Golf in Hawaii: All aboard Maui's player-friendly Ka'anapali Kai course

LAHAINA, MAUI Hawaii -- A few times during your round on the Kai course at Ka'anapali Golf Resort, the Sugar Cane Train will likely rumble by. It's a popular tourist attraction that gives riders a glimpse into west Maui's history as a sugar cane producer.

Most passersby tend to look toward the golf course, set between the train tracks and the ocean, giving a smile and wave while watching you tee off.

And judging by the puppy eyes of some, you get feeling they'd rather be out there with you.

The Kai course is the shorter, more player-friendly complement at Ka'anapali Golf Resort in west Maui near Lahaina. It was originally built as an executive course before it was extended in 1976 and further enhanced in 2005. Since its inception, the Kai course has been seen as not so much a competitor to the more championship-caliber Royal Ka'anapali course, but a complement.

"We get a lot of couples, and the two courses satisfy both the husband and wife," said Sutee Nitakorn, head professional of the Ka'anapali golf courses. "The men go towards the championship-caliber Royal Ka'anapali - and the women tend to like Kai more. So they'll play both."

The Kai plays under 6,400 yards from the championship tees, and just 4,522 yards from the forward tees (Royal Ka'anapali's shortest tee set is 5,016 yards). For families, the Kai features a set of "Keiki" or junior tees, which are set up in the fairways and present a course under 3,000 yards.

The golf course winds along the same sloping land that rolls down toward the ocean as Royal Ka'anapali, which results in both uphill and downhill shots, narrow doglegs and a few forced carries. The Kai is every bit as scenic as the Royal but presents some unique characteristics, like the Sugar Cane Train tracks.

Some of the Kai's most dramatic holes are those that head straight downhill towards the ocean. The ninth is a short par 4 with a fantastic green setting. What's more, this is one of the better birdie opportunities, and birdies are always better on the course's most picturesque holes. Similarly, the sharply downhill, par-3 15th hole features the big blue backdrop, and the opportunity to witness a whale breach if you keep your eyes on the ocean long enough.

From the 15th green, the final stretch of holes finish down low, near the resort on more wooded and wet land. Both the 16th and 18th holes require forced carries over water on the approach shot. Thankfully, no Sugar Cane Train rumbles by here, so a chunk into the water should go happily unnoticed by onlookers.

Ka'anapali Golf Resort's Kai course: The verdict

Ka'anapali Kai serves up the same top quality conditions and scenery as Royal Ka'anapali, it just comes in a bit shorter and at a slightly lower price tag. While lower handicaps can still get their fix of good hole variety and some tough shots, the Kai is meant to be enjoyed by those who don't want big numbers to ruin their day in paradise.

Both the Royal and Kai courses at Ka'anapali feature GPS in golf carts and extremely friendly staff members setting you up and greeting you on your way back in with cold towels. And remember, just like on the Royal, putts break towards Lanai without fail.

If you're not up for 18 holes in one day, Ka'anapali also offers a unique "Golf my way" program that lets you space out your 18-hole round over multiple days - even take a day or two off in between. Check with the pro shop for details.

Stay and play: Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa

Set on the picturesque Black Rock promontory, Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa features 508 guest rooms, most of which have ocean views, on 23 acres of beachfront property. After golf, you can take in a variety of beach activities such as stand-up paddleboarding or snorkeling around coral reefs. Or, head to one of Maui's great 19th holes, the beachfront Mai Tai Bar, for drinks at sunset during the ceremonial cliff dive.

This is the place to be for happy hour sunset (no sunset should be missed during your time on Maui) where you can watch cliff divers and the ceremonial lighting of tiki torches. After sunset, stick around for dinner at Teppanyaki Dan, where skilled chefs perform before your eyes. Or, dine outdoors under the moonlight at Black Rock Steak & Seafood.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.

Related Links

The first of the resorts to come to Ka'anapali on the west side of Maui is the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa, located near the historic beach town of Lahaina. After major expansion in 1997, today the resort features 508 guest rooms in six towers, including presidential and luxury suites. The resort also recently added the boutique Black Rock Spa.
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Maui is scenic at every turn, whether you're on the beach or teeing it up on one of this Hawaiian island's golf courses. Here are some of Brandon Tucker's favorite shots on the golf course and off during his recent Maui golf trip.
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Golf in Hawaii: All aboard Maui's player-friendly Ka'anapali Kai course