WAILEA, Hawaii -- Visitors to the 50th state want to see lava. It might not rank quite up there with beautiful beaches and a luau, but it's close. Only lava's generally not as easy to get to - certainly not like beaches, where you can pull off the side of the road and viola ... pretty water and nice surf.
One of the best ways to get your lava fix in Maui is to wake up early and hump up a mountain to see a real-live volcano.
That's a lot of work, though, and you're a golfer. Let's face it, many of us want our sight-seeing to come on the side of a golf course. Preferably a hole we're birdieing if you don't mind.
Hawaii's most-famous lava golf courses tend to be on the Big Island, though, not Maui - the most popular island for first-time Hawaii visitors these days. Sure, you could hop on a plane or take the new Super Ferry (assuming that environmentalists don't disrupt its schedule as they've made noise about).
But again, some golfers tend to take vacation chill mode as seriously as Ryan Seacrest takes getting TV time.
No need to fuss, though. Don't get your perpetual golfer's tan in a muss. Just play Wailea Golf Club's Gold Course on South Maui's "90210"-for-grownups-like, high class resort row.
You get unforgettable black lava rocks and a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that makes you realize why he seems to be revered in "Aloha" land.
Wailea Gold's a big, near bionic Hawaii golf course that doesn't rely on a few ocean looks to carry the day. Instead, it challenges your guts, especially on the back nine. There are shots up to greens, down through skinny driving alleys and lakes to clear. There are huge bunkers, the kind of hacker-swallowing (forget just the golf ball, you may not get out) bunkers that gave the Trent Jones name such cache in the golf world in the first place.
Then, there's the lava.
On No. 17, the black space-age looking rocks line the sides of the hole, and suddenly an already-skinny fairway looks like a lightweight wrestler trying to drop below 105 pounds before weigh in.
"Did that thing just disappear?" one of my playing partners added after watching his white ball shoot amongst those hulking black rocks.
Hey, nobody guaranteed lava would be your friend. It's lava. Not a puppy.
Wailea Gold 18 features a large, lava rock field right off the tee. Who knew that chunks of rocks could intimidate more than a gargantuan lake? Then again, there can be something perversely thrilling in seeing your golf ball plummet into a water abyss.
Watching it bounce around lava rocks doesn't carry any of the same romance.
There's no tidy splash, plop or usually finality about a lava rock shot. Balls go shooting off the rocks like it's pinball, and you'll probably be conducting a futile search for that Pro V.
Just think how prehistoric the stuff is. Maybe your golf ball and the lava rocks can go down in history together.
At least, Trent Jones Jr. gives you greens that are like Broadway stages. Wailea Gold's greens are larger than Arnold Schwarzenegger's opinion of himself. They have breaks that a geometry PHD couldn't figure out.
In other words, they're wonderful.
They help frame the Hawaii horizon in a way that makes Wailea Gold much more of a picturesque play than the sister course it shares a clubhouse with -- Wailea Emerald. It helps that Wailea Gold was in near day and night better shape than Emerald on this early winter review play.
Greener fairways are only part of the story, though.
Wailea Gold's bunkering and trees are equally striking. A few holes on the back nine remind one of Torrey Pines with fluffy low-lying trees crouched over greens. The par 3s are particularly showy, especially No. 16 with its ocean look to the left.
Standing on the tee, looking out at the Pacific and volcanic rocks, you know you're enjoying a real Hawaii golf experience.
You come to Hawaii to play courses like Wailea Gold. It's not just the views; it's everything that comes with the views - 7,078 yards of golf that's makes you step back a few times and regain swing composure throughout the round.
No. 8 is one of the best par 3s in all of Hawaii - a 216-yard mini monster with a canyon crevice of lava rocks to clear and ocean visible beyond that. It's also just one of the reasons you want to save Wailea Gold for a clear sunny day. Forget twilight - not that you get much of a discount off the $180 regular winter rate anyways.
Play Wailea Gold when Maui's at its glorious best.
If you hadn't read that the course opened in 1994, you probably would think it's been around much longer than that when you play it. Trent Jones Jr. manages to make it play out like it's always belonged amongst this scenery. The striking mammoth bunkers carry an old school feel, too.
Nothing's as old as the lava rocks, though. More than a few golf balls are now well on their way to fossilization, too.
March 3, 2008