It was very early in their partnership that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw took on the task of designing a golf course on the rugged hillside terrain overlooking Kapalua Bay. I am convinced they needed a sherpa guide and a couple of llamas to stake out the tees and greens for their creation. What resulted was something unique, a golf course that yo-yos you up and down some of the steepest terrain you have ever negotiated without carabiners and a climber’s harness.
It is a exhilarating anti-gravitational golf experience that calls for creativity and a lot of letting go to be successful. The routing is very creative with holes working straight down and straight up the fall line of the property. The predominant wind direction was taken into account as well and together this makes the printed yardage on each hole almost inconsequential to the length the holes actually play. You can count on a 20 + breeze almost all the time which means links rules prevail, you have to control your trajectory throughout the round and taking the wind into account on your putting is essential.
The wild card factor is something I call “ground sheer”, it is the seemingly arbitrary amount of side roll out you get that will take balls to places you could never have anticipated. With this excessive side slip and a cross wind in the same direction and you need to aim into the next time zone just to get the ball into the part of the hole you can play from.
The one good thing is they made most of the fairway landing areas like Augusta, there is ample room to maneuver your tee ball to maximize your distance and still stay on the short grass. The bunkering throughout the course is very visually creative and all of them have a tactical purpose. In some cases they are baiting you to try to reach too far but more often it is just a way of forcing you to pick a good line and execute a shot to get there.
The greens are very large and often very long, which, with links rules in place, is a positive factor for managing the ball to the flag position on the downwind holes. The other architectural factor you have to heed is the segmentation and the prevailing slope of each green. You cannot simply pick a club based on a calculated approach yardage, you have to think of the shape of the shot and how it will respond on the green once it lands. Getting close to the flag is often a diversionary play, hitting it off a side bank to have it end up in the right section of the green.
The visuals on this course are in the category of Pebble Beach. Many times it is downright distracting standing on the tee looking at the back drop and then trying to focus on the target at hand. An unbelievable job was done presenting holes that boldly brandish the beauty of this unique piece of property. The versatility of this layout is that some of the most interesting views are back up the hole you just played. Bring a camera, there is a scrapbook of memories to take home with you.
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The round opens up with a hole that sets the tone for the day, a stunning downhill 440 yard par four. You drive to right center and then the ball just disappears over the hill where you can have as little as 120 into the green. The next three holes work there way back up the hill, yardage is not a factor on any of them, but positioned play is absolutely vital to getting your scorecard off to a good start. Five is a par five that has all the visual flavor you could ask for in a full round of golf. This is typical of a hole where the look baits you to try things you should not consider, showing restraint is rewarded. When you look at the sixth hole across the environmental divide as you are playing number five you may scratch your head trying to figure out what the hell these guys had going on in their head when they designed the next hole. Standing on the sixth tee of this 380 yard par four the enigma only grows. There is a huge mound containing a huge bunker sitting in the middle of the driving area. As you can see in the picture the back side of this looks like the replica of an Inca holy temple. What you cannot see is that a bold driving line between the bunker and the right abyss will feed the ball into the power slot and take the ball to foot of grandmother’s house. When you end up pulling your tee ball left of the bunker because of your subconscious defensive nature you will have to use two clubs less and the ground sheer of the back side of Machu Picchu to feed down to the green. This is where creativity and trust will serve you well.
Your scorecard on the front will be saved or doomed by how you negotiate the next three holes. Seven is a 465 yard par four playing straight down the fall line. Picking a good line on both shots and letting gravity do it’s thing will be rewarded. Eight is a no nonsense dartboard par three across the vegetation wilderness. The exposure of the ball flight to the wind makes finding this green a real chore. Nine is almost unplayable by mere mortals, you have to hit three high quality shots into a strong headwind to an uphill target. The green complex is so difficult that even good shots can be repelled so be prepared to turn the other cheek and accept your fate on this hole.
The weakest aspect to the course is the first five holes on the back side. All five are short and extremely technical holes with maximum ground sheer and probably the most exposed wind conditions of the day. The big hitters will be very uncomfortable in this section of the course muttering under their breath phrases like “unfair” and “are you kidding me”. I share their concern because the concentration of holes like this in a run seems to derail the “cut it loose” feeling from the opening nine.
The finish is outstanding, a series of fun holes the thoughts of which you will carry with you well past the end of the day. You cannot help but notice the guard rails that occupy the right side of the driving area on fifteen-this is a strong statement to the ground sheer right on this hole. The visual of the green complex while as stand over your second shot is very disarming. Playing the next two very demanding shots and giving yourself a birdie chance is quite gratifying. Sixteen is just another one unlike anything you have played already today. You have a decision to make as to which side of the split fairway you want to play from-that decision will change the approach shot considerably. If you have watched the annual PGA Tournament of Champions played here each January you are familiar with these two finishing holes as the most severe downhill holes they play all year. The first of the two falls below your feet like bungee cord jump waiting to happen. Elevating the ball down the center the ball will disappear from sight and just keep rolling until it reaches the bottom of the hill about 300 yards away. The second is a real beauty across the trouble to a green clinging precariously to the hill above you. Managing the roll out of this shot is trick-the contour of this green will be kind to the right shape and trajectory of approach.
This final hole so often determines the winner of the PGA event each year-the pros can make anything from 3 to 7 and you will be amazed you have the same proposition facing you. You aim your drive at the clubhouse right of the fairway and, to your amazement, when the free fall of your ball and the ensuing roll out is done you are pinned to the left edge of the fairway almost at the bottom of the hill. The downhill second shot is within reach of the putting surface but you must aim well right of the green and let gravity do it’s thing again.
If you are not on, the ensuing pitch is like trying to stop your ball on the hood of a Mini Cooper, it will take full creativity and use of the ground to pull this off. The coolest part is that if you play this hole well you did it in front of everyone lunching in the clubhouse grill overlooking the entire hole. You can just feel the appreciative applause. These last two holes are an adrenaline rush like you have never experienced before on a golf course.
Designers: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (1991)
Tees Par Yardage Rating Slope
Championship 73 7263 74.9 138
Regular 73 6547 71.7 130
(Click to see complete Kapalua Plantation hole-by-hole descriptions)
(Click here to see even more photos from my Postcard From Kapalua)