Kapalua Golf: The Plantation Course

Jordan Spieth shot 30 under par to win the 2016 Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua Plantation.
Jordan Spieth shot 30 under par to win the 2016 Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

If you’re a fan of iconic golf courses, one of the courses that has to be on your bucket list of courses to play is The Plantation Course at Kapalua on the Hawaiian island of Maui. There are two courses at the Kapalua (pronounced COP-uh-lou-ah) Resort: The Plantation Course and The Bay Course, but The Plantation Course is the much more famous of the two because for the last 17 years, it’s hosted the PGA Tour’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

The resort itself sits amidst two nature preserves and former pineapple fields owned by Maui Land & Pineapple Company; hence, the Kapalua butterfly logo with a pineapple between its wings.

Once the FedEx Cup Playoffs conclude, I think most golf fans (myself included) really stop paying attention to the PGA Tour again until the Hyundai. It feels like must-see TV because, not only has it been awhile since the top guys last teed it up, it’s a winners-only field limited to the guys who won on Tour the previous season.

The calendar-year opening invitational is always held during the first week of January, and prior to 2013 when the PGA switched to an October through September schedule, it was the Tour’s season-opening event. Since 1999, the Tournament of Champions has been played exclusively on The Plantation Course, which is unique among PGA Tour venues in several ways.

It’s the only course on Tour that plays to a Par of 73; all other courses play to pars between 70 and 72. It’s also the only course with seven holes of more than 500 yards and one of only two courses (Pebble Beach being the other) with six Par 4s of less than 400 yards.

The Plantation Course is a traditional links-style course with panoramic mountain and ocean views, and it’s consistently ranked as the No. 1 golf course in all of Hawaii. It was designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and opened for play in 1991. According to the course web site, “It was designed on a grand scale in keeping with its location on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains and offers dramatic ocean views from virtually every hole.” It also offers a healthy dose of wind, the speed and direction of which can vary between trade winds and south winds based on the time of year you’re playing. There are a lot of dramatic elevation changes, which means you’re also going to have plenty of downhill tee shots.

No where are the elevation changes at Plantation more starkly illustrated than the 17th, 18th, and 1st holes consecutively. The 17th starts atop a mountain and continues downward through the Norfolk pines along the 18th hole before sloping to a completed descent at the 1st. The three holes play a combined 1,691 yards from the Championship Tees, but only the 18th hole (at 663 yards) is a Par 5.

If you’re planning a trip to Kapalua, the rates are only good through December 19th. They vary depending on the time of day you wish to play and can range anywhere from $139 on the low end to $299 on the high end. Kapalua has been managed by Troon Golf in Scottsdale since April of 2011, and because I currently work at a Troon property, La Paloma Country Club in Tucson, I was able to get a drastically discounted rate. No one plays for free in Hawaii because, as they say in Maui, “It’s peak season all year round.”

The Plantation Course plays a whopping 7,411 yards from the Championship Tees to a Par of 73, a course rating of 77.2 mainly because of the wind there year-round, and a slope of 144. Rest assured, there are four sets of tees with combo sets in-between, some pretty wide fairways, and fairly large greens to make it more playable for the average golfer. Here are some of the highlights of the round:

At the Par 4 7th hole, you can hit your tee shot over either of these trees, but the right tree is the more aggressive line.
At the Par 4 7th hole, you can hit your tee shot over either of these trees, but the right tree is the more aggressive line.

Holes Worth Writing Home About
My favorite hole on the front nine is the 516-yard Par 4 7th. In my opinion, it offers one of the prettiest ocean views anywhere on the entire course of which there are many. If course views are more to your liking, keep your head on a swivel as you approach the 5th tee. From there, you can see four holes on Plantation as well as at least one hole on the neighboring Bay Course meandering below and across the way. But back to the 7th hole. Even at over 500 yards, if you catch the downslope just right, your ball can feed all the way down to where you’ll have a mid or even a short-iron in.

The wind felt like it was blowing upwards of 40 miles an hour at times. I thought it was at least a three-club wind. Not only did our hats blow off 5-6 times, it also rained on us twice. The clouds come right over the top of the West Maui Mountains, and sometimes you’ll get a misting while other times it’s a short downpour.

The best hole on the course, and the one everyone is always left talking about is the Par 5 18th. At 663 yards, most if not all of the guys on the Tour can hit the green in two. On this day, the tournament tee was closed, but it was still playing 623 yards. Ridiculous. But remember, it’s another downhill tee shot, and if you catch the wind and the slope of the fairway just right, you can hit one of the longest drives of your life!

Just be careful not to hit your ball into the Bermuda grass rough because it will bury. There are also bunkers lurking short right and short left of the green should you get a little too aggressive with your approach and come up short. The flagstick on the 18th was adorned with an American flag and had a special stand to keep the flag from touching the ground while we putted out. I thought it was a classy touch.

Quiet Please…
We were scheduled to tee off at 1:10p, but because we were in a hurry, we decided to grab lunch at the bar, Nineteen at the Plantation House. The bar and adjacent restaurant (which was packed) overlooks the 18th fairway, and all of the shutter windows were open, making the views that much more incredible. It’s open seating in the bar, so you can either belly-up or look for a seat near the windows to watch some pretty frustrated golfers limp to the finish line.

All of the greens at Plantation are TifEagle bermudagrass, and they’re tough, not because they’re fast, but because they’re grainy. The grain is so influential in fact, that while everything tends to break towards the ocean, the best tip I got was this: the grass grows toward the brown spot along the edge of the cup. There’s a brown spot along one edge of every cup. So if the brown spot is on the edge that’s closest to you, you’re into the grain, and you’ve got to give it some juice. But if the brown spot is on the edge that’s farthest from you, you’re down grain, and the putt’s going to be a lot faster.

That’s why the greens at Plantation result in the highest putting percentage on Tour. The grain affects the speed, and guys don’t realize how slow putts into the grain actually are, especially when compared to those speedy down-grain putts. It took me a few holes to wrap my brain around the concept, but once you experience it for yourself, you’ll become a true believer.

The view from the 18th tee is pretty spectacular. Hit it just right, and you'll hit the longest drive of your life!
The view from the 18th tee is pretty spectacular. Catch it just right, and you’ll hit one of the longest drives of your life!

Then again, I could also be dead wrong about the whole grain thing. We got a lot of conflicting reports while we were out there. I heard everything from, “Aim at the brown spot along the edge of the cup. Everything breaks towards the brown spot (from the guy in the golf shop),” to “Uphill putts are slower than you think, but everything toward the ocean is faster than you think (from the guy we sat next to in the restaurant beforehand).”

At any rate, I would recommend spending more than a few minutes on the practice putting green before your round so you can see what I mean. You certainly won’t want to do much more than loosen-up at the driving range because the grass there is terrible. It was all chewed up. In fact, it’s more dirt than grass, which was pretty disappointing. We were also told specifically to practice our putting before we played because, “That’s where you’ll do your damage.” Looking back, I can say that the guy in the golf shop was right.

The golf shop at The Plantation Course was spacious and very nice. It’s only open until 6:30p, so depending on when you finish your round, you could be cutting it close. I love the Kapalua logo. It’s a butterfly with a pineapple between its wings. There are a lot of shirts and hats to choose from. Just be prepared to spend some real money if you can’t find the logo golf shirt you’re looking for on any of their sale racks. Medium is their most popular size.

I think from now on, I’m just going to buy a ball marker or two from the famous courses that I play. They’re a lot less expensive, and I can always use another ball marker on the greens. They also make for a good conversation piece because you get to use them every time you play.

I didn’t make a single birdie on Plantation’s grainy greens, but my most gratifying shot of the day came on my approach into the 549-yard Par 4 17th. I had 188-yards in and hit a little 6-iron to within eight feet. Sure, I missed the putt, but it was great to knock it stiff on a long and difficult hole.

So here’s my take on Plantation: given the exorbitant price and overall difficulty of the course, I have to say I’m not sure I would ever play it again. Even the guys we played with agreed. It felt like the ball wasn’t going anywhere because of the wind, and at times, hitting the ball through the wind was like slogging through mud. The only (and closest) thing I could compare Plantation to is The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. That’s the toughest course I’ve ever played, but The Plantation Course is right up there. I always feel like playing in the wind takes more out of you mentally than physically because of the focus required to hit each shot so precisely.

I may have knocked it stiff on the Par 4 17th but still missed the birdie putt.
I may have knocked it stiff on the Par 4 17th but still missed the birdie putt.

While We’re Young
We teed off at 1:10p, and were done by 6:07p, a little less than five hours after we started. We were just a few minutes behind the pace being kept on our golf cart GPS, but it’s not like we were playing slow. It was just a grind.

Originally, we were scheduled to play the day before at 1:30p but decided to reschedule because it was even windier. It’s a good thing we did. Had we teed off when we were supposed to, I’m not sure we would have been able to finish our round before sunset. Kapalua offers live views of both courses here. You can even control the webcam. There are ten different positions to choose from!

Next On the Tee
The Bay Course at Kapalua. The first of the Kapalua courses opened in 1975 and is located in a more residential area than Plantation. My wife’s dad’s cousin has a condo overlooking the course’s signature Par 3 5th hole, which is right along the water. I can’t wait!

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