Kauai: Hawaii's lush golf playground

Kauai has fewer than half the courses of Oahu, Maui and the Big Island, but the quality is top notch.
The par-3 3rd on Princeville Makai shimmers at dusk.

PRINCEVILLE, Kauai - Minutes from my tee time at the Princeville Makai Golf Club, the skies opened up with rain.

Our entire group scattered. Some golfers jumped in their carts. Others ran to the pro shop for cover. Rain usually dampens the mood of golfers, but the locals are used to brief showers that come and go on the trade winds. They like to call them "blessings".

And, sure enough, the next 12 hours felt like one giant Hawaiian blessing: a completely dry round on one of the most scenic courses in the world, followed by a sunset golf cart tour along the cliffs and finally pizza back at the clubhouse. Vacation days don't get any better.

What Kauai lacks in quantity - its seven courses currently open are less than half of what's available on Maui, Oahu or Hawaii (Big) Island - the Garden Isle makes up in quality. Any of its fab four - Princeville Makai, the Ocean Course at Hokuala, Poipu Bay or Wailua Municipal Golf Course - deliver ocean views for days and welcoming, friendly island vibes. People come to Kauai to escape the crowds of the other larger, more populated islands and slow things down a little.

When I visited in June, the pandemic had things out of sorts like every other popular, domestic tourist destination: a lack of rental cars, full hotels, restaurants short on staff and reservations, excursions booked for weeks in advance and, heaven forbid, construction traffic. But all of it was a minor annoyance. Kauai is still paradise of the highest order.

My wife and I stayed two nights at three different properties to get a taste of what each had to offer. Whatever fits your budget, you can't really go wrong anywhere.

Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa

The Grand Hyatt Kauai in Koloa, located on the island's south shore about a half-hour's drive from the Lihue airport, is a favorite of golfers and families alike with just the right mix of casual and elegance. It's big, featuring 604 guest rooms and suites, but doesn't feel that way with so many restaurants and places to find privacy. Jungle landscaping hides pockets of pools, a lazy river, water slide and a couple of outdoor bars/restaurants. The setting at Tidepools, where guests dine in thatched-roof bungalows floating above a koi-filled lagoon, is one of my personal favorites on the entire island. Closer to the beach is a sprawling lagoon giving smaller children room to roam and splash.

Golfers are spoiled by Poipu Bay, which is within walking distance (or a short shuttle ride) of the hotel. Memorabilia of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf from 1994-2006 decorates the clubhouse. Tiger Woods won it seven times and Phil Mickelson answered one year with a 59 and a victory. But you don't have to be Tiger or Phil to play well here. This 9-handicap shot even par on the back nine, inspired by the finishing holes along the ocean cliffs. Even if you don't play well, the combination of service and scenery will win you over.

Timbers Kauai Ocean Club & Residences

A stay at Timbers Kauai Ocean Club & Residences takes the luxury up a notch. Everything here is blindingly gorgeous - the golf, the accommodations, the view from the infinity pool overlooking the Nawilliwilli Bay out to the ocean.

While some Timbers properties are for property-owners only - like Timbers Kiawah - vacation guests visiting Timbers Kauai can rent from a pool of 47 large, multi-bedroom units with even more comforts than home - full kitchens, balconies and fridges that can be stocked with your personal favorites ordered before your stay. The 450-acre resort community includes a private beach club, kid's club, spa, trails, multiple pools and oceanfront dining at Hualani’s, which is fed by local ingredients from the Farm at Hokuala.

The publicly accessible resort course by Jack Nicklaus has shrunk from 36 to 18 holes over the years, but what's left is fantastic: a jungle-infested front nine followed by a back nine with the longest stretch of ocean holes in the islands. The blue horizon crashes into the blue surf of the Pacific beyond the 13th green, introducing stunning views that don't disappear until the 18th. There are some design quirks along the way - an extremely tilted fairway that's blind off the 15th tee and a 160-yard layup on the 331-yard 16th - but most golfers come away from the experience with the views of two different oceanfront lighthouses dancing in their heads, not the double-bogeys on the card.

Just minutes from the airport and the town, this is the most convenient of all Kauai's resorts. It's also close to Puakea, a really fun public course in Lihue that closed early on during the pandemic and has yet to reopen. Sadly, locals are getting nervous about its future.

Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach

The Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach features nice pools with views of the beach.

Although not a golf resort, the 312-room Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort in Kapaa is ideally located six miles north of the airport and a half-hour (23 miles) south of Princeville. My wife and I loved walking the shoreline while exploring other beachfront resorts and nearby restaurants and shopping. The Sheraton had live music at its poolside restaurant/bar each night, and our fourth-floor, oceanfront room was recently renovated.

The closest course - Wailua, less than 3 miles away - was my favorite discovery of the trip. It is the perfect muni for locals and tourists alike. Nobody cares what you wear or how you play. Just show up and enjoy ocean holes for less than $60. Every community should have its own Wailua. Golf would be in a better place.

Update: 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay

While on the island, I did take a hard-hat tour of the the old St. Regis Princeville that is being rebuilt and rebranded as the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay. The main building was stripped to its core, so an open-air lobby could replace an indoor one that blocked a striking view of one of the island's best beaches. It will anchor the 9,000-acre master-planned community on the north shore. This five-star hotel is set to open in summer 2022 with guest rooms and suites, as well as a large spa, pool and beachfront. It will be the high-end complement to the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas. It will be one more reason to consider Kauai for your next Hawaii vacation. Pandemic or not, this is a perfect place to be.

Editor's Note: GolfPass members get $100 off golf packages.

Golf Packages
KAUAI | Enjoy 4 nights' accommodations at Timbers Kauai Ocean Club & Residences and 2 rounds of golf at Princeville Makai Golf Club (GOLF Advisor's #1 ranked course in Kauai) and The Ocean Course at Hokuala.
Golf Packages
KAUAI | Enjoy 4 nights' accommodations at Marriott's Kauai Beach Club and 2 rounds of golf at Princeville Makai Golf Club & The Ocean Course at Hokuala.

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.
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Kauai: Hawaii's lush golf playground