Kapalua: Life at Maui's most famous golf resort

The tweaking of the Plantation course improves the Kapalua experience.
A backdrop of mountains and ocean accompanies a round on Kapalua's Plantation course.

MAUI, Hawaii - One bunker.

For the millions of dollars spent to recontour greens, laser-level tees and re-grass fairways, greens and tees on Kapalua's Plantation course, architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are expecting blow-back from the world's best golfers about one minor change.

A new bunker planted in the middle of the fifth fairway, roughly 300 yards from the back tee, will force pros competing in the Sentry Tournament of Champions Jan. 2-5 to think twice before belting driver on the par 5. Poor unfortunate souls.

"We know that players won't like it," Coore said on a conference call with reporters in December. "A lot of the divots were right where that bunker will be."

For thousands of other amateurs who will play the famous par-73 course the rest of the year? Green light means go with the bunker harmlessly out of reach. In essence, one bunker symbolizes the theme of the entire nine-month revitalization project - to make life harder for the pros but keep the 7,596-yard course playable for resort guests. That's important, not just for the resort, but the entire island, since playing the Plantation is the draw for golfers to visit Maui.

I returned to the 36-hole resort for the first time in eight years in December, rekindling a love affair with Maui. I immersed myself in that "Ohana" vibe by spending two nights apiece at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and Montage Kapalua Bay. Although competition to be the best golf resort in the Hawaiian islands remains fierce, I can't imagine a better mix of accommodations, courses, restaurants, pools, scenery and setting.

The golf life at Kapalua

The 18th hole of Kapalua's Plantation course sweeps downhill on Maui.

Like a lot of golf fans, I vividly remember the Tiger-Ernie battle on the Plantation in 2000. The shot-making was mesmerizing, much like the layout itself. Everything is measured on a grand scale ... the Pacific Ocean views, the jungle surroundings, the sweeping elevation changes.

If you watch that video again, you'll noticed how shots by Woods and Els bounced into the 18th green, a ground game assault that the remodeling aims to rekindle. Renewed firm-and-fast conditions will redirect the ball, creating a randomness that will mess with the heads of the pros and leave 10 handicaps bragging to their friends about 280-yard drives and lucky shots funneling unto greens. Troon Golf does a great job of dialing in conditions day to day at Kapalua, but staying true to fast conditions in a sometimes soggy climate won't be easy. It will be vital to the success of the TOC.

“It offers a different test of golf for the tournament (than players are used to),” Crenshaw said. “It is imaginative golf. It is not hitting shots point A to point B. It will be interesting.”

The work also emphasized a "calming" of the greens, according to Coore, to serve a dual purpose: More flexibility for selecting pins for tournament officials and potentially fewer three-putts for high handicappers. I'm still not a fan of a couple of holes, notably the difficult 17th hole - there's nowhere to layup and no way for average players like me to clear the hazard on the approach off a downhill lie - but it's a minor annoyance quickly forgotten stepping onto that legendary 18th tee.

I was pleasantly surprised that the Bay course is darn good, too. The 6,600-yard classic once hosted tournaments for both the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour back in the day. If I spent a week at Kapalua playing golf, I'd probably split the rounds evenly, both for cost and pure enjoyment factor. Greens fees range from $329 on Plantation to $229 on Bay for resort guests. There are a few ways to save detailed in this Secrets of Golf story on GolfPass.

The Bay was recently rerouted, so the round climaxes on the ocean. The 16th bends left to reveal the water with the par-3 17th playing over a rocky cove. My foursome arrived just as the sun was dipping below the horizon.

The 17th hole on the Bay course at Kapalua is the only true ocean hole on Maui.

The resort life at Kapalua

After playing three rounds, if only I had more time at the resort. I never once got to dip my toes in a pool or rub my feet in the sand.

The Ritz-Carlton and Montage compare favorably with the exception of the size of the rooms. Ritz rooms are always nice and modern, but it wasn't a fair fight, since the Montage was originally scheduled to be a Ritz-Carlton Residences before the 2009 recession changed its course. I shared a three-bedroom suite at Montage with two other golf writers. There was space galore in the kitchen, living room, patio, etc. Everybody took a turn using the laundry room, an added bonus.

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Dinner at the Banyan Tree at the Ritz the first night had an intermission of sorts as everyone gathered outside to watch a Hawaiian fire dancer perform. Dining at Montage's Cane and Canoe a few nights later brought more culinary delights. The Cliff House, operated by the Montage, overlooks Kapalua Bay, serving up dramatic sunsets. It's open on a first-come-first-serve basis for a "Champagne Hale" for resort guests all winter from 3:30-7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. There are rumors of a few Tour pros jumping off the roof, but I'm not sure I'd want to ruin my vacation with an ill-timed, alcohol-infused leap of faith.

No vacation to Kapalua is complete without an excursion on the water and night out in nearby Lahaina. A sunset cruise on the Maui Jim Boat dropped us off just in time for a little downtown shopping before dinner at Fleetwood's On Front Street, where the food is just as good as the live music on the rooftop bar and the main restaurant. Owner Mick Fleetwood has been known to share the stage with Steven Tyler and other celebrity guests.

Jason Day tees off on the 18th hole during the second round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Plantation Course at Kapalua on January 4, 2019 in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Considering visiting Kapalua during the Sentry TOC? The tournament ranks among the best golf events for spectators. Fans can get much closer to the action than other PGA Tour stops. The sponsor, Sentry Insurance, has made a major commitment to improving the whole experience, from new food vendors to golf simulators, where fans can replicate famous shots from tournament history (a 300-yard fairway wood ala Tiger?). Chances are you might even run into the players at dinner or wandering Lahaina that night.

If you can't make January work for your schedule, don't fret. Any time is a good time to come see Kapalua.

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Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
2 Comments
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Commented on

Don't forget about vacation rental accommodations at The Kapalua Villas - we have one and two bedroom condos with ocean and fairway views!

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Kapalua is so gorgeous and fabulous to play. I have played it twice and the experience is spectacular and one that should be on your bucket list. Beyond the course and the sensational views, is the fabulous restaurant and food! The pro shop is great for both women and men, carrying all the best brands. One word cannot describe this magnificent course! Awesome and more!

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Kapalua: Life at Maui's most famous golf resort