Puakea Golf Course

March 4, 2008 1:01:28 PM PST
Well designed golf courses need not shout their greatness with overtly difficult or spectacular holes. Instead, they quietly earn a player's respect through eighteen games in the forms of par threes, fours, and fives. Often, the sum of those parts creates a more memorable experience than any one hole.

Such is the case with the island of Kauai's Puakea Golf Course. This is not the most difficult course on Kauai, nor does it pretend to be, but it is certainly one of the most player-friendly. This Robin Nelson design offers ample room to miss on many holes, but does not sacrifice shot making values. It offers strategic bunkering, risk-reward shots, and plenty of trouble, but generally, without making a player nervous, or feeling as if he's swinging in a straight jacket.

Initially, you may be put off at how Puakea's front nine runs through suburbia on a few holes, but that is my only criticism. If you're out there for the golf, the structures will not bother you because the holes are so interesting.

The par 4, 407/367/348 yard 3rd, for instance, features a lake that dominates the hole. It runs along the left side of the fairway, beginning roughly 110 yards from the hole, and then wraps around the back of the green. Depending on the wind, do you lay short, or thread the fairway? From the blues, hit no more than 180 yards if you plan to play it safe.

Puakea's signature hole is also on the front nine---the 176/156/130/133 yard, par 3 6th. From the back tees, you'll hit from a cliff, literally, to a tiny looking green guarded by jungle in back, and a pond in front. The trade wind usually blows from behind, so use two clubs less. From the 176 yard mark, swing a soft, 155 yard club, hit the green, and make par.

Puakea's regulars know that the front serves as a mere preamble to the back. These are the original nine holes, built before Hurricane Iniki roared through Kauai in 1991. The back nine is beautiful, challenging, and conjures a feeling of tropical remoteness. Mt. Haupu looms so high, so green, and so close that it appears to be almost touchable. Puakea's back nine is so fine that I could play those holes every day for the rest of my life, and never tire of them.

The 397/356/339/298 yard, par 4, 12th plays downhill, with out of bounds left, and a lake guarding the right side. This is a difficult tee shot, due to a two-tiered fairway, the water, and a large tree guarding the right side of the green. I pulled out my driver and missed right. "That's wet," I declared, but the ball did not go in the water. Robin Nelson's player-friendly design provided a reprieve in the form of an unseen, slight uphill slope near the water's edge.

Of all the holes at Puakea, I appreciated the 446/403/380/328 yard, par 4, 15th, the best. It plays downhill and slightly left through a narrowing fairway. Jungle gobbles balls hooked left. Two large bunkers guard the optimal route, along the right. A well-placed drive makes the difference between approaching this green with a fairway metal or a short mid-iron.

Puakea has Bermuda grass on the fairways and greens. It is owned, oddly enough, by Steve Case, who founded America On Line, and operated by Billy Caspar Golf. Green fees include a necessary cart, and range from $125 to $55, depending on the time of day. If you're staying at a resort, they'll charge you $95.

Finally, a proviso. Puakea will undergo renovations in the next few months, with changes to some holes, and a possible flipping of the front and back nines.

When you visit, say hello to Paul Ito, the Director of Golf. Paul is an excellent player who qualified for the P.G.A. of America Club Professionals Championship. He and I played a game. After I scared him (sic), Paul shot four under on the back nine for a smooth 68. Just watching that was worth every penny.

Besides. He gave me a free hat.