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Legends of Golf at Kaanapali Golf Course

Royal Kaanapali Golf Course, Maui - Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

The Maritime Explorer Score:
8/10
See full scoring

The first thing I did on waking up on our first full day in Maui was to get the camera and walk down the hill towards the beach. On the way I passed the Sugarcane Train station at the corner of our street and the main highway. Over the next week we would often see this small steam engine taking passengers, mostly Asian, on a short tour of the area. Crossing the road after what seemed like the world’s longest light I was soon standing on Kaanapali’s famous boardwalk, except it wasn’t made of boards, but concrete, at least in this spot. It really is not a boardwalk in the traditional sense, but more a high grade path that parallels the beach. It was a beautiful morning and despite the early hour therewere a lot of people out jogging, walking and otherwise enjoying the promise of another great day in Hawaii. The sense of people releasing their tensions as they walked was almost palpable – they were happy and so was I.

Just on the other side of the boardwalk is the beach and that morning the water was calm and the views of Lanai to the left and Molokai to the right were fantastic.

Kaanapali Beach with Lanai in the distance
Kaanapali Beach with Lanai in the distance

The sand was very soft and the water was a nice temperature, although I only waded a short distance. Despite the calm appearance I could feel a powerful current paralleling the beach. Offshore, humpbacks were breaching on a regular basis. If this was a foretaste of what Maui was going to offer it was going to be a great week.

We had an early tee time at the famed Royal Kaanapali Golf Course so I had to tear myself away from the beach and head back to the condo. It was a short drive to the clubhouse and immediately upon entering we knew we were on hallowed golfing ground. Royal Kaanapali was the original resort course on Maui, opening in 1962 and one of only two in Hawaii designed by the legendary Robert Trent Jones Sr. We had seen what his son had wrought on Kauai, now we would find out if the RTJ reputation was warranted as well. I strongly suspected the answer was yes based on the only RTJ courses I had played – The Mount Lorette and Mount Kidd courses at Kananaskis, Alberta which are on my all time favourite golf days lists. It was the last time I played 36 holes in one day and I did it with my youngest brother Robert.

Royal Kaanapali has hosted many events over its fifty year plus history including the Senior Skins game when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Gary Player were all here. Other events have included the Golf Channel’s Big Break and an annual Champions Tour stop. Even though the clubhouse was modest by newer resort standards it had a great ambience with photos and posters of the great golfers who had played here.

With all the improvements to the game over the past half century I thought this course might have lost some of its edge – I’m glad to say I was 100% wrong.  Royal Kaanapali remains a challenge to even the best golfers and is an overmatch for the average golfer. There are a number of things that made this course one of the best we played on Hawaii.

Royal Kaanapali Flag
Royal Kaanapali Flag

Note the Humpback whale’s tail that adorns the flags at Royal Kaanapali. If you are here during the spring mating season you will see the humpbacks from the course, guaranteed.

The views of the ocean and the islands of Lanai and Molokai are outstanding – I know I have mentioned this already, but like Vesuvious from Capri, these are world class views that you will never get tired of seeing. The course rises substantially in elevation so that the views get progressively better. Although only the fifth hole actually reaches the edges of Kaanapali Beach the views from the green will have you getting your camera out.

Kaanapali Beach from No. 5 green
Kaanapali Beach from No. 5 green

Aside from the ocean views the course is lush with many varieties of flowering trees and shrubs, birds and some interesting houses on the back nine. In terms of playability, the course has been designed so that almost all the holes play either directly into the wind or downwind – there are few holes with the wind pushing the ball left or right. Unlike many other Hawaii courses, Royal Kaanapali has not replaced its Bermuda grass so that reading the greens is difficult and putting them even more so. On top of that the greens are small and many have some severe undulations – in our foursome no one ever got an approach shot close enough to be considered a gimme. Three putts were more common than two putts and as with any Trent Jones’ courses, Sr. or Jr. the greens were well trapped.

On the back nine the Sugarcane Train came chugging by and we held our drivers high in hand and waved to the passengers who seemed almost deliriously happy to have someone to wave back to.

Sugarcane Train

If I were to play the course again, I would play the golds at 5840 yards over the more normal whites at 6267. Doing that would have increased the chance of hitting a more lofted iron to the green and a getting a par and a much more enjoyable score than what I actually ended up with.

One final note – on a number of the holes on the front nine walkers shared the cart path, part of the Kaanapali boardwalk I think.  This was particularly the case on number 5 where there were at least fifty people walking to or away from you us as we lined up our second shots. There obliviousness to there obvious peril was disconcerting.  If you ever want a chance to find out what the pros feel like with spectators lining the side of the fairway this is as close as you’ll get.

After golf we drove to Lahaina to check out this former whaling town turned –  I don’t want to say tourist trap, but that is really what it is, albeit as tourist traps go, a nice one. The entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places and it has some sites that are definitely worth visiting like the Seaman’s Mission and Baldwin House, but it really seemed to me that it was more about shopping than any appreciation of the history of the place.

Seaman’s Mission
Seaman’s Mission
Baldwin House
Baldwin House

There were few people in the historic houses and famous Banyan Tree park seemed to be overun with old fashioned hobos who were being given the bum’s rush by the local police only to shuffle back to their places of repose five minutes after being rousted. That was probably the most interesting thing I saw in Lahaina. After getting the mandatory fridge magnet – the banyan tree sans the bums, I found a nice bar where I camped out while the rest did the shopping thing. A nice guy on the next bar stool offered me an opportunity for a local real estate investment that “couldn’t miss”. I took his card and promised to get back to him and put it in file 13 on my way out.

Back in the condo we chilled out and just ordered a pizza for dinner. The sunset that night was spectacular, dipping down over the flanks of Molokai. No green flash. Aloha.

Kaanapali Sunset
Kaanapali Sunset

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The Maritime Explorer Score:
8/10
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