Story by Diane Haynes Woodburn
This year, the King Kamehameha Golf Club, the only private eighteen-hole club on Maui, celebrates its fifth birthday. And that makes Director of Golf Rick Castillo smile. “My customers are customers for life. I hope I’m here until I retire, and get to see members become grandparents and welcome their children to the ‘ohana [family].”
One of the huge draws of the King Kamehameha Golf Club and its sister course, the public Kahili, is what Castillo calls a pure golf experience. “It means there are no distractions; the course stands alone. When you play here you aren’t meandering around a community of homes. It’s just you and the course.”
Originally designed by Ted Robinson Sr. in 1991, the King Kamehameha was planned with a respect for its remarkable natural surroundings and view planes. Refreshed in 2005 by Ted Robinson Jr., the course is known for its ability to test every club in your bag, and still promises fun for players at every level.
But what you’ll notice first is the big, beautiful desert-rose clubhouse high on the hill above Waikapu. Frank Lloyd Wright designed it in 1957 as a country manor for Marilyn Monroe. That estate was never built, a casualty of Monroe’s financial problems and her divorce from husband Arthur Miller. Wright died in 1959, but for decades, the plans remained in safekeeping at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In the early 1990s, the developers of what was then the nascent Waikapu Country Club learned of the archived treasure and agreed: the design was a jewel, and perfectly suited for the grand private clubhouse they envisioned. Sparing no expense, they had Wright’s plans enlarged to 75,000 square feet, while keeping the integrity of the original design. Many of the interior features are also based on Frank Lloyd Wright designs, including etchings on the elevator doors and stairwell glass, leaded glass skylights and light fixtures. Especially charming is the turn-of-the-century art glass that graces the club’s elegant entrance. It’s based on Wright’s extraordinary geometric designs from 1892, which he called “light screens.” “The same structure today,” Castillo tells me, “would cost upwards of $90 million.”
Not long after the club was completed, the economy went south, and with it, the owners’ plan to sell memberships at $250,000. Cutting their losses, the partners closed the private club. The greens were left to fallow, and the pink palace was locked.
In 2004, another visionary, Makoto Kaneko, purchased both clubs and committed to resurrecting the sleeping beauty. The Waikapu Country Club became the King Kamehameha Golf Club, named in honor of the first chief to unite all the major Hawaiian Islands. “Mr. Kaneko has a love affair with Hawaiian culture, Maui and golf,” says Rick Castillo. “I believe he truly feels a responsibility to preserve the physical presence of both clubs. It’s his legacy to the Maui community.”
Rebuilding the courses was the first major undertaking, requiring new irrigation, reshaping some of the holes and replanting the courses with hybrid Bermuda grasses. The clubhouse facilities, among the most spectacular in Hawai‘i, were also updated, adding a fitness room and an additional massage room to the sauna, Jacuzzi and other facilities in the opulent women’s spa; and adding a fitness room to the original furo and sauna in the men’s.
In July of 2005, Castillo joined the team to oversee the final refurbish and polish. A year later, the King Kamehameha Golf Club had its official opening. “We really had to rethink what the economy could support,” says Castillo. Less than 40 percent of the current 300 members are full-time residents. “That’s why we came up with a tiered approach, offering something for everyone. Today memberships sell from $60,000 all the way down to $10,000 for part-time residents. We even have day packages for those who want to see what membership is all about.
“We aren’t a big resort,” Castillo adds. “We have resort standards, but it’s a family environment. You invite people, they join, they bring their friends and they join.”
Day membership at the King Kamehameha, including lunch, is $200. For more information, contact Karen Gallagher at (808) 243-1025. Eighteen holes at the Kahili Course is just $75 ($42 for kama‘aina); call (808) 242-GOLF (4653). Waikapu is a ten-minute drive from the towns of Kahului and Wailuku, twenty-five minutes from the resort communities of Ka‘anapali and Wailea.