Blending golf and wellness at a billionaire's Hawaiian paradise

Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort, can help golfers get in better shape - physically, mentally and emotionally - on and off the course.
Every guest loves the grounds at the Sensei Lanai.

LANAI, Hawaii - Stepping onto the 12th tee of Manele Golf Course heightens the senses every time.

I'm trying my best to soak in all the scenery - the cliffs, the ocean, the birds flying below me - while staying focused on the task at hand, hitting the green on the other side of the coastal chasm. I check my Whoop app just to see how my sense of anxiety and excitement are impacting my body. Yep, my heart rate is pumping. How can you not feel alive in this moment, right now, staring down one of the world's most epic par 3s? It's a spot so dramatic that Bill Gates choose to be married right here.

Looking back, I'm actually amazed I was able to hit perfect 165-yard 7 irons onto the green each day, both under the watchful eye of a golf pro. I credit at least part of the success to the tips I received for handling stress during my nearly week-long stay at Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort. I was immersed in the Sensei Way, a wellness program that promotes well-being that can also be tailored to golfers to enhance performance.

This was not a typical golf vacation. Learning the three Sensei principles of healthy living - Move, Nourish and Rest - felt like part vacation, part educational seminar, part therapy session and part golf boot camp. Experts in their fields, Sensei guides attempt to align your mental, emotional and physical well-being to work in harmony, all while enjoying the peaceful beauty of Lanai. During a slightly scaled-down version of their five-day Optimal Well-being program, I tested my endurance, flexibility and strength in a fitness lab, went hiking up the Koloiki Ridge to witness a whale breaching in the ocean, analyzed my diet with a nutritionist, learned proper breathing and visualization techniques to combat insomnia and stress, relaxed in the spa and took part in a Trackman club-fitting session and chipping and putting lessons. The reward for all this hard work? The chance to play one of the most beautiful courses in the world and forge a path to a better game at home.

“Everyone is so caught up in their work,” said Kyle Silvey, my Sensei guide in exercise physiology who has a PhD in Human Performance. “What do you do to stimulate the body AND the mind? That’s why we have art and a library on property. … We want this to be so powerful that you’re feeling ready to change [your bad habits] in 3-4 days. We give you the tools.”

The Sensei Way

Sensei guests can be as active or as passive as they want during their stay. Some just come for the luxury and serenity of a five-star getaway of lush gardens, shimmering sunsets, high-end pampering and fine dining. There are also endless classes involving yoga, guided hikes and other island excursions to help visitors stay busy for weeks.

My wellness journey started before my arrival. A pre-visit email questionnaire and follow-up consultation with Silvey set up my ideal schedule. As much as I would have loved a sunset sail or a snorkeling adventure - all possible - I stuck to classes involving golf, nutrition and fitness. As a soon-to-be 50 year old, I’m at a crossroads for getting my body healthy again for the back nine of life.

As we all know, poor mental and physical health leads to poor golf. When Silvey learned of my recent outbreak of the shanks, he immediately scheduled a Mindset meeting with someone who could help me overcome such a daunting mental hurdle. A Whoop arrived early as well, so I could start tracking my sleep and rest-recovery data from my day-to-day routines. For those who don't know about the Whoop, it has become a powerful tool used by the likes of Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas to optimize their workouts, monitor sleep data and maximize performance. Read more here.

The Sensei Lanai resort reopened in 2019, founded by Oracle co-Founder Larry Ellison and Dr. David Agus, a physician and scientist who is a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and Viterbi School of Engineering. He’s the founding director and CEO of USC’s Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine, specializing in the treatment of advanced cancer patients with innovations in medicine and new technologies. He is a regular contributor to CBS News and a New York Times best-selling author. The duo were inspired by the loss of a friend to help others stay healthy.

Getting to Lanai

To make getting to the island easier, round-trip transportation from Honolulu on small eight-seater planes from Lāna’i Air is included with all bookings made by Aug. 31 for arrivals by Dec. 31, 2022. When I landed at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, I was greeted at baggage claim and then driven by courtesy car to the Lanai Air lounge at a private hanger for the short but scenic final flight. This convenience adds a sense of adventure to the trip. If Hawaii feels too far, there's good news. A second property, Sensei Porcupine Creek, will open this fall in Rancho Mirage in the southern California desert.  

Sensei Lanai: The resort

I've often told friends that the Four Seasons Resort Lanai was my favorite golf resort. That all changed the day I set foot inside Sensei. The 96-room adults-only resort sits on the grounds of the old Lodge at Koele before Ellison bought 98 percent of the island in 2012 and began reinventing both resorts with tasteful architecture and first-rate technology.

Sensei's backyard grounds are exquisite. They remind me of the Avatar movie come to life. Or maybe the Forest Moon of Endor, home of the Ewoks from the Star Wars films. It's much cooler and slightly wetter at Sensei Lanai's elevation compared to the sister beachfront property 12 miles down the mountain. Everything looks so green and lush.

Tucked away from the main building, hidden from view beyond a reflection pond, are a yoga pavilion, the lagoon pool and spa complex. Exploring reveals a gallery of art sculptures and tiny lizards that scamper under your feet before hiding again in the flora and fauna. Stargazing while soaking in the hidden onsen outdoor baths (essentially private hot tubs) in the stunning garden is a must for any guest at night. Just outside the gates are hiking trails, a free putting course and the nine-hole Cavendish - the world's best free golf course. My only regret is I didn't have time to play it again. Quaint but charming Lanai City is also a short walk away.

My pursuit of serenity kicked into gear right after check-in: a massage inside a 1,000-square-foot spa hale. Guests get the royal treatment with access to an infra-red sauna, steam room, indoor and outdoor showers, plunge pool and more. A pre-treatment thermal body scan highlighted the areas of heat on my body that may suggest inflammation, a technology exclusive to Sensei. This, along with my fitness tests, provided arguably my most profound personal discovery from the trip: my tight and inflexible shoulders are every bit to blame as my bad back for a short, quirky golf swing.

Every Sensei guide I met offered their fair share of enlightening moments that I felt could be useful at home. My nutritionist offered a painful but necessary take-down of the Keto- and weight-loss foods I’ve been using in a never-ending attempt to lose weight.

During my Mindfulness session, my guide, Teegan Reeves, taught me three techniques that I can use anywhere, from my bouts of 3 a.m. insomnia to anxiety dealing with a tough shot over a hazard. The third, Authentic Appreciation, requires you to bring up a happy memory to de-escalate a stressful situation. As much as I tried, I couldn’t get the vision of the “Happy Place” from Happy Gilmore out of my head. I did use the breathing and somatosensory visualization to hit those pure 7 irons on Manele later in the week. I need to figure out how to integrate some of that into my pre-shot routine without hindering pace of play.

Silvey’s fitness tests were revealing. I had my finger pricked for a blood biomarker and completed a demanding seca scan while powerwalking on a treadmill with a mask on. It was more engaging than grueling. We found a few strengths (balance and a powerful swing relative to swing speed) and a lot of weaknesses. On the mental side, beginning and ending my days with restorative yoga and morning mediation in the yoga pavilion seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, finding that state of bliss has proven to be difficult so far now that I’m back in the real world.

Every evening I dined at Sensei by Nobu. The healthiest entrees are clearly marked, but everything on the menu is very fresh and organic. I cheated the final night by ordering dessert and a cocktail, taking to heart what my nutritionist told me: Everything in moderation. Even the bad stuff like pizza and sugar are okay once in awhile because restrictive diets ultimately lead to binges. Full confession: I did play hooky from my wellness programming one afternoon. I just couldn't drag myself away from the beach at the Four Seasons. Floating effortlessly in the waves for a half-hour felt more therapeutic than any classroom session. 

Sensei Lanai: The golf

Playing Manele alone is reason enough to visit Lanai to find your game and de-stress. Strategically and aesthetically, it's probably the best resort course ever designed by Jack Nicklaus (although Punta Espada in the Dominican Republic is equally incredible). Aside from two tricky holes - the uphill second and semi-blind fifth - it delivers a rowdy round of fun shots. Less-skilled players like me can use sideboards near greens to bounce shots that end up as close to the pin as golfers who can throw aerial darts. I played the back nine the first day with William Foster, the club's assistant pro who wanted to observe my game in action. I hit it great, but putted like a blind donkey.

The following day, we met at the range, where we went through a session of swing tweaks and club-fitting with a Trackman. Productive chipping and putting sessions tuned up my short game. Playing again the next day with Director of Golf Scott Ashworth, my new putting stance helped me drain at least one long birdie putt.

I’ve also battled the chipping yips for years, so I putt almost anything I can around the greens. Ashworth gave me his higher-lofted wedge and a bit of chipping advice that resonated. I clipped a dangerous chip over a bunker on no. 17 just right. The ball spun to a stop mere feet from the hole. Turns out, all I need is a new wedge that should help with a more simple approach.

As we all know, golf is a mental game. I left Lanai feeling better mentally and physically than I had in a long time. My journey to better fitness and a better game is really just getting started. I have an extensive portfolio of all my tests and recommended lifestyle changes available online. Silvey has followed up with exercise advice and will be available whenever I need him for additional questions. I’m also using the Whoop data to stay more accountable in workouts.

The cost of such an extensively wellness program – starting at $1,350 per night - seems daunting until you take stock of the big picture. What’s a couple thousand dollars in exchange for 30 years of better health and potentially lower scores? That's priceless.

It would be nice if every American citizen had access to such a potentially game-changing examination. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’ve been given full control of my mental well-being and can combat just about anything thrown my way. There will be setbacks and disappointments, falling back into bad habits. That's a given. How I use the tools I learned at Sensei Lanai will ultimately determine the next phase of my life. Hopefully my next 50 years can be even better than the first.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries 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 @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Blending golf and wellness at a billionaire's Hawaiian paradise