Is this the best bargain golf course in America?

For $60 or less, Wailua Municipal Golf Course delivers spectacular ocean golf on Kauai.
Wailua Municipal Golf Course builds up to the magic moment at no. 17.

LIHUE, Hawaii — Wailua Municipal Golf Course looks like a muni in many places. The range is mats only. The 17th tee box was more sand than grass the day I played. The clubhouse is in dire need of a facelift. The tiny pro shop feels overrun with stuff. There's more used clubs and used balls for sale than high-end merch.

Everything changes once you step to the first tee: Wailua isn't an average Joe muni anymore. Not only are golfers staring off into the Pacific Ocean, they're asked to be a shot-maker right out of the gate. The par 5 doglegs right, begging for a hard fade over the treeline to set up a chance to reach in two. As the game's best opening holes go, it holds its own with Ardglass in Northern Ireland and Machrihanish in Scotland for scenery and drama. It's that good.

Dollar for dollar, Wailua also happens to be the best course I've ever played in terms of value. I've tackled plenty of inexpensive courses that left an impression - Washington's Olympic Course at Gold Mountain and Nebraska's Wild Horse come to mind - but where else can you get four holes right on the ocean for this price? Tourists who walk pay $60 on weekends/holidays, $48 during the week (carts are $20 extra). Islanders can walk for $15-$20 anytime. This is truly the people's country club.

GolfPass user 'dwaz777' deemed Wailua an "extreme value" in a 2020 review. "Not many places you can play with views like this course for the rate they charge," he wrote. "Staff is very friendly and helpful with whatever you need. Pace of play is pretty slow but who wants to rush through it when you are taking in many ocean views."

A welcoming vibe at Wailua

Wailua does a fantastic job welcoming all players. Golfers are often greeted first by a pro shop dog that spreads the aloha spirit as soon as the door opens. When I arrived, junior golfers were everywhere outside, learning the game. Near the first tee, I witnessed the cutest thing I've ever seen in golf ... a group of young girls hanging out in a bunker practicing their sand games. It melted my golf dad heart.

Young girls practice bunker shots during a clinic at the Wailua Municipal Golf Course on Kauai.

After the round, we met the twosome behind us, one a fireman who played in a tank top. He was proud of his home course and couldn't wait to play in the upcoming annual firemen's fundraiser outing.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came at the turn. Our foursome went to load up on beers when we were told that alcohol was not allowed on the course. Golfers can buy it and drink it but only inside the bar and grill. County rules. A muni without booze? Apparently the views are intoxicating enough. This is a unique place indeed.

The course at Wailua

Wailua is closing in on a century of community-focused golf. Its first nine holes date back to the 1930s. A second nine was added in 1961 by designer Toyo Shirai. GolfPass users ranked it a top 20 course in Hawaii from 2017-19. It came in 13th on Golfweek's list of "Best You Can Play" in Hawaii in 2021. Golf Magazine recently honored Wailua as the 26th-best muni in America.

The 6,991-yard course, a host of the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship three times, packs quite a Hawaiian punch from its white tees. Great variety comes from 6,554 yards where most men play. There's a pair of bruising par 4s longer than 430 yards, including the 441-yard second along the ocean that's the No. 1 handicap, and a trio of gettable par 4s shorter than 355 yards.

Both par 3s on the back nine visit the ocean. The 168-yard 14th provides the teaser with a glimpse of the beach through the trees before leading to the course's crescendo, the stunning 173-yard 17th fully engaged with the waves.

Speaking of waves, that's exactly what many of the deep bunkers look like. Their lips have built up from decades of sand splashes, creating the impression that they're cresting and about to crash upon the poor unfortunate soul standing in them. They protect small, plateau greens typical of courses built during that era.

The good news is much of the course's trouble is favorably located for right-handed slicers like me. Ten holes are bordered by out-of-bounds on the left, whether it's a road, beach or thick forest. The only OB on the right? Well, I'm not thrilled about that ... internal white stakes right of the dogleg on the 1st fairway, presumably to protect golfers walking up the adjacent 9th fairway.

Munis aren't perfect, right? Wailua is pretty darn close.

Although a round at Wailua isn't available in either Kauai golf package listed below, its location between the Ocean Course at Hokuala in Lihue and Princeville Makai makes it an ideal option on arrival or departure day. It's just three miles north of the Lihue Airport.

What is the best value golf course you've ever played? Let us know in the comments below!

FROM $687 (USD)
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.
FROM $397 (USD)
KAUAI | Enjoy 4 nights' accommodations at The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas and 2 rounds of golf at Princeville Makai Golf Club & The Ocean Course at Hokuala.

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.
Commented on

I love courses like this, as well as this kind of course review. Thanks for bringing the kinds of people who regularly play the course into the narrative. The inclusion of the place's anomalous setting and atmospherics helped me envision it, and the course sounds like a great alternative to the typical upscale stuff--most of it quite expensive--that I found in Hawaii.

It's hard to argue with your conclusion about value at Wailua. My definition of a value course is not just something that's only low in price: it must also be a strong layout. This course seems to be the complete package.

Munis, too, often get stereotyped into the one-size-fits-all category of "basic" golf tracks, as you point out in your penultimate paragraph. But like Baskin-Robbins, they actually have about 31 flavors. Even though muni conditioning doesn't often beat that of the average private course, other aspects make them cost-effective---and exciting to play, as you found Wailua.

Commented on

I have played Wailua several times. We always include it on a trip to Kauai.
Laid back Hawaiian golf, as it should be!

Commented on

Mill Creek G.C. Youngstown, Ohio: My first course @55 years ago. Last visit @5 years ago. An affordable, beautiful Donald Roos woodland design consisting of 36 holes. South 18 starts with the easiest but the second nine opening 4 holes provide a real test. North 18 is more (tightly) wooded) with doglegs galore.
If you're in N.E. Ohio don't miss it. Great value for whatever they charge now.

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Is this the best bargain golf course in America?