Wailea Golf Club: Maui courses golfers don't want to miss

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

MAUI, Hawaii - When most folks think of Maui golf, Kapalua comes to mind. They picture the pros teeing off in the Mercedes Championship, fighting sharp tradewinds and changing weather conditions.

Wailea Golf Club - Gold Course - hole 8
The eighth hole on the Gold course at Wailea Golf Club - which has golfers teeing off toward the ocean - is the crowd favorite.
Wailea Golf Club - Gold Course - hole 8Wailea Golf Club - Emerald Course - hole 9Wailea Golf Club - Old Blue Course - hole 12
If you go

But golfers would be wise to consider another venue when picking their Maui vacation spot: Wailea Golf Club.

In the southwest corner of Maui, next to the beach town of Kihei, lies a threesome of courses - the Blue, Gold and Emerald - that have all of the advantages of Kapalua.

Originally opened in 1972, Wailea Golf Club's Blue course, designed by Arthur Jack Snyder, offers a lengthy test of skills and impeccable conditions. The Emerald course and Gold course, meanwhile, were designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Emerald opened in 1993, Gold followed the next year and, since then, Wailea has become a favorite golf destination, garnering prestigious awards every year.

Once here, it's not hard to see why.

Wailea's location was no accident. It's situated at the foot of Mt. Haleakala - Maui's 10,023-foot dormant volcano - resulting in ideal golfing conditions. Haleakala essentially provides a giant windbreak, meaning the worst you get here is a balmy breeze. Combine that with Maui's year-round average temperature of 80 degrees and annual rainfall of only 10 inches, and you've got yourself the perfect spot for teeing off.

Alexander and Baldwin, a corporation founded by descendants of the original missionaries to Hawaii, developed Wailea in the early 1970s, carving the spot out of a wasteland of desert shrubs and lava rock. In its stead they created a lush, luxurious, and beautifully manicured playground. The courses have changed hands a couple of times since then and landed in the hands of Golf BC, also owners of Kiele and Mokihana on Kauai.

Wailea Golf Club's Emerald course

Wailea Golf Club's Emerald course offers stunning scenery, with bougainvillea, birds-of-paradise, and firecracker plants everywhere you look. The layout, with the holes stair-stepping uphill, means you have a view of the ocean and outlying islands on every single hole. Yes, every hole.

Measuring 6,825 from the tips, 6,407 from the blues, 5,873 from the whites, and 5,268 from the reds, the Emerald is no pushover. It opens with a medium-length downhill par 4 that funnels toward the green -- a nice warm-up that might leave you thinking you're going to have an easy day. But one taste of the RTJ greens and you'll realize you have your work cut out.

Rusty Hathaway, Blue's 10-year head professional who recently moved over to Gold and Emerald, recommends players bring their best short game.

"Tee to green, what you see is pretty much what you get," Hathaway says. "But once you get on the greens, that's where you really have to pay attention. It helps to know the general rule that everything breaks toward the ocean. To score well, you really have to pay attention to the short game."

When it opened, the Emerald course was named one of the top 10 new courses by Golf Magazine, and Golf Digest awarded it one of the 10 best new resort courses in the country, as well as one of the best courses in Hawaii. Golf for Women consistently ranks the course in its top 100 in terms of playability for women - largely for its reachable length, kind fairways, and few forced carries. Singer Celine Dion discovered this for herself a few years ago, when she broke 100 for the first time on the Emerald.

Wailea Golf Club's Gold course

Host to the annual Wendy's Champions Skins Game in February (since 2001), as well as the LPGA Skins Game in 2003, the Gold course plays a bit longer - 7,078 from the tips, 6,653 yards from the blues, 6,152 from the whites, and 5,442 from the reds. It's considerably less forgiving than the Emerald, with more carries and extra bunkers in play. Called "a thinking player's course," it requires some serious shotmaking skills. A prime example is the No. 1 handicap, the par 5, No. 7 that plays 544 yards from the whites, uphill, with a double dogleg and a prevailing cross wind.

While the official line is that Wailea Golf Club doesn't have a signature hole, "as it erroneously implies the others are somehow inferior," Hathaway admits that Gold's No. 8 is the crowd favorite. From the blues it's a challenging 188 yards, for the ladies a very par-able 107, and has golfers teeing off toward the ocean, aiming at Molokini, the tiny, crescent-shaped islet offshore.

Hathaway recommends the Gold course for lower handicappers, although he says "it really doesn't matter, with the four sets of tees. That's the beauty of a Robert Trent Jones design. But Emerald is our most popular, for the majority of our guests. And you can get away with a lot more errant shots on the Emerald than you can on the Gold."

The verdict on Wailea Golf Club

There's a reason why Wailea Golf Club has a four-star rating from Golf Digest, among many other awards. It offers a notable combination of challenge, playability, scenery, and excellent conditioning. And the service? Instead of snapping at you, the marshal brings you cold towels during your round. Your golf car comes fully loaded with GPS and bottles of water on ice. More cold towels await you at the end of your round, and if you're playing more than once, your clubs will be waiting for you at whichever course you're playing when you arrive for your next tee time.

Stay and play

Wailea has six world-class resorts to choose from, as well as several condo complexes. But if you're traveling with your family, your kids will never forgive you if you don't stay at the Grand Wailea. It offers a fantastical lagoon-style pool complex, complete with seven water slides, a rope swing, six waterfalls, and the world's only water elevator, as well as the Grand Spa, a 50,000-square-foot tribute to opulence.

Conde Nast and Travel + Leisure magazines rate it as a top 10 spa in the United States. Room rates run anywhere from $400 to $800 for a deluxe oceanfront king.

What to do

What, are you kidding? This is Maui. Besides the three golf courses, Wailea also offers a tennis club and boutique shopping (the open-air Shops at Wailea let you browse everything from Tiffany & Co., Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, to The Gap), not to mention scuba diving, surfing lessons, kayaking, horseback riding, sporting clays, and more. I promise, you won't get bored here.

Dining out

My personal favorite is Nick's Fishmarket, located in the Fairmont Kea Lani. They have service and sashimi down to an art. Other fine-dining choices are Joe's Bar & Grill (great for celebrity sightings) and Roy's Kihei, all located within 10 minutes of Wailea's resorts. And don't leave without trying the kalua pork at the locals' favorite hangout, Da Kitchen in Kihei.

Fast fact

Among its awards (and there have been many), Wailea has also received a Historic Preservation Award from the Maui Historical Society, an award for which most golf courses could never be considered. Why? Because of the effort to preserve the ancient rock walls that dot the area. Hawaiians of centuries ago built the walls, called papohaku, using no mortar, and they stand there still. I managed to shank a three-wood directly into one, in fact. But the Hawaiian golf gods were good to me, the ball bounced back into a lovely fluffed-up lie, and I got away with a bogey.

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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