The Prince Course at Princeville – You Must Play It Once, If You Can
This is one of a continuing series of posts from a visit Alison and I made to all four of the main Hawaiian islands a few years ago. They have been updated for accuracy as of 2021. Golf was a big component of this trip and prior to this round at the Prince course we had played the Prince Makai course which we loved and Poipu Bay which we did not. To say we were excited and more than a bit nervous about the golf course we were going to play today would be a vast understatement. The Prince Course at Princeville at that time was rated the #1 course in Hawaii and consistently in the first echelon of the top 100 courses in the US. It had a reputation for being incredibly difficult, so much so that Tiger Woods called it ‘unfair”. If Tiger couldn’t handle it, how would we fare – not too bad as it turned out.
However, here’s the rub. The Prince course closed not long after we played and although it has been refurbished I’ll be damned if I can figure out how you would get to play it today. The beautifully situated St. Regis at Princeville also closed and will reopen late in 2021 as a high end Marriott brand 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay. I would expect that they will have some type of arrangement with the owners of the Prince course to allow their guests to play. What follows then is a description of this course which is truly spectacular and should be on every golfer’s bucket list.
At the entrance was this chunk of lava advertising the fact that the Prince course was at that time a top 100 course in the country.
The course had been completely renovated in 2012 and was reportedly in great shape. The morning we were to play was a bit on the cloudy side with thankfully very slight winds. As we found out at Poipu Bay, the wind is the real enemy on most Hawaiian courses, so at least one of the Prince courses’s fangs would be sheathed. It was no more than a few minutes from our condo to the course and the entrance to a very grand club house that sits alone atop the highest piece of ground in the area. The parking lot was almost empty as was about 50% of the floor space in the clubhouse. Still there was a huge pro-shop where we received a very warm greeting and had our names engraved on pewter bag tags – no cheap plastic here.
After getting our cart with the full bells and whistles GPS system we headed to what surely must be one of the most scenic driving ranges anywhere. With the ever present Bali Hai as a backdrop you hit your balls down into a verdant valley dotted with target greens every 50 yards or so.
After a good warmup we had our picture taken by the starter and set out for the first tee with the starter leading the way.
The first hole is one of the toughest tee shots I have seen in golf. The entire fairway slants right to left causing anything but a perfectly hit ball to roll into the unfindable rough. Thank God for mulligans. Then even a great tee shot calls for a carry of at least 130 yards over a stream to a crowned green. The good news is that once you get there, or to any of the greens, the paspalum grass makes for true putts at reasonable speeds.
We lucked out once again by getting to play by ourselves which definitely dialed the nervousness factor down a notch or two. As it turned out we played the course without seeing more than a handful of other golfers and so entirely at our own pace – we didn’t wait on a single shot and weren’t overtaken by anyone. The starter was obviously used to dealing with golfers who were unprepared or unaware of the challenge that lay ahead. He gave us some good tips on how to play some of the blind shots and generally made us feel that we were not facing an unsurmountable challenge and that while we would lose a lot of balls, that didn’t mean we wouldn’t enjoy the course. The most important advice was to play from the tee boxes that made sense for your game. Only idiots and pros play from the back tees. At just over 6,100 yards the white tees were the Goldilocks set – just right.
I find it difficult to describe a course that is completely unique and different from any other I have ever played, radically different. First of all the course is visually stunning and there are more potential signature holes than I have ever seen on any golf course. Secondly it just looks beautiful. The Royal Poinciana trees, the birds, the occasional ocean views and of course, Bali Hai all make this a course you will never forget. What you won’t see is a lot of houses,( this is not a housing development course) or adjoining fairways (every hole is completely separate).
No. 2 is a fairly routine par 5, unless of course you can’t make the necessary 180 yard carry required on the second shot.
No 4 is another memorable par 5 as much for the Royal Poinciana trees that line the right fairway as for the lake the needs to be avoided on the second and third shots. No. 6 is one of the best holes on the course. If you’ve heard of infinity pools where there is a seamless transition between water and sky, then this might be an infinity hole. A bowl shaped fairway leads directly down to a green that seems to disappear into the sky and sea behind.
No. 7 on the Prince course is an all-carry par three to a green that sits a good 100 feet above the ocean below. Even on a seemingly calm day the wind makes this a tough shot. I failed making the 141 yard carry from the whites, but Alison flew the green from the ladies tee and made an easy par. The reward for making or not making the shot is a stupendous view of the ocean from the green.
After nine holes the Prince course does not return to the clubhouse but instead begins a stretch of holes that play down, around and over a series of heavily treed mini canyons. No 10. is a J-shaped par 5 that if you hit a really lucky drive leaves only about 175 yards to the green – mind you it’s all carry. This was my one chance at birdie as I was close to the green in two, but as usual the putter failed me.
No 12 tee is elevated well above a narrow fairway that has the forest coming in to the fairways edge on either side – goodbye Mr. Pro V1. To make up for the loss the course marshall arrived to deliver freshly cut pineapple slices that were absolutely delicious. Pineapples in Hawaii are a far cry from what passes for them in our grocery stores – sweeter, juicier and somehow right at home.
No. 13 at the Prince course is one of the most unique holes anywhere – a short par 4 that does not appear to have any possible area for the tee shot to land. Luckily that is somewhat of an optical illusion – there is about a 25 yard space to land in. The second shot to the green is a real challenge with water to the right and bunkers to the left, but what makes it an even more interesting approach is the waterfall behind the green.
By the time No. 16 came along and the course started heading up from the forest onto the high ground we began to realize that we had just played one of the most memorable stretches of golf anywhere. As the clubhouse came into sight on No. 18 a feeling almost of sadness overcame me – I just didn’t want this golf experience to end. If there was ever a place to build a 36 hole course this has to be it. Below is a picture I poached from the Prince Course website which gives a clear idea of the mountains that are the background for so many holes.
Our round of golf at the Prince course was complete in less than three and a half hours and the scores were better than expected, south of 90 for me. What a turnaround from Poipu Bay! Time for lunch.
At that time Roy Yamaguchi, a legend in Hawaiian cooking circles and credited with inventing Hawaiian fusion cuisine, ran the The Tavern at Princeville right in the cavernous clubhouse at Princeville. While not the cheapest place to eat by a long shot we found it more than worth the splurge. Besides after breaking 90 at the Prince course I was a bit light headed and didn’t give a s*** about the cost. The ahi poke was about the best I had all month in Hawaii and that’s saying a lot. Alison had the blackened fish sandwich which was also a terrific take on a very common Hawaiian offering. Unfortunately the tavern is long gone, but hopefully something near as good might be there when you get to play the Prince course.
So it was a beautiful afternoon and with no definitive plans we headed down into Hanalei. Just before the town a narrow bridge crosses the Hanalei River and we saw people kayaking up the slow flowing waters. I had hoped to get out on the Na Pali coast on a kayak, but since that wasn’t going to happen due to the huge waves, a slow paddle up the Hanalei in search of Puff’s home might be an acceptable second choice. There was a kayak rental spot on the river, Kauai Outfitters, which had a really good racket going – you rent the kayak by the day, not the hour. In reality nobody kayaks for more than a couple of hours so they get to charge an exorbitant rate. After we were finished I felt like tieing the kayak to the car and keeping it overnight just to piss them off. If we weren’t leaving next day I might well have done it.
Anyway, we got ourselves a tandem and headed upriver. For the first half an hour until we crossed under the highway bridge there wasn’t much to see and there was constant auto traffic on the road that parallels the river – we were tempted to quit, but couldn’t forget the $54 we paid so persevered. After the bridge things quieted down and signs on the right side indicated that we were are in a National Wildlife Refuge and that we were not allowed to land. There were some nene geese actually living by the river and here I thought after the Makai experience that they only lived on golf courses.
A little later we passed under some overhead power lines and then things got interesting. The river narrowed, mangroves were replaced by bamboo and other more upcountry trees and the birds and insects really got going with their calls. Also the water got a lot clearer and we could see schools of mullet and other fish. However, the neatest site was the many box turtles lining the banks as we penetrated inland. Normally most turtles take to the water well before you can get close, but not some of these guys as you can see from the photographs.
The navigable part of the river ended at a small rill which was too shallow to paddle over. Returning downriver we went out to the mouth and as it was a relatively calm day we could have gone out onto Hanalei Bay. We saw a group doing just this. All in all we spent two and a half enjoyable hours on the river, with no sign of a dragon’s nest.
After reluctantly handing over the kayak we drove the short distance to Hanalei Beach which was a beehive of activity. The rather modest Hanalei Pier apparently is famous although why is hard to say. It was a good place to watch the many parents who were introducing their kids to surfing in the treacherous one foot waves.
The beach itself is deservedly world famous and definitely worth walking the entirety of its two mile length. Walking away from the pier you head straight for – wait for it – Bali Hai. In the other direction the impressive form of the then St. Regis Princeville hotel literally climbed the cliffs of Princeville.
By now it was late afternoon and we returned to the condo, changed into drinking clothes and walked down the hill to our beach and across to the Princeville Hotel whence we took a series of elevators up to the lounge level. Every evening at sunset revellers gathered to watch the sun set over Makana Mountain (Bali Hai’s real name) from the St. Regis balcony bar. The setting sun was feted with conch shell blowing, decapitation of a champagne bottle and Hawaiian folk tales. Who cared if the mai tais were $15.00? It was quite simply one of the world’s best places to watch a sunset.
After the sun was long gone we trudged back up the hill a bit depressed by the knowledge that this was our last Kauai sunset. Back by the resort pool we lingered among the flickering torches and palms until retreating to our balcony where we listened to IZ well into the night. Kauai, we will return, if only to play the Prince course one more time, if we can.
Tomorrow we return to Oahu for a week starting with a few days in Waikiki. Come along and I’ll tell you how to safe money by renting an apartment rather than a hotel room.
Here is a link to my gallery from our week on Kauai.