, Hale hit a shot from a sand-filled bunker and stuck it four feet from the hole to win the money. It's been a terrific finishing hole."

Be sure to play the Wailea Emerald Course, another Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that annually is listed as one of the most women-friendly courses by Golf for Women magazine.

Picking a course is almost as difficult as choosing a hotel at Wailea.

You've got the Grand Wailea Resort, the Four Seasons Resort, the Outrigger Wailea Resort, the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui and Renaissance Wailea Beach Resort to choose from.

It seems everyone has a favorite. Michael Jordan prefers the Grand Wailea, David Robinson likes the Four Seasons and Mike Tyson prepared for his heavyweight championship fight by training on Maui and stayed in the villas at the Kea Lani.

"The Grand Wailea sets the tone in a lot of ways," said Liz Marquez, who recently left the Grand Wailea to become public relations manager at the Kea Lani. "Everything is on a large scale - the spa, the pool, the grounds."

"But I like the intimacy at the Kea Lani and the service is second to none. We don't have a big turnover with our staff. Most of them have been here for a long time and are like family."

The Outrigger Wailea Resort, which recently underwent a multi-million refurbishing, is the oldest hotel in South Maui, which gives it a distinct advantage.

Location, location, location.

"Since this was the first hotel built on this end of the island, we have the prime location," said Roy Cordeiro, director of sales and marketing at the Outrigger. "You can't get any closer to the water than this. Because the property is so large, you don't feel crowded even when we are at full capacity.

"And it's easy to find a place to eat, on the grounds or off. There are 87 restaurants within 10 minutes of our property."

Dine overlooking the Pacific at Hula Moons Restaurant at the Outrigger, with vintage Hawaiian prints decorating the walls, and don't miss the authentic luau next to the beach.

The Kea Lani has award-winning Nick's Fishmarket Maui and Caffe Ciao Restaurant, an outdoor Venetian trattoria that specializes in hand-tossed pizzas and other genuine Italian fare.

Other favorites in Wailea include the Lobster Cove, Wailea Steak and Seafood, the Seawatch Restaurant and Tommy Bahama's Cafe in the upscale Shops at Wailea.

Down the road in Kihei are the Five Palms Beach Grill, the Kihei Prime Rib and Seafood House, and Mack and Jack's Seafood House.

Legendary Mama's Fish House, a slice of Old Hawaii and perhaps the best seafood restaurant on the island, is worth the drive to Paia. Make reservations early to get a window table at sunset and stop on the way back from the drive to Hana, the Tedeschi Winery or up Mt. Haleakala.

Drive up to the end of the road from Wailea and you'll find the Maui Prince Hotel in Makena, which recently hosted Ozzy Osbourne.

The Sunday Brunch at the Prince Court Restaurant is a must, and authentic Japanese cuisine is available at Hakone, which offers a Tokyo-style sushi bar.

Makena Golf Club, which winds around the Prince Hotel and up the slopes of Haleakala, provides another 36 holes of memorable golf on South Maui.

Makena Golf Club's South Course is the tournament course at the facility, measuring 7,017 yards, and has hosted the 1997 Pacific Coast Amateur and the 2000 PGA Club Professional Championship Western Regional.

Unquestionably, the highlight is the spectacular 15th hole on the South Course, a 188-yard par three that goes straight downhill to the ocean, and the 390-yard par-four 16th that runs parallel to the water.

Makena Golf Club's North Course, shorter at 6,914 yards but tighter, is a challenging layout that winds up the slopes of Mt. Haleakala. It is not suited for tournament play because it would be difficult for fans to walk the course and to position television equipment on some parts of the course because of the steepness.

"We have had a few offers to host professional tournaments," said Howard Kihune Jr., director of golf at Makena. "When the (PGA) Senior Tour left Kaanapali, the tournament was ours if we wanted it, but we weren't ready.

"The course is definitely good enough but we had some zoning and infrastructure issues to deal with, and we need a new clubhouse. But in a year or so, we'll be looking for something. It doesn't have to be a professional event. I've always been a fan of amateur golf and we wouldn't mind a USGA event. Maybe not the U.S. Amateur but possibly the U.S. Mid-Amateur."

That would be one way to eliminate Irwin.

Tom LaMarre, Contributor

Tom LaMarre has been a sportswriter and copy editor in California for parts of five decades, including 15 years with the Oakland Tribune and 22 with the Los Angeles Times.

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