The wonderful equatorial climate and consistent soft ocean breezes alone would instantly qualify Hawaii as a golfers’ paradise, but more than anything it is the landscape that makes golf here world famous.
The flora and topography are amazingly varied, and from the black oceanfront lava fields of the Big Island to the mountainous vistas on Maui to the tropical jungles of Kauai, there is a stunning view at every turn. But most of all there is the Pacific Ocean, and while the vast majority of the world’s greatest courses are built on the coast, Hawaii offers almost nothing but, with clifftop fairways, holes playing over thundering coves, and jagged peninsulas jutting into the sea. When you play Hawaii’s best courses, you are playing over the ocean, along the ocean, or trying to concentrate on your swing while looking at the ocean. If you do get distracted by the beauty, it’s still worth it.
Plantation Course, Maui
There are few things rival magazines Golf and Golf Digest agree on, but both rank this revered design by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw as the Number One public layout in the entire state. For years the PGA Tour has chosen it to kick off the start of the yearlong season with the rich purse of the Tournament of Champions. As a result, every great golfer of the past two decades has played at the Plantation Course. The hilly, rolling course plays through jungle and across ravines while overlooking the ocean at every turn, with some of the best vistas in the game. Views run clear across to Lanai, the Pineapple Island, and in winter whale watching season, golfers can see humpbacks cavorting in the channel between the islands from the fairways. Many holes dogleg around intricate bunkering, challenging golfers with frequent strategic decisions, and the closing five holes are especially strong for a memorable finish. It is one of very few courses in Hawaii offering caddies, and one of few anywhere with an unusual par-73 layout.
Where to stay in Maui
Hualalai Golf Club, Big Island
The Island’s first Jack Nicklaus Signature design, Hualalai is truly one of a kind, its lush green fairways carved through the distinctive moonscape of oceanfront black lava fields, a stark juxtaposition on the Kona coast. This is done very much on purpose, as the design intentionally showcases five contrasting elements throughout, the green fairways, black lava rock, white sand, blue water, and even bluer sky. Impeccably maintained and managed by the Four Seasons Resort at Historic Ka’upulehu, the course annually hosts the world’s top senior PGA pros in the Champions Tour Mitsubishi Championship. If Nicklaus has one design trademark, it is using the very best land for a jaw-dropping three hole finale, and here he does it right on the water, including the signature hole, the par-3 Seventeenth. In a creative twist on the “island” hole concept, he built a green completely encircled by black lava and sand, framing the Pacific directly behind it.
Stay at the Hualalai Resort
Turtle Bay Palmer Course, Oahu
Fresh off a $45 million renovation, this resort on Oahu’s rugged and windswept North Shore, famous for its big wave surfing breaks like Jaws and Pipeline, has two eighteen hole courses. Both are by renowned architects, Arnold Palmer and Tom Fazio, but it is the Palmer Course that shines brightest, a layout consistently ranked top on the State’s most populous island. Players hardly know they are at a resort at all, as the course is set on 180-acres solely devoted to golf, without a building in sight. The design is unusual in Hawaii for its extensive use of inland marshes and wetlands, framed by lush, thick tropical jungle, giving it a secluded, escapist feel. Throughout the round, this buffer protects golfers from the strong North Shore winds – at least until the penultimate hole, the signature Seventeenth, when the course explodes from the vegetation to the edge of terra firma for a dramatic conclusion.
Where to stay in Oahu
Kauai Lagoons, Kauai
For years the Kiele Course, a Jack Nicklaus Signature design, was ranked among the best in Hawaii. But in 2010 and 2011, Nicklaus was brought back to do substantial renovations of the front and back nines respectively, and after a major facelift, it reopened as the Kauai Lagoons Golf Club. The three weakest holes on the otherwise fantastic back nine were completely replaced with new designs, all eighteen greens were replanted with TifEagle grass for superior putting surfaces, and all bunkers were rebuilt with brilliantly white silica sand, better for play and visually dramatic. The once stellar course is now simply fantastic, and much of the layout runs down an almost too-stunning-to-believe peninsula set in the crashing surf of the Pacific. Holes run all the way around the perimeter, maximizing every inch of coastal frontage. As a result, Kauai Lagoons has the longest continuous stretch of oceanfront golf in the state, one jaw-dropping hole after another, totaling more than half a mile of uninterrupted coastline.
Where to stay in Kauai