The two Top-100 courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. on Kauai's north shore offer a lot of the same traits -- great conditioning, ocean views, strong holes, top service -- yet they're completely different designs. The Prince Course, ranked no. 22 on Golf Digest's list of "America's 100 Greatest Public Courses," has always been Kauai's king, although its difficulty scares some players away. Makai, the more resort-friendly layout of the two, made its first appearance on Golf Digest's list in 2013, ranking 80th.
Recent renovations at each property -- operated by different owners -- have Princeville primed to become the premier golf destination in Hawaii for a decade or more to come.
"There is definitely the feeling of two different playing experiences," said T.J. Baggett, the general manager of the Prince Course. "If someone comes to Princeville and plays three times, they will probably play Makai twice and us once. I'm not sure if Makai is that much easier, but it looks more open. On the Prince, the penalty is more severe."
The Prince's $5 million facelift, finished in March 2012, added tee boxes, rebuilt bunkers and covered all the greens with eco-friendly, seashore paspalum while enhancing playability in certain areas.
Even though the jungle has been cut back, it will still come to life and snatch a ball into oblivion. The holes twist and turn, rise and fall, through narrow corridors of thick vegetation. Wise decisions and good swings are the only way to get around without losing too many balls. Distant ocean vistas and a waterfall behind the 13th green provide striking natural beauty.
"It is just such an interesting experience," Baggett said. "It takes you on a really unique adventure. You have to hit it straight. It will penalize you more for wayward shots. The views and nature are like no other."
John Rowe, of St. Louis, called it a "thinking man's course." His playing partner, Drew Curby, of San Francisco, said he didn't think it was too challenging. "I would come back to play it again," he said. "I would know what to do on some of the holes. I'd rather be challenged than just play back and forth (on uninteresting land). You never knew what you were going to see next."
The rejuvenated 13-acre practice area includes a unique driving range that transforms into a six-hole, par-3 course in the late afternoons. The "Mini Prince" -- designed for beginners and families to walk -- features holes ranging from 65 to 91 yards. The 66,000-square-foot clubhouse gives off a great first impression.
Guests walk in star-struck, gazing out beyond the course to the ocean through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Lunch or dinner at The Tavern Restaurant, run by celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, complete the experience.
The 27-hole Makai Golf Club at Princeville, opened in 1971 as RTJ Jr.'s first course, has come of age since a multi-million-dollar renovation finished in 2010.
A mandate to keep up with the high-brow St. Regis Princeville Resort next door has the course looking clean and refreshed. "Over 40 years everything was so overgrown," Makai Golf Club Director of Golf Alex Nakajima said. "We are constantly improving."
Seashore paspalum now covers the fairways, greens and tees, including a new fourth set that added roughly 500 yards in length. Green surrounds were reshaped. New white Silica sand from Vietnam created bunkers that visually pop against a panoramic backdrop.
Makai, run by Troon Golf, translates to "ocean." Five spectacular clifftop holes (no. 6, no. 7, no. 12, no. 13 and no. 14) offset a few average ones. Just as good as the coastal holes, the par-3 third hole plummets off an elevated tee down into the jungle. The Woods nine, which has not yet been renovated, serves as an overflow, value-oriented loop for families and juniors.
Hanalei resident Mitch Haynie prefers the playability of the Makai over the macho toughness of the Prince. "The views are spectacular in both directions (on Makai)," he said. "You can look back at the lighthouse or (inland) at the mountains. You can look down the cliffs and see the blue waters in the surf. You could just spend a lot of time sitting on the tee box looking into the ocean if you are not careful."
The courses really serve different audiences. The Prince -- always neck and neck with the Plantation Course at Kapalua on Maui in the race to be Hawaii's best resort course -- caters to bucket-list chasers and low handicappers (12 and under).
Casual vacation golfers and those with higher handicaps just looking to enjoy ocean views and some sun will favor Makai.
June 17, 2013