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Travels with Keoki – A Week in the Islands

By: George Fuller


Keoki and I are on our annual golf pilgrimage through the Hawaiian Islands. Right now, we are standing on the third tee box at Mauna Kea, the most spectacular and intimidating par-3 hole in the Aloha State. Hole Nos. 1 and 2 at this classic retreat are fun, get-the-kinks-out efforts, but Mauna Kea No. 3: This is where the fun begins.

Keoki and I are on our annual golf pilgrimage through the Hawaiian Islands. Right now, we are standing on the third tee box at Mauna Kea, the most spectacular and intimidating par-3 hole in the Aloha State. Hole Nos. 1 and 2 at this classic retreat are fun, get-the-kinks-out efforts, but Mauna Kea No. 3: This is where the fun begins.

“Hmmm . . . 200-plus yards,” Keoki says, “and the wind is strong.”

He’s a strapping Hawaiian lad, 6’ 3” tall and 225 pounds, a cousin on my father’s side, and my blood tie to these magnificent islands.

“Don’t want to be short,” I note, staring at the churning Pacific inlet between where we stood and where the distant-looking green was placed – more than 40 years ago – by Robert Trent Jones and his then-apprentice son Bobby. The green and tee are really no more than lava fingers that jut into the Pacific, marking the spot where an ancient eruption of Mauna Kea Mountain stopped flowing into the sea. Today, covered by a thin layer of grass, these lava fingers comprise one of golf’s most glorious holes.

The entire course is built upon similar terrain, extending from Mauna Kea’s foothills down to the waterfront at holes three and 11. A rocky, penal classic, the late architect’s philosophy of “easy bogey, tough par” is in clear evidence at Mauna Kea, as tiered, pushed-up greens are the norm, often sited above fairway level. Palm trees and lava formations line most fairways, so accuracy is as critical as length. It takes a very good game to score well at Mauna Kea, but it stands first among Hawaii’s best.

“Don’t want to be short,” Keoki reiterates, pulling a 3-wood from his bag and pushing a peg into the turf.

When I land in Honolulu, the first thing I do is call Keoki. Somehow, he always has the time to “go neighbor island” with me for a few days of golf, kayaking and kicking back, Aloha-style. Our traditional first stop: Kohala Coast, Hawaii’s Big Island.

In the wide world of golf, there are no more alluring courses than those found on the Big Island. Of the more than 20 designs found here, one is located on top of a lava-spewing volcano; several are located so close to the warm Pacific waters that golfers are tempted to take a dip between shots; many are literally carved into ancient flows of brown and black lava, looking like green ribbons curling through the dark rock; others are placed on the slopes of majestic and verdant mountains.

Most Big Island vacationers opt to luxuriate along the Kona-Kohala Coast, where many of the state’s best full-service golf resorts are located. Among the excellent choices are Mauna Kea Resort – where Keoki and I are today – Mauna Lani Resort, Waikoloa and Four Seasons Hualalai.

Any choice is a good choice along this seductive coast, but for me, Mauna Kea has that special allure. The landmark Mauna Kea Beach Hotel opened in 1965. Twenty-one years later, in 1986, it was my first stop on a still-ongoing exploration of the islands, and as with all “firsts,” it holds a tender place in my heart. That’s why Keoki and I head here before anywhere else when we go neighbor-island hopping. We spend a few days (and more than a few dollars) splitting our time between the wide crescent of gentle beach that fronts the hotel, the two golf courses (the Hapuna Beach Prince course is adjacent) and the beachfront mai tai bar. After that, we’re both relaxed and ready to charge onward – to Maui.

***

Now we’re sitting at dinner in Vinos at the Village Course clubhouse at Kapalua, Maui. An unassuming hot dog and hamburger stop between nines during the day, by night this restaurant breaks out of the telephone booth with some super Italian cuisine. It’s fresh, creative cooking that concentrates on texture as much as flavor. Thus, the “handkerchiefs” of homemade pasta they just delivered to our table are not only coated with a creamy, smooth pesto, but topped with roasted almonds and pecorino cheese. The result is both crunchy and flavorful, a wonderful combination.

Keoki and I are reminiscing about our day on the Plantation Course. It is a big, windy monster of a layout, built on former pineapple fields in the foothills of the West Maui Mountains, and the most fun I’ve ever had shooting 125! Its designers, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, did a masterful job creating holes that are both a beast to play and a true pleasure at the same time, although for me much of that pleasure comes from drinking in the wide ocean vistas in between searching for lost balls in the tall grasses that flank the fairways. And for some reason – even though a map of the course does not bear me out –it feels as though 15 of the 18 holes play uphill and into the wind.

The Plantation Course is where the PGA Tour holds its season-opening event, the Mercedes Championships, every January. The last few years watching on television, with winning scores between 20-under and 30-under, I’ve had to wonder aloud if I was really that bad a golfer, or if the pros were really that good.

“Hawaii’s courses are defenseless without wind,” head professional Marty Kieter said when I posed the same question to him, “and the wind uncharacteristically has calmed down when the PGA is here.” Those guys get all the breaks.

Tomorrow, we’re headed to Wailea, about an hour’s drive south from Kapalua, on a less windy shore of Maui. Golfers have three courses to select from at Wailea: Gold, Emerald and Blue. The Gold Course is a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that hosts the Senior Skins Game. One can hit away on this oceanfront layout and not lose too many golf balls –something that I’m starting to consider at this point in my journey. But if you want a real “feel-good” golf experience – where you’ll score like a champ – play the Emerald Course, as pleasant a resort golf experience as there is in Hawaii. The views are superb from all of Wailea’s layouts, with several of the other Hawaiian Islands in clear sight.

Meanwhile, back at Vinos, they’ve just served our entrees, two mahi-mahi steaks massaged in lemon butter and garlic. “Eh, cuz,” Keoki says, “doesn’t get any better than this.” He speaks the truth.

***

The last leg of our week-long journey will be spent on Kauai, where three of our top-10 Hawaii courses (see the list below) are found: Kauai Lagoons Kiele, Princeville Prince and Poipu Bay Golf Course, where the PGA Grand Slam of Golf is played.

Jack Nicklaus declared the Kiele Course at Kauai Lagoons a masterpiece the day he declared it open in 1989 and, for once, these words were not just marketing spin. The front nine plays inland, over mango forests and through lush tropical foliage until emerging at the shoreline for the back nine of a lifetime.

Keoki and I are once again staring at the Pacific as we tee off on No. 12, which plays its way down to a green perched on a bluff above the crashing waves. No. 13 is a dramatic par-3 which asks for a tee shot from one cliff – over an ocean inlet – to a putting surface on another.

Kiele’s par-4 16th can be driven from the tee for those who like to take a chance, a feat John Daly accomplished when the Grand Slam was held here in 1991. Anything but a perfect shot, however, will have a negative consequence on the scorecard. The safe shot is to lay up at the crest of a very narrow, downhill fairway where the flagstick comes into view (it cannot be seen from the tee). The green is actually a few feet from the tidepools and lighthouse of Nawiliwili Bay. There is no more scenic stretch of holes anywhere in golf than those found from Nos. 12-16 at Kiele.

Our final conquest this trip is Princeville Prince, on the island’s fabled North Shore near Hanalei Bay. Another of Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s portfolio of Hawaiian designs, the Prince Course provides golfers a magnificent setting, as well as a stern test of golf. It runs along some bluffs above the Pacific, and boasts dramatic ocean or mountain views from every hole. From a playing standpoint, this course demands your best game. You’ll need to display accurate driving, precise approach shots and intelligent course management here to score well. Even if you don’t – and believe me, my own round was far less than stellar – a round on this impressive course is a cherished memory.

And for me and Keoki, that’s what this trip finally became, a fond memory. I’ve got this thing wired, though: I’m already planning for next year.

***pau***

Cuz & Keoki’s Top 10 Favorite Hawaii Courses

Mauna Kea (Big Island)
Kauai Lagoons, Kiele (Kauai)
Princeville Prince (Kauai)
Hualalai, Nicklaus (Big Island)
The Challenge at Manele (Lanai)
Kapalua Plantation (Maui)
Wailea Gold (Maui)
Turtle Bay, Palmer (Oahu)
Poipu Bay (Kauai)
Kaluakoi (Molokai)

Photographer and writer George Fuller has been covering golf and adventure travel for more than 15 years. His assignments have taken him throughout the United States, Asia, Polynesia, Europe and Mexico.

As an author, he has eight books to his credit, the two most recent being “California Golf – The Complete Guide” (11th edition, 2004, Avalon Travel Publishing) and “Discover Hawaii’s Best Golf” (second edition December 2001, Island Heritage Publishing). Others include “Hawaii: Adventures In Nature,” (October 1999, John Muir Publishing).

A former editor of “LINKS – The Best of Golf,” he has contributed stories to many newspapers and magazines, including TIME, San Francisco Chronicle, Coastal Living, GOLF Magazine, Travel & Leisure Golf and others. Based in Marina Del Rey, Calif., George is a monthly travel correspondent for the PGA Tour (pgatour.com), and a Contributing Editor to The Golfer. We're very happy George is part of the Cybergolf team.