LIHUE, KAUAI, Hawaii -- Puakea Golf Course is like that shy girl at your office who wears thick glasses and keeps her hair up in a bun. Then she shows up to the company Christmas party a total knockout, hair down and in a tiny, backless dress.
Don't let first impressions fool you at Puakea, or you'll miss a real beauty on Kauai.
Arriving at Puakea isn't exactly a magical experience. It's located in the middle of Lihue's shopping district, and the clubhouse is a double-wide trailer.
On the first hole, your backdrop isn't the looming Mount Wai'ale'ale, but a Costco. Puakea seems like it could be a muni course in practically any metropolitan area. Wait for it though - things change for the better in a hurry.
Puakea actually features two separate generations of golf holes. The golf course was built in 1992 around the time Hurricane Iniki ravaged the island. Following the destruction, a lot of outside investment money went elsewhere, and Puakea was left with an incomplete, 10-hole course. It wasn't until over a decade later when, under new management, the final eight holes were added.
Though the first 10 holes were set along the most spectacular terrain, just a sniff away from the ocean and below Kauai's mountains, the subsequent eight holes were built closer to the sprawling Lihue.
No matter which generation of holes you're playing, you're in for a well-designed golf course built by Hawaii's most prolific home-grown golf course architect, Robin Nelson (more affectionately known as "Mr. Hawaii"), who has built courses both on his Hawaiian islands and abroad, in exotic locales like China and Bali.
The front nine, while set closer to town, has a great mix of holes, especially in its par 5s that reward strength and aggressive play with birdies.
The front side's most striking hole (and the signature hole of the course) is the steeply downhill par-3 sixth. Playing 175 yards, it's about a two-club elevation drop depending on the trade winds. Club selection is key, because a pond lurking in front swallows up delicate shots.
On the back nine, Puakea really comes to life, weaving up and down ravines and bordering dense jungle. The par-5 11th tumbles down from the tee then back up to an elevated green and one of the finer vantage points on the course.
But the elevated tee on the long par-4 17th has one of the prettiest mountain backdrops on Kauai, and also begs long hitters to carry trees and cut the dogleg for a chance at hitting just a little wedge into one of the course's largest greens.
Look beyond Puakea's trailer clubhouse and the first few holes bordering Lihue, and you've got yourself a true Hawaii island course with great mountain scenery, lush vegetation and plenty of variety in its shot values.
The original 10 holes, mostly made up on the back nine, are the real deal, offering ocean views and play closest to the lush Kauai mountains. It has a tremendous collection of par 3s, varying in length and look.
April 25, 2008