Story and Photography by Matthew Thayer
Maui’s greatest golf holes combine outstanding scenery, challenge, and history to put an anticipatory spring in your step and a little dread in your gut as you stride to the tee box.
Just when concentration is paramount, visual enticements and distractions abound. Even pros find themselves watching whales or mountain-gazing when they should be focusing on their next shot.
If you do happen to make a great score here, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life. Whether it’s the green where Tiger Woods beat Ernie Els in a playoff as darkness set in, the tee box where Arnold Palmer jokingly put pal Jack Nicklaus in a headlock as they waited to tee off, or the fairway featured on every Maui golf poster and magazine, these holes let golfers see how they measure up to the world’s best.
Sports fans will debate all day about who is the best of all time—the best shortstop, the best quarterback, the best golfer.
In that vein, I offer up my best 18 Maui golf holes. Based on the perspective of a lifelong bogey golfer, professional photojournalist, and architecture buff, the selections are judged in four basic categories: 1. scenic beauty; 2. overall design; 3. tough but fair golf challenge; and 4. drama and history.
With 16 courses ranging from the exclusive to the municipal, Maui has nearly 300 holes to contend for this all-star list. I thank the golf pros and hackers who shared their knowledge and occasionally lobbied for their favorite holes as I looked for help in narrowing down my selections.
The “Top 18” appear in order of how I would align my fantasy Maui golf course. This par-72 course will involve some long cart rides between holes as it traverses back and forth across the island. In keeping with a traditional golf layout, I’ve included 4 par-threes, 4 par-fives, and 10 par-fours.
The essence of each hole and its relationship to its surrounding environment were the prime factors in deciding what holes went where. The goal is to weave together a layout with architectural and aesthetic continuity. Trade winds and mountain slopes are common challenges on Maui golf courses, and are particularly diabolical when you are headed uphill and into the wind. Please pardon the fact that an inordinate number of my favorite holes are downhill and downwind. It’s a fantasy, right?
Kapalua Plantation Course
Hole 1 • 520 Yards, Par 4
Kapalua Village Course’s 6th and 7th holes give golfers an “edge of the world” experience. The experience will likely be harder to come by in the future, as the course is slated to become a private club.
What a great hole to start a round of golf on Maui. Tiger Woods beat Ernie Els at this downhill par 4 in a playoff to win the 2000 Mercedes Championships. A grove of tall pines guards the back of the green and occasionally blocks views of the sailboats that ply the blue Pacific waters offshore. Across the channel, Moloka‘i’s jagged skyline leaves no doubt of the island’s volcanic past. Golfers can rip the ball off the tee, but they must fly a gulch on their second to reach the green that funnels left-to-right toward a big mango tree. The 35-foot putt that Woods drained to end a playoff with Els had at least 12 feet of break and was later deemed “virtually unmakeable” by journalists who tried to duplicate it the next day.
Waiehu Golf Course
Hole 5 • 234 Yards, Par 3
From the elevated tee box, golfers have a bird’s-eye view of windsurfers and kite surfers plying the windswept ocean below. The mountain Haleakala rises in the distance, and the lush green valleys of the West Maui Mountains seem close enough to touch. This municipal course’s par 3 provides plenty of time to enjoy the view, as groups tend to back up three and four deep as they wait to tee off. When the wind blows, which is all the time, this is one of the toughest holes on Maui. It takes a long tee shot to reach its small green. A towering sand dune looms large along the right side of the fairway and gives slicers fits. Trade winds quarter from behind and tend to sail errant balls into the dune’s thick brush. This was the finishing hole back when Waiehu was only a nine-hole course. It makes you wonder how many matches were won and lost here in the treacherous wind.
Wailea Gold Course
Hole 1 • 422 Yards, Par 4
This downhill par 4 is an extreme dogleg left that challenges golfers to hit perfect first and second shots to reach its multileveled green. The legends of golf gather on this hole each winter to start the Champions Skins event that appears on TV on Super Bowl weekend. Winners have included Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Hale Irwin. One year, Gary Player didn’t have a marker for his ball on this green, and since I was nearby taking photos, I loaned him a penny. I have yet to hear back from the hard-working South African. Compounding interest daily, his bill now exceeds $1.80.
The Dunes at Maui Lani
Hole 15 • 428 Yards, Par 4
This hole navigates two deep swales and makes golfers think deeply about each shot. Strong side wind will take any slice or fade off the tee and put it in the trees. The deep, dry gulch and kiawe tree that guard the green force average golfers to lay up on their second shots. The two-tier green is welcoming and fair, but par is a good score here. As with many holes at the Dunes, golfers have plenty of options of how to work their way to the cup.
Kapalua Bay Course
Hole 5 • 205 Yards, Par 3
One of the most scenic holes on Maui, this par 3 crosses Oneloa Bay, which often rages with storm surf. With the wind behind you and the distance of the white and blue tees well-suited to the players who use them, this is a hole that is challenging yet fair. You can walk away with a birdie or par you’ll never forget. The green is true and easy to putt, as long as you play the break toward the western tip of Moloka‘i. It’s also easy to put three balls in the ocean and skulk away with a snowman.
Makena South Course
Hole 10 • 514 Yards, Par 5
This long par 5 heads straight toward the blue ocean and Makena’s landmark cinder cone, Pu‘u Olai. The tiny islet of Molokini appears close in the distance, encircled by its daily fleet of dive boats. The views are best at the tee—and that’s good, because this hole will take some concentration to survive. A pair of lakes on either side of the fairway compel golfers to carefully consider the distance and placement of their shots. The second lake guards a wide sliver of a green. Once you’re on the putting surface, check out the cantankerous coots squabbling for territory as they swim in the smaller lake.
Kapalua Village Course
Hole 6 • 345 Yards, Par 4
An aerial photograph of this hole has been one of Kaplua Resort’s signature images for decades. Sandwiched between a deep, wild gulch and a reservoir, this dogleg left has helped define the Kapalua golf experience. “Golf on the edge of the world” is what they used to call it. Considering the anticipated renovation of the Village Course to a private club called the Mauka Course, there may be substantial changes to the “feel” of this hole. If you have a chance, play the Village while you still can. The hole is actually fairly easy, but it demands patience and tactics. A tall tree in the middle of the fairway and tall trees along the left side of the fairway mean most golfers need to club down and play smart off the tee.
Ka‘anapali North Course
Hole 5 • 473 Yards, Par 4
Not only are there more bathing suits and sailboats to be seen on this hole than on any other in the top 18; this location has probably seen more historic happenings than the rest of the holes combined. This long par 4 weaves between bunkers straight down to the ocean’s edge. Pro golfers have actually landed on the beach here and were not able to take their next swing until sunbathers were cleared to make room for the shot. Dominating the scene is Ka‘anapali’s Keka‘a, or Black Rock. The rocky point where the Sheraton Maui now sits was once a very important place in Hawaiian custom and culture. After you putt out, take in the beach view and see if you can picture what it all must have looked like 500 years ago. A marker on the ocean side of the green shares some of the area’s history.
Waiehu Golf Course
Hole 7 • 490 Yards, Par 5
Tall, spindly ironwood trees endure the wind and add rugged ambience to this long par 5, which borders more oceanfront than any other hole on Maui. This is a classic links hole whose subtle nature makes it easy to dismiss at first glance, but thankfully, the guys who installed the fairway long ago left every little dune, dip, and roll along the length of the fairway. Whether they were geniuses or just lazy, their work means golfers now may face any kind of side-hill lie, no matter how well they hit the center of the fairway. The right side of the fairway is the place to be, but push it too far and you’ll find the ocean. Strong trade winds occasionally bring balls back into play.
Kapalua Plantation Course,
Hole 17 • 508 Yards, Par 4
You’d better hit a good drive on this downwind, downhill hole, because you have one heck of a gulch to cross on your second shot to reach the green. Moloka‘i rises in the distance across the channel, and the coastline and tree-topped ridges of Kapalua unfold below. There’s nothing tricky about this hole—all you need to do is smack the ball long and straight twice. Easy, right? Play the ball to the front of the green and watch it roll to the hole.
The Dunes at Maui Lani
Hole 4 • 509 Yards, Par 5
This is another one of those holes at The Dunes that take a battle plan to beat. This narrow links-style hole can be played three or four different ways and may force you to pull out a club you haven’t used in years. From tee to green, it encompasses three separate sand dunes, two valleys, and some nasty pot bunkers. Side wind keeps you honest to the left and protects you a little on the right. Long hitters off the elevated tee can carry the middle dune with their drive, while mere mortals with course knowledge may drive with a 5-iron and follow with something like 7-iron, 3-wood, wedge, and one
putt for par.
Kapalua Bay Course
Hole 4 • 357 Yards, Par 4
With its exposed rocks, scrubby bent trees, and salt wind off the ocean, this par 4 has the look of Scotland or Pebble Beach. A short, downhill dogleg left, it challenges golfers to play smart off the tee and then to follow up with a solid second shot in a howling crosswind they barely noticed back up on the protected tee. The green is settled amongst a grove of ironwood trees on the narrow rocky point overlooking Fleming Beach. This is one of only two holes in the Kapalua Resort that actually make it all the way down to the ocean. Cut the corner and you’ll pay the price. Hit 3-wood or 3-iron off the tee, and keep it right.
Wailea Emerald Course
Hole 10 • 392 Yards, Par 4
One thing that makes this hole particularly interesting is that it shares the only double green on the island with hole number 17. Yes, two groups can play the same expansive green at the same time. You may make new friends on this hole.
Kapalua Village Course
Hole 7 • 367 Yards, Par 4
If there is a textbook for Golf Course Architecture 101, this downhill hole should make the first chapter, with its outstanding use of landscape architecture and the environment. The hole’s fairway cleaves a stand of majestically tall pine trees dating to long-ago plantation days. The trees form a natural chute along both upper sides of the fairway. The landing area is bordered to the right and front by a reservoir, and to the left by a steep slope down to former pineapple fields. The ocean view from the tee is one to take your breath away. It has not been confirmed how much this hole will change when the course is reconfigured as part of the private club, but one Kapalua official has said it is likely to become the course’s 10th hole. The official said the new Mauka clubhouse would be situated uphill from the current tee.
Makena South Course
Hole 15 • 188 Yards, Par 3
Hit the wrong club and you may just sail the green and splash into the ocean. This no-nonsense hole plays longer than it looks from the tee high above the oceanfront green. Traps guarding the front of the green provide an optical illusion—there’s more space between them and the green than you think—and it is easy to hit short. Look for the rich hues of the cinder cone Pu‘u Olai to the left.
Wailea Blue Course
Hole 2 • 207 Yards, Par 3
This is another one of those holes you’d better play soon before it is changed forever—the Blue Course was recently sold. The new owner’s renovation plans reportedly call for the course’s first and second holes to be combined into one hole. For now, however, this par 3 has the right blend of challenge and charm. Tall trees tower over the tee area as players survey the figure-eight-shaped pond and water features they must cross to reach the large, two-tiered green.
Ka‘anapali North Course
Hole 18 • 449 Yards, Par 4
Golfers may need to cross over the same long lagoon twice to reach the green of this long par 4 that has seen more than its share of drama while hosting events for the LPGA and Senior PGA golf tours. In 1983, Kathy Whitworth drained a 30-foot birdie putt to win her 84th professional event, tying Sam Snead for the all-time lead in career golf victories (the LPGA played the hole as a par 5). Hale Irwin and Bob Charles each wrapped up two Senior Tour victories on this hole. In 1993, George Archer beat Lee Trevino and Dave Stockton in a three-way playoff with another 30-foot birdie putt here. For four years running, this was the toughest finishing hole on the Senior PGA Tour.
Kapalua Plantation Course
Hole 18 • 663 Yards, Par 5
They should let everybody turn their carts in at the tee so they can see what it’s like to walk triumphantly down the most famous fairway in Hawai‘i. Each year, the Mercedes Championships seems to come down to this hole. Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Stuart Appleby, and Ernie Els have all won here, but none has won more dramatically than when Tiger Woods beat Els in a playoff. The two top-rated players in golf went toe-to-toe and both eagled this final hole to force the playoff. Touted as the longest hole on the PGA Tour, and with a fairway wider than the length of some holes, this downhill, downwind monster not only begs you to grip it and rip it, it gives you permission to do so. Let gravity and the wind be your friends. Just watch the trouble on the left as you work your way down to a green that slopes away toward the ocean. If you make eagle, pump your fist like a Tiger.
Mauians simply call this the Marilyn Monroe house. The clubhouse for private King Kamehameha Golf Club is an enlarged copy of a home Frank Lloyd Wright first designed in 1949 for a family in Fort Worth, Texas. In 1957, Wright modified the plans to design a home for Monroe and her husband Arthur Miller. That home was never built, but in 1988, the plans were purchased and used to construct this clubhouse on the mountainside above Waikapu.
Wright’s genius is fully on display in the building’s domed roof and geometric designs.
Matthew Thayer is the chief photographer for The Maui News. He has covered professional golf tournaments on Maui for the past 26 years, many of those as a stringer for the Associated Press.