Paradise Found on Kaua’i

SINCE PLAYING KUKUI’ULA RECENTLY, I’ve been trying to think of what it compares to. And the answer I keep coming up with is, “Nothing in golf.” It was like seeing your first Green Flash, tasting your first bite of an entirely new and wonderful cuisine, riding your first motorcycle or falling in love for the very first time. Or whatever sudden and utterly unexpected discovery happens to knock you off your feet.

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Golf at Kukui’ula is that good-it’s an altogether new and different golf experience.

Sure, driving out to the Po’ipu side of Kaua’i on a sunny Sunday morning, I was expecting to see a good golf course. I’ve played two Tom Weiskopf-designed courses (The Kings Course at the Waikoloa Resort and the private Ke’olu at Hualalai, both on the Big Island) and enjoy his work, and the options for playing a hole he presents. And you’d figure the first private course on the Garden Isle would be pretty good, especially after hearing that every hole presents an ocean view. Still, teeing it up to play my 91st Hawai’i course (out of 93, according to the Aloha Section PGA’s count, plus a couple that no longer exist), I frankly wasn’t expecting the upside-the-head experience that awaited me.

I’m referring particularly to the course itself, which opened in June 2011. But to be truthful, the experience begins with valet parking service, an accommodating staff and a tasteful and well-appointed clubhouse (designed by Kathy Merrill-Kelley of Honolulu). With furniture and art pieces collected from around the world, it feels more like the home of a well-heeled traveler with really eclectic tastes.

Ah, but the golf course.

As the photos here hint, Weiskopf created a visual masterpiece, starting with brilliant green Paspallum turf and the whitest sand I’ve ever seen-imported from Cambodia. No cost was spared here. The course is not “hilly,” at least not in the “mountain goat golf ” sense, but there is constant if sometimes subtle elevation change, and endless humps and hillocks and declivities-lots of “movement”-in architect speak.

Borrowing a trick favored by Robert Trent Jones Sr., the father of modern golf course design, on approach shots Weiskopf often presents a view of just the top half of the flag stick, which makes judging distances a challenge. The par-3 eighth hole, for example, plays slightly downhill, albeit with the view of the green partially obscured by a mound. I was ready to pull out a long iron, but was advised to hit my 180-yard club. Bingo.

Most striking of all in the course layout, there are no parallel holes as the course winds its way up into small coastal hills and back down into small valleys between lava ridges. Kukui’ula, which includes a housing development-property ownership is requisite for golf membership ($75,000 initiation), and the least expensive housing are $2 million cottages-covers a thousand acres of former Alexander & Baldwin sugarcane and coffee land. Compared to the more typical 250 to 300 acres most courses occupy, playing Kukui’ula is certainly taking the scenic route as you tour the property. The ocean views are indeed endless, if not sublime.

Adding to the ambiance, behind the 12th hole is Kukui’ula heiau. In ancient times, Hawaiians would burn oil-rich kukui nuts in an ipu there, creating a kind of lighthouse on the hill for sea-farers navigating at night. And to the right of the 13th and 14th holes is the Allerton Beach portion of the National Tropical Botanical Garden. So sensitive is the area, the only access is by sea or special trams. Idyllic is an understatement.

Speaking of vegetation, Weiskopf also introduces one of the more dastardly hazards I’ve ever failed to avoid-Bahia grass. It’s wirey and nasty, and what your ball does coming out, assuming you can find it, is entirely unpredictable.

Weiskopf always includes what I think is the greatest sort of a golf hole-the short, drivable, or nearly so, par-4-the ultimate in risk-reward tradeoff. Here, it’s the downhill 14th, which plays just 315 yards from the back tees. A good bounce and roll, and your tee ball can easily come to rest on the green. A bad bounce or poor swing, and you’re in acres of that Ultra-Brite sand.

The par-5 18th hole is a great closer that plays into the prevailing trade winds, with plenty of water to get your attention.

This is “big boy golf,” but with five sets of tees, it needn’t be-it’s a par-72 that can play just over 7,000 yards from the tips but as short as 4,949 from the front.

After golf, the clubhouse includes a fantastic restaurant where Chef Ben Takahashi, formerly of the Halekulani, presides. The menu includes fresh produce from The Farm, a 25-acre horticulture haven on the property, where each day, workers post on a white board which crops are available to pick by residents for their tables. It’s adjacent to a 26-acre lake stocked with peacock “fighter” bass. Back at the clubhouse, the spa is as good as anything I’ve experienced.

Leaving Kukui’ula that afternoon, I knew that this was a day, a place and a golf course that would always glow in my memory, golden as a west Kaua’i sunset.