[popeye include=”2794″ exclude=”2793″]

YOU TAKE YOUR HISTORICAL FIRSTS WHERE YOU CAN. It was 1988, and a couple of months before the Kiele course was due to open at the just-opened Kauai Lagoons Resort I scored an invite to preview the course. This was a big deal because Kiele was the first new golf course built in Hawai’i in more than 20 years, and to give his first resort instant cache in the golf world, big-thinking developer Chris Hemmeter brought in Jack Nicklaus to helm the design aspect. I would be the first golf writer to see it. The course was so new, holes weren’t yet cut in greens, and fairway turf was just barely ready for play. I recall being impressed with how Nicklaus began with a fairly benign opening par-4, progressing gently, hole-by-hole, making things tougher and tougher in true “Golden Bear” fashion. By the time our foursome-including a resort manager, a publicist and head pro Frank Sullivan, a former Boston Red Sox pitcher-reached the oceanside par-3 13th hole, I was already debating the heresy of whether Kiele was better than Robert Trent Jones’ venerated Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

Standing on the tee of the 13th, looking slightly downhill across a frothing inlet in the lava cliffs toward a diagonal green well guarded by bunkers front and back, I instantly judged it a more challenging hole than Mauna Kea’s fantastic par-3 third, which I’d always played fairly well (not to mention dryly) up to that point.

Whereupon I cleverly snap-hooked a 5-iron into the ocean.

“That’s the first one!” the garrulous Sullivan chirped as my Titleist splashed down and went to live with the fishes. “You can always say you were the first person to lose a ball in the ocean here.”

Now there’s something to make the old resume shine.

Fast forward 23 years, and today the hole is No. 5 on Kiele’s Moana Course, one of three distinct nines that have been rejiggered to accommodate new housing along the coastal cliffs. In the process, three holes of the former Kiele back nine were lost, but Nicklaus returned to create three new holes along the ocean, creating a continuous half-mile of ocean golf, a longer stretch than any other course in Hawai’i.

Says Nicklaus: “The new holes fit nicely with what golfers have come to expect from Kiele-great golf holes with beautiful ocean panoramic views.”

Moana opened in May, and the next phase, scheduled to begin in January, will involve work to Kiele’s former front nine, which will be called the Kiele Mauka 9. The final phase, scheduled to begin in 2013, will be to the former Mokihana course, which lost nine holes and will be called the Kiele Waikahe 9.

While Nicklaus tweaked five of Moana’s other holdover holes, and added a new irrigation system, new TifEagle grass on greens, new drainage and new sand in bunkers to all six, the former 13th is as perfect as it ever was.

“The new fifth looks just like it did as the 13th,” says Kiele head pro Scott Ashworth. “It plays exactly the same.”

While a check of old scorecards shows that over the years I made a few pars and at least one birdie on the hole, my preferred target is a bail-out to the bit of turf right of the green. Ashworth says he’s “happy aiming at the back bunker and taking my chances from there.”

If you’re a bold-swinging pin-seeker, club selection is crucial because at Kiele, Nicklaus is the master of the green set diagonally to fairway or tee, so there’s a difference of two to three clubs from front to back.

And the wind must be factored-prevailing trades push your tee shot from right to left, toward the ocean. As Ashworth says, “Scary!”

That is indeed an apt description of this magnificent hole. Yet, so are beautiful, breathtaking and dramatic.