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The Challenge at Manele golf course in Hawaii: The ocean holes never stop

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

In Hawaii, golfers can hop a boat from Maui to Lanai to play The Challenge at Manele, a spectacular Jack Nicklaus-designed ocean golf course that puts potential rivals to shame.

Challenge at Manele Golf Course - Ocean
The ocean's your constant companion on The Challenge at Manele.
Challenge at Manele Golf Course - OceanChallenge at Manele Golf Course - forced carriesChallenge at Manele Golf Course - 11th greenChallenge at Manele Golf Course - cliffs

LANAI, Hawaii -- The ocean looks keep coming, one after the other after the other. It's an onslaught of natural beauty, as capable of distracting you from your game as a buxom woman streaking across the fairway.

Okay, it's not quite that pulse rising. But it's in the same general zip code. Your mouth will open a few times.

Welcome to The Challenge at Manele, an ocean course on the tiny Hawaiian island of Lanai that puts other ocean courses to shame.

There are courses (a few courses) with one or two better ocean holes than Manele Bay has. But there's no course anywhere with more holes with ocean vistas. On The Challenge at Manele practically every hole gives you a good glimpse of blue. On a really sunny day, it's capable of being 18 for 18. On a cloudy day, maybe 15 or 16 of 18.

You want to play an ocean golf course on that dream Hawaii golf vacation? Take the 45-minute ferry from Maui or hop on a puddle jumper from one of the other islands to get to Lanai.

It's worth any travel pain. The Challenge at Manele boasts many more ocean holes than any course on the much more popular island of Maui.

It's also still something of an under appreciated getaway play.

On the afternoon of this review visit, a grandfather playing with his college-aged granddaughter and myself were the only people on the course. It's not always like that. There are tournaments from corporate groups staying at one of Lanai's two Four Seasons resorts. But Challenge at Manele Bay is seldom as packed as the tee-sheet-jammed courses of Maui.

You can breathe. While breathing in all that ocean air.

The thing is that as you play the front nine at Manele Bay, you're going to become convinced this is the nine with the best ocean views. Think again. Like the other big resort course on Lanai, The Experience at Koele, Manele Bay's back nine blows away its front nine.

There is no comparison really.

Manele Bay's backside is higher up, closer to the ocean cliffs, right on the edge of the world on many holes.

"Golfers talk about the scenery most after they've played here," said Linda Gehringer, assistant professional at Manele. "They usually haven't seen these kind of ocean holes before."

How good is the scenery at Manele? Its worst ocean hole would be the best on many so-called ocean golf courses. Take No. 7. This par 3 over a gully is one of the water holes at Manele that would be swooned over on other golf courses.

Here, it's forgettable, lost in a much better ocean crowd.

This isn't just an easy swing and smile at the pretty vistas courses though. It's a Jack Nicklaus design, and the Golden Bear's people gave it plenty of bite.

Almost every hole has some type of forced carry. Some of these are canyon-sized clears. Most are filled with enough vegetation to swallow up your golf ball for near eternity.

It can get downright intimidating for the resort golfer.

"The slope ratings say that The Experience at Koele is the harder of the two courses," Gehringer said. "But I think most regular golfers find The Challenge to be more difficult.

"You have to get the ball in the air straight off the tee. You can't duff one without getting in big trouble. If you get your tee shots in the fairway, you're all right. But the visuals can be intimidating."

Or postcard worthy. Usually both.

No. 11 gives you the first real sense of how good the back nine is going to be. It's a 589-yard par 5 that runs above the ocean its whole length and ends with a green shaped like a catcher's mitt that's right over the ocean.

Adding to the drama, there's an old-looking tree hanging over the green, giving it something of a Torrey Pines look.

Of course, then you completely forget about 11 once you get to 12. This par 3 hangs 150 feet over the surf. There's no fairway. It's all carry over the sea to the green.

It feels like you could leap right over the edge into the ocean - because, well, you could. In fact, if you find yourself with an awkward lie on the edge of the green, you have to make sure you don't go toppling over.

You're in the best part of Manele now. The 10th through 13th stretch played out along the ocean cliffs stands out as the most spectacular on a course full of the spectacular.

Take a deep breath - and a picture - before swinging.

Yet the single most theatrical hole is the par-4 17th. This is the longest forced carry - right over a cliff with the surf crashing against the rocks far below. And that's just to reach the fairway. All you see from the tee is the flag. The bunker danger lurking all around it is obscured.

It's all right to gulp.

The Challenge at Manele: The verdict

If you're going to play one course in Hawaii with the objective of experiencing ocean golf, The Challenge at Manele should be it. It won't be the best course you've ever played (Experience at Koele is a little better). But it will have many of the best looks.

Manele does have more signs of disrepair than you'd like to see in a $200 resort course. At the time of this visit, the bunkers on most of the front nine didn't have any sand in them.

Instead there was only the white foam-like bottom of the bunkers, which is no pleasure to hit out from.

Gehringer said the sand was on special order, and it had proven difficult to get the type Nicklaus' design people insisted on to Lanai to refill them.

Lanai's back nine is in pretty good shape, though. and club officials said the front nine was in the process of going through the same type of conditioning makeover the back already had.

Still, Manele Bay should be offering at least a slightly discounted greens fee until those bunkers have sand.

Paying full price won't spoil your day though. This is a course where location truly is everything. You're on the ocean. You're happy.

Lanai hotels

There are two plush Four Seasons resorts on Lanai and one tiny 10-room, air-conditioning challenged hotel in Lanai City. This is a spot to splurge and the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele is the best choice. It's much smaller than the Manele Bay Four Seasons (only a little more than 100 rooms).

Staying here is like being up in your own hunting lodge -- a luxury lodge with a heated pool and a great game room. Plus, you still get access to all of the Manele Bay resort.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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Dates: October 18, 2017 - December 31, 2018
Elegant accommodations, daily breakfast overlooking the ocean, and championship golf.
Price range: $799