Appeared in January/February 2004 LINKS
If you happen to have won a PGA Tour event last year, then you received an invitation to January’s Mercedes Championships. An enviable opportunity, considering that the competition takes place on the splendid Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort (not to mention it pays more than $1 million to the winner).
But if you only managed a meager string of second- and third-place finishes—or if you’re just another Joe Golfer like me—fret not, for you can still play this Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design renowned for its luscious tropical surroundings and utterly astounding level of difficulty. And trust me—it’s worth every penny of your green fee and every bit of effort it takes to reach Maui.
This Hawaiian island was settled centuries ago by environmentally responsible folk who raised taro root, harvested fish from the bay and, in their leisure time, enjoyed a variety of games that included a form of lawn bowling using lava balls (after the balls had cooled, of course).
In 1819, a missionary doctor named Dwight Baldwin arrived on Maui. After 17 years of service, he was awarded nearly 3,000 acres of land, a parcel that he and other family members began to expand through various purchases, mergers, royal grants and beneficial marriages. By 1902, the family holdings—known as the Honolua Ranch—included nearly 25,000 acres.
The Baldwin ranch raised cattle and farmed mango, taro and coffee, but it was an experiment with another crop that led to its sweet future as the Maui Land and Pineapple Company. While that business would thrive over the next half-century, the look of Maui gradually began to change as a result of resort development in the late 1960s. Colin Cameron, who represented the fifth generation of Baldwin descendants to manage the property, recognized this and seized on an opportunity to join the boom while preserving the integrity of his family’s property.
Indeed, the resort-residential development of Kapalua was created with strict attention to environmental and historical concerns. Case in point: During the planning and grading stages for the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, an ancient burial site was discovered. To preserve the area, the entire hotel was redesigned and relocated.
Today, the 1,650-acre Kapalua includes nine communities and three hotels that blend seamlessly among 23,000 acres of working pineapple plantations. The property is surrounded by two immense nature preserves, including the 8,661-acre Pu’u Kukui Preserve, which serves as a home to three native bird species, five rare snail species and 18 native plants found nowhere else on earth.
Kapalua’s eco-friendly attitude extends to its 54 holes of golf, which include the seaside Bay Course and the more mountainous Village Course. In fact, the Arnold Palmer- and Francis Duane-designed Bay Course became in 1993 the first Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary course.
Still, the Plantation is the clear headliner here, and it sports every bit of the natural beauty and wildlife of its sisters. Don’t be surprised, for example, to see ring-necked pheasants and golden plovers as you wend your way around the 7,263-yard routing.
Plantation’s 18 holes cross ancient lava flows, roll among Norfolk pines and skirt canyons choked with native vegetation. Vast putting surfaces float like groomed islands in the dense spread of jungle. A strand of bays and beaches glimmers in the distance. In the winter and spring, it’s not uncommon to spot Pacific Humpbacks breaching on the liquid horizon.
The Plantation experience begins with an opening tee shot onto a wide, welcoming downslope. Next comes a par-3, though at 218 yards it’s no place to let your guard down. At the left-to-right par-5 fifth, hit a faded tee shot far enough and you might be tempted to get home in two—assuming you’re not intimidated by the seemingly bottomless jungle pit that must be crossed.
Kapalua’s par-3 eighth, appropriately named “Gorge,” is reminiscent of the Monterey Peninsula, thanks to the typically robust wind and a green beckoning patiently from the far side of a ravine. This is a hole that’s all about carry and soft landings—and possibly whining and bushwhacking through the surrounding shrubbery if you hit your ball off-line. (If you’re having a tough round on Plantation, you might consider a concept introduced by my playing partner the day I took on the course. “Welcome to Mulligan Bay Golf Club,” he announced, re-teeing after an unfortunate drive.)
The fun continues on the back nine. No. 12, for example, alternately climbs and descends along its 373 yards. The ideal drive must thread two pairs of bunkers; likewise the approach must avoid a curvy conga line of sandy hazards.
The Plantation’s finishing stretch is usually played in fearsome trade winds. Consequently, the 17th, a 486-yard, downhill par-4, invites a come-out-of-your-shoes drive. You may as well go all-out on the second shot as well, since laying up to a narrow area between ravine and bunkers is almost as risky.
If you happen to be playing on a rare calm day, without a wind blowing you and your playing partners toward the flag, the 663-yard closing hole might as well be 663 light-years long. This epic par-5, bordered by a ravine that runs all the way down the left side, is the second- longest hole tour players face all year. Considering the sheer length and difficulty of some of these holes, it’s all the more impressive that Ernie Els kicked off the 2003 season here with a tournament-record 31-under-par total and an eight-shot victory over K.J. Choi and Rocco Mediate. (Though it must be said that the Big Easy faced the most benign conditions in the history of the event.)
The word Kapalua means “arms embracing the sea,” though in my mind it could just as easily mean “jungle ravines embracing the golf ball.” Still, after a day spent absorbing the Plantation’s sweeping slopes, dramatic contours and panoramic views, I wanted to throw my arms open wide and shout, “Gimme a hug!”
Even if you’re not quite so emotional, you can still reflect pensively on your round over a meal in the Plantation House Restaurant. After you’ve viewed all the Mercedes Championships memorabilia, relax by the double-sided fireplace and enjoy fresh island cuisine with a Mediterranean accent as you stare out at the distant island of Molokai, sip a fruity drink and think about how good it is to be you—even if you’re not a PGA Tour winner.