LIHUE, Kauai, Hawaii -- Kauai Lagoons Golf Club has undergone more plastic surgery than an aging Hollywood starlet since opening the separate Kiele and Lagoons Courses by Jack Nicklaus in the late 1980s.
After years of nips and tucks, the club has emerged with a unique 27-hole routing highlighted by the longest continuous stretch of ocean holes in the Hawaiian islands. A massive renovation completed in May 2011 created a handful of new holes on the coastal Moana nine. Work also upgraded bunkers, moved several traps around and put Tif-eagle on the greens.
Even its latest change has made a big impact. A new back tee opened this spring, transforming the fourth hole on the Mauka nine from a near-impossible par 4 to a more fun, reachable par 5 capable of relinquishing eagle.
All the pieces finally seem to be in place for Kauai Lagoons, ranked no. 8 on Golfweek's "Best Courses You Can Play" list in Hawaii.
Scott Ashworth, the director of golf at Kauai Lagoons, said long-term plans include renovating the third Waikahe nine.
"We've got a great course here on Kauai. We just need to get more golfers," he said. "I don't think there are many places where you get so many holes on the ocean or such beautiful mountain views."
The evolution of Kauai Lagoons has taken many detours since the demanding Kiele and more forgiving Lagoons Courses opened in 1988 and 1989, respectively.
After a soft renovation, the Lagoons was renamed Mokihana in 1999. Several nines of each course closed during the recent recession. Over the years, all but three of the trademark marble statues of animals and mystical beings have been removed from the grounds. Only three remain. A happy Buddha greets golfers on the first tee and the Golden Bear near the final green wishes them farewell.
Nicklaus himself returned to bring the spectacular Kiele Moana nine back to life during the latest renovation. Its open, wind-swept feel provides quite the contrast to the Mauka nine, which means "to the mountains." This opening par-37 loop crawls through the jungle. It plays so tough with three par 5s in the first six holes and a do-or-die par 3 at no. 5. A gulley populated by a forest of mango, guava plum and schefflera surrounds the fifth green.
Moana translates to "open ocean," which waves hello at no. 4. Four towering palm trees frame the ocean backdrop behind the green. The par-3 fifth hole soars magnificently over an oceanfront inlet. The new sixth hole doglegs to the left along the rocky coastline. A ravine gobbles anything short and left of a narrow green.
Brochures call the 331-yard seventh hole the course's signature moment, although it feels a bit quirky to first-timers who have never played the course. A tiny green sits well below the fairway, overlooking the lighthouse of the inner harbor and the Kalapaki Bay fronting the Kauai Marriott Resort and Beach Club.
The Moana nine then turns inland into the prevailing trade winds for two brutes, a par 3 at no. 17 and the par-4 finishing hole. A lagoon runs up the right side and cuts across the fairway of the 459-yard 18th to create an island green. It's an epic ending to a memorable round.
Jim Robison, a visitor from Huntsville, Ala., called the last two holes "the money stretch."
"You can't beat the scenery, the mountains here and the ocean there," he said of the layout. "Seventy percent of the course is resort golf. Thirty percent is challenging holes with elevated greens and tee shots over ravines. When the trade winds blow, it has a lot of teeth."
Some golfers have told Ashworth they miss the original 36-hole routing. For those who don't know any better, the ocean views of the new layout provide the perfect distraction.
"You have different opinions (if the course is better than ever today)," Ashworth said. "We lost some holes but gained some ocean holes. That's rare. From that aspect, I'd say it is better because you are playing three and a half holes on the ocean."
With the resurrection of the Moana nine along the shore, Kauai Lagoons Golf Club might be one of the three most beautiful golf courses in all of Hawaii. But it might also be one of the five most difficult, too. Bring your camera and several sleeves of balls. Just minutes from the Lihue Airport, it remains the ideal place to play on arrival or departure day.
July 15, 2013