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Kukui'ula

The only private golf club on Kauai is a perfect reflection of the Garden Island’s magical spirit

By: James A. Frank

Appeared in 2013 LINKS Premier Clubs

Even by Hawaiian standards, Kauai is something special. The westernmost of the state’s five big islands, Kauai is also the most laid-back.    

Drivers don’t pass other cars but toddle happily along. Meetings—if there are any—rarely start on time. Residents say “aloha” (hello) and “mahalo” (thank you) and really mean it, greeting friends, as well as strangers, with hugs. And no building on the island can be taller than the tallest palm tree, four stories.

If Kauai were a golfer, it would be Fred Couples.

Kukui‘ula—the only private golf club and community on Kauai—embodies the island’s unique spirit. Perhaps the better word is “embraces,” because that’s how members describe the feeling they get when they return to Kukui‘ula, embraced by the people, the land, and the warmth.

They also speak, with total sincerity, of being part of a family. That’s a word often used around Kukui‘ula—which is located on the island’s south shore, near Poipu—where privileges are extended to a member’s parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren, and where members pay for and run a party for the staff and their relations.

The emphasis on family even influences the real estate: In traditional Hawaiian style, many of the houses being built on property feature a separate ohana, a small detached guest cottage with a bedroom and bath, designed for visiting loved ones. (The word “ohana” means family in Hawaiian.)

The club’s 1,010 acres were part of a sugar plantation that extended from Kukui‘ula Bay, across verdant meadows, up and down the surrounding hills. Recalling that history, the center of club life is the Plantation House, a long, low structure built in the open-air style of the estates that once dominated the island. The house sits amid lush gardens and swimming pools, opens onto an expansive lawn perfect for parties, and offers wide-angle views of the Pacific.

Nearly every human need can be met inside the 20,000-square-foot Plantation House. The dining room serves throughout the day, from continental breakfast to gourmet dinner. There’s a game room with pool tables, pinball machines, video games, and a jukebox. Island Pursuits stocks the necessary gear for biking, snorkeling, surfing, kayaking, and more, and can arrange lessons. There’s also a state-of-the-art gym, as well as a phenomenal spa with plunge and lap pools, steam rooms and saunas, indoor/outdoor showers, and expert therapists.

Yet it remains very Kauai, which is to say low-key and elegantly understated. Members and staff are on a first-name basis, and the air is filled with the fragrance of tropical flowers, refreshing ocean breezes, friendly conversation and laughter.

Adjacent to the Plantation House is the golf shop, where head pro Brian Paul and his team oversee the spectacular Tom Weiskopf-designed course that spreads across the property. Weiskopf took full advantage of the rolling land—moving some dirt to accentuate elevation changes—while accounting for the trade winds that blow nearly every day and change direction with Kauai-inspired caprice. Paul says, “The course never plays the same two days in a row.” So it never fails to charm and challenge.

Kukui‘ula is immaculately maintained, although there are numerous patches of native bahia grass, a wispy bush that can prove a more potent hazard than any of the four lakes. Many of the 66 bunkers are big (but not too deep), with free-form shaping and white sand flashed up on the faces. The bunkers can come into play, especially when the wind is up, but are strategically positioned and never bookend the very wide fairways. “Tom doesn’t do that,” Paul says, describing the architect’s philosophy. “He always wants golfers to have a safe side, a bail-out area.” The effect is that of a vast green carpet—all the grass is sea-water-safe paspalum—with any trouble clearly visible from the tee.

Where Weiskopf toys with golfers is in the fairways, which are as wavy as the Pacific, rarely presenting a truly flat lie. Then there are the greens, uniformly large (again, to suit the wind), often multi-tiered, and edged with steep fall-offs that transition into tricky chipping areas. Even the savvy golfer will need at least a few rounds to determine when the flag is the target or when the right line is over a hill or at a palm tree, and how to use the slopes and kicks built into and around the putting surfaces.

Many holes move sharply up or downhill, such as the parallel 5th and 6th, which first rise and then fall around a lake and through a valley that was excavated to enhance the exhilarating conditions. The long par-three 8th plays to an elevated green with a slope on the right side that can help those smart enough to use it to funnel the ball toward the hole.

Number 8 also is the first time the full ocean comes into view, teasing golfers for what’s in store on the back nine, where the Pacific forms a dramatic backdrop. The back also features two drivable par-fours: Such “short” holes are something of a Weiskopf trademark, a feature he took from the great courses of Britain, particularly St. Andrews. It is possible to reach the greens of 11 and 14, but only with good drives properly directed to avoid sand and, on 11, over a mound that usually blocks a clear view of the flagstick. Weiskopf made them short, not easy.

Another reason golfers won’t forget 14, and the long, doglegging par-four 15th as well, are the far-as-the-eye-can-see views of the ocean. Both offer ideal vantage points for watching the humpback whales that cavort off Kauai in winter, their spouting and breeching far more impressive than any golf shot. The final four holes play to the east, back to the house, usually into stiff winds that make for a stout finish.

The 14th green also overlooks the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, which the club helps support. Kauai is called the Garden Island because it is teeming with growth and only 10 percent of the roughly 550 square miles is developed. At Kauai’s center is Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on earth, receiving as much as 600 inches of rain a year. Luckily, the island’s south coast, where Kukui’ula is located, is the sunny coast, where the weather is nothing short of paradisiacal.

Kukui‘ula has planted its own flourishing gardens, called The Farm, that supply the kitchen
in the Plantation House—as well as members’ homes—with fruits, flowers, and produce from mint and bananas to macadamia nuts, taro, artichokes, carrots, and, of course, pineapple. Many of the same plants also grow plentifully on the course, so it’s not unusual to see golfers purposely walking off the fairways to stop and pick something from nature’s abundant bounty.

Just one more example of the unique relationship shared by this most beautiful island and this most exceptional club.  

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