KAUAI, Hawaii - Visit Kiahuna Golf Club on Kauai's South Shore, and you'll see a simple change in turf has put it on the fast track among Hawaii golf courses.
While more renowned courses like the Prince Golf Course and Poipu Bay Golf Course steal the headlines on Kauai, Kiahuna is leading the island in embracing a relatively new strain of grass that could one day be commonplace on most Hawaii golf courses.
Its resurgence as one of the best golf courses on Kauai didn't happen overnight. Like much of Kauai, Kiahuna struggled after Hurricane Iniki in 1992 and the golf course deteriorated, so much in fact designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. didn't want to be associated with it anymore. Local homeowners, who knew how good the course could be with the right TLC, bought the course from the Japanese ownership in 2003 and set out on an extensive renovation project totaling around $4 million.
Four seasons ago, just after a change in course ownership, officials made the switch from the common Bermuda grass to a newer strain of Seashore Paspalum that was still in many ways a work in progress.
The result was a turf much faster and firmer, allowing for more run in fairways and greens than most other courses in Hawaii. Even Jones Jr. is reportedly happy with all of the facelifts.
But perhaps an even more valuable benefit, it has also helped bring down the water bill, which can get awfully high when you're in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
"We've gone from about 1.2 million gallons of water down to 600,000-800,000 annually with the new grass," said Matt Torry, director of golf at Kiahuna. Torry himself came to Kiahuna after stints at Poipu Bay and Mauna Lani, seeking to be a part of revitalizing the course to its full potential.
Seashore's benefits are not only from an economic and playability standpoint but environmentally as well. It requires less fertilizer than Bermuda and can handle brackish and other non-potable water. It's also able to withstand the salt water coming onto the course from the nearby ocean better than Bermuda. It's seemingly perfect for pacific island golf.
While Kiahuna is just among a handful of Hawaii courses using it currently, Torry says it's only a matter of time before all the Hawaiian golf courses make the switch.
"I would almost think you have to for its playability and durability," he said. "The problem is the transition time can be killer for the golf courses. You have to shut down nine holes for usually a good year."
As a result of the fast and firm ground and coastal location yielding stiff Pacific breezes, Kiahuna plays much like a traditional links course. Its fairways tumble up and down on rolling, seaside land. It even has a massive double green shared by holes No. 3 and 7 on the front nine ala the Old Course at St. Andrews.
There is history all over these grounds, as well. Much like Poipu Bay Golf Course nearby, there are a collection of ancient stone walls once used as territorial markings in and around the golf course, along with the remnants of an early 1800s Portuguese house and crypt.
The course - like many on Kauai, including Princeville's two golf courses and Poipu Bay next door - is a Jones Jr. design. It measures just under 7,000 yards from the championship tees, though as with most Hawaii golf courses, that is an arbitrary number. The wind decides how long the course will play on any given day.
And if the trade winds are howling, Kiahuna is going to be all the challenge you need. Save some energy for the final two holes as they are the two lowest handicapped on the back side. Both heroic par 4s, the 17th is a 476-yarder and uphill to boot, followed by the 18th, which lies exposed to the sea on the right hand side and is 440 yards into the trade winds.
Kiahuna Golf Club: The Verdict
While nearby Poipu Bay Golf Course steals the show on Kauai's South Shore, Kiahuna Golf Club serves as a worthy next door neighbor. Though it lacks the dramatic coastal holes, Kiahuna is still very much a coastal golf course with numerous ocean vantage points.
With local ownership and a festive, outdoor patio with Joe's On the Green restaurant, Kiahuna offers a pleasant, more townie vibe compared to the bigger resort courses on Kauai.
Those who saw Kiahuna in the early 2000s may want to give it another look, as it now boasts a satisfaction rating well over 90 percent.
18-hole green fees are $95.
The Grand Hyatt: Where to stay on Kauai's South Shore
The Grand Hyatt Resort in Poipu Bay is just minutes from Kiahuna and next door to Poipu Bay Golf Course.
The resort is a Pacific-themed, 50-plus acre property with airy, open spaces and tropical gardens where there are loads of outdoor activities and tours for every speed. For the active set, ATV tours, ziplining, hiking and an assortment of water sports from snorkeling to surfing lessons are at your disposal. Or lazier souls can spend the afternoon at the Anara Spa or lounge at the beach or lagoon-style pool.
Of the handful of restaurants serving local seafood and an assortment of dishes, the best is Tidepools. It's an incredibly charming atmosphere set in a series of hali-pilis (open-air huts) with surrounding lagoons and waterfalls. You're also within eye and ear shot of the nightly luau as well.
Kiahuna is home to a rare, endangered Koloa Blind Wolf Spider that lives inside a small series of caves off the second fairway.