Story by Matthew Thayer
Golf on Lana‘i is an edge-of-the-world experience that challenges players with three uniquely different course designs and environments. Granted, as you line up a shot on any of the layouts you never know when deer, or a flock of turkeys, will burst from the trees to run across the fairway right in front of you . . . but that is about where the similarities end.
The Experience at Ko‘ele is far from the average Hawai‘i resort course. If you scooped up a foursome of golfers from anywhere in the world and dropped them on the 17th tee, they might think they were in Vermont, or even Germany. Cool mountain air, towering pines and a par-four green beckon from the valley below. The course that Greg Norman and Ted Robinson designed slices through mountaintop forests 2,000 feet above sea level—its allure is shot making and soft greens.
The Jack Nicklaus-designed Challenge at Manele course is the sort of layout that people dream of when they book tickets for a golf vacation in Hawai‘i. The course dances along tall seaside cliffs, and every hole has an ocean view. Trade winds stir the warm air as sailboats ply the cobalt waters below.
Rounding out the mix on Lana‘i is the free public Cavendish Course in Lana‘i City. There are no carts or tee times at this nine-hole layout. Walk a few holes here and you feel like you have stepped back in time.
I would side with many other Hawai‘i resident golfers in saying the Experience at Ko‘ele is my favorite course on Lana‘i. With temperatures in the seventies and sometimes sixties, fog mixed in liberally with sunshine, and fairways lined by stands of eucalyptus, pine and thick brush, this is one of the only courses in the state to have Bent-style grass greens. That means you can aim right for the hole and not worry about your ball bouncing off a rock-hard green into a back trap.
Assistant golf professional Kevin Bresnahan says the Experience is unique. “The guests are just amazed at the design,” shares Bresnahan. “It’s not what they expect. . . . A lot of the local Hawaiian people love to come up, because it provides an escape with its cooler temperature.”
The Experience at Ko‘elewas opened in April of 1991. Using a traditional parkland design, it is a 7,014-yard-long par 72. This eighteen-hole course is a combination of two very distinct halves. The front nine winds through former pineapple plantation farmland and is relatively flat. Luxury homes now line some of the fairways, and brush and trees have also filled in to wipe away any memory of abandoned rows of fruit. This nine offers several beautifully landscaped water features and has an island green on the par-4 8th hole.
To reach the back nine, you take a long cart ride up through a whispering hillside of long-needled ironwood trees. When golfers reach the top, they know in their hearts that they are in for something special. The holes are carved from the forest, nearly every fairway lined by a corridor of trees. Occasionally vistas of Moloka‘i and Maui appear on the horizon, as do views down into red dirt gulches and up toward tree-lined ridges.
The 17th is probably the most photographed hole on the course—and the one where the most balls are lost. The 390-yard par 4 has 250 feet of elevation drop from tee to the green. A lake guards the right side of the fairway and a seventy-foot-tall eucalyptus tree stands sentinel before the front of a green that is nestled at the base of a heavily forested valley. It’s a great place to try for the longest drive of your life. Just be ready to pull another ball from your bag if you miss the wide fairway.
The Experience was developed about the same time as the nearby Lodge at Ko‘ele, a country hotel that is now operated by Four Seasons Resorts. With the smell of wood smoke in the lobby, a quirky yet elegant mountain charm and magnificent grounds, this is a great place to relax and unwind. The Lodge also has an eighteen-hole putting course with sand traps, sculptures and water hazards.
However, if your vacation dreams of Hawai‘i are planted with more palm trees than pine, with swimsuits over sweaters, Manele is the place on Lana‘i for you. The Manele Bay Hotel and the Challenge at Manele course hug a coastline where daytime temperatures are usually in the sunny eighties.
The Challenge is a par-72, 7,039-yard course that opened in 1993. When Nicklaus designed the course more than twenty-five years ago, he was taking heat from a golfing world that said his layouts were too tough. Detractors decried that not everybody could hit a golf ball like the great Jack Nicklaus.
Maybe that’s why this course has such a forgiving nature. Wide fairways and welcoming greens let golfers just “grip it and rip it” on most holes. The design uses four different tee boxes, from close to far away, to let golfers determine for themselves just how much challenge they want to bite off.
There certainly are chances to make good shots on this course, but scoring low is another matter. One reason may be that there are so many visual distractions that it’s hard to concentrate. It is easy to watch whales and dolphins, or check out the waves crashing at the base of 150-foot-tall lava cliffs, when you should be picking a club or reading a putt.
Even if the Golden Bear tempered his design for resort course players, he left in more than a few razor-sharp tests. Bring your A-game, or a bucket of balls, when you tackle signature seaside holes 12 and 17. Both span ocean coves and are as tough as they are beautiful.
Number 17 is a dogleg par 4 that has probably done more for golf ball sales than anything since the invention of the water hazard. This hole eats balls, but at least golfers get to watch their shots bounce off the cliffs and freefall for about ten seconds before splashing in the ocean.
“The tee shot is tough,” says Castle & Cook Hawai‘i Director of Golf Doug Stephenson.
“From the back tees you have to carry it about 230 yards to reach the fairway, so it’s a pretty intimidating tee shot. The wind on the approach shot can be tricky. It comes and goes. You’ve got to hit two good shots there. Twelve is the same way, if you don’t hit enough club, it’s a long day.”
The 12th hole’s inspiring setting makes it a favorite for photographers. It also provided the backdrop for one of the most memorable weddings in Lana‘i’s modern history. Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, were married on the Challenge’s 12th hole in 1994.
Returning to the top of the island, you don’t see many billionaires roaming the Cavendish Course in Lana‘i City. This quaint nine-hole course was designed and built by Edwin B. Cavendish more than six decades ago as a form of recreation for pineapple plantation managers and their guests. It has evolved into a municipal course with some of the best greens on Lana‘i. The Cavendish is open to whoever walks on, and while donations are accepted, there are no formal greens fees, carts, or off-island pretensions.
Groundskeepers from the Experience maintain the greens, about the only parts of the course that are irrigated. Fairways and tee boxes are emerald green or dry-pasture brown depending on recent rainfall.
Some locals own their own golf carts and you may see them driving with family members around the nine-hole layout. Be careful about placing any wild wagers with the local guys should you play the Cavendish. They know this pine-tree-lined course like the back of their hands.
Golfing on Lana‘i truly is an edge-of-the-world experience. Whether golfers make a quick daytrip from Lahaina or Ma‘alaea on the Expeditions Ferry, or splurge for a weekend at the resort, this is an island they will never forget.