Teeing it up: The best golf courses in the Islands

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Home to awe-inspiring courses crafted by top designers, Hawaii is recognized as one of the world's great golf destinations. With prestige and competition as motivations, golf courses in the Islands are beautifully groomed, making them suitable for hosting pro tournaments; Hawaii is an annual stop for the PGA and LPGA tours.

The Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau is playing to golf's popularity and the championship circuit with this winter's debut of the Aloha Swing Season, highlighted by events and media promotions. 

With land-use restrictions, environmental concerns and high land prices putting the brakes on the construction of courses, maintaining the current inventory will remain a high priority at Hawaii's resorts.

There are more than 50 18-hole courses open for public play in the Islands. Most are part of resort infrastructure, but there are also some top-notch independent courses worth considering, particularly since they tend to have lower greens fees than the resort courses. There are also a number of noteworthy municipal courses, although visitors have to vie for tee times with residents. 

Greens fees at resort courses range from $175 to $225, with resort discounts, package options and specials reducing the cost. Most courses offer afternoon play at a significant discount.

All resort courses include full pro shop services, equipment rental, locker facilities and on-site restaurants. 

In the first of a two-part breakdown of course options in Hawaii, we highlight the best courses on Kauai, Lanai and Oahu.

Kauai

The Garden Isle boasts two golf courses at Poipu (Poipu Bay and Kiahuna), two at Kauai Lagoons (Kiele and Mokihana) and 45 holes at Princeville designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.

All are winners for quality of play and course maintenance, as is the oceanside, 18-hole Wailua Municipal Golf Course, consistently ranked one of the best municipal courses in the U.S. thanks to attentive maintenance, a beachfront setting and the challenge of narrow fairways arranged with tall palm trees and flowering plumeria. Reservations are recommended and accepted one week in advance. The greens fee is $32 on weekdays, $44 on weekends. 

The 18-hole Prince Course actually tops the list, its manicured fairways and greens atop the low, rolling hills of the Princeville Resort, with ocean vistas and views of the mountains of Kauai's north shore.

The Prince Course is a long course with strategically placed trees and bunkers to add challenge to the undulating lay of the land. Greens fee is $175.

Jones also designed the Poipu Bay Resort Golf Course, with cliff-top play on acreage adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Kauai made challenging by prevailing winds; the final holes are particularly spectacular.

Play is on wide-open fairways with panoramic coastal views, particularly on the back nine. The greens fee is $185, reduced to $125 after noon.

Kauai Lagoon's Jack Nicklaus-designed Kiele Course is made challenging by angled fairways, water hazards and sand bunkers. The course skirts the inland lagoon and the coast, with scenic ocean and mountain views from start to finish.

Greens fee for Kiele is $195, with the less spectacular Mokihana priced at $120.

Lanai

Lanai's two signature courses, the ocean- side Challenge at Manele and the upcountry Experience at Koele, are both distinctive and beautifully maintained.

The Experience plays into mountains and ravines, making for some very interesting holes, while the Challenge skirts the ocean, with long holes and fabulous coastal views.

These are two great courses for one small island. They both sport something of a country club feel, as they serve guests at the two Four Seasons Resorts Lanai properties.

Play is less crowded than at most resort courses in Hawaii, which serve a considerably larger pool of guests than does the Four Seasons, with a room count of just 356.

The price of such exclusivity? A greens fee of $225.

Oahu

Several resorts on Oahu -- including Ko Olina, Makaha and Turtle Bay -- have golf courses.

Turtle Bay's Arnold Palmer-designed course, which bears his name, on Oahu's north shore, is about a 75-minute drive from Waikiki. It is the best of the resort courses for the quality of play, thanks to immaculate fairways that wind through a coastal lowland marsh. Turtle Bay's George Fazio Course does not compare.

Three tournaments, including the lead tourney of the LPGA, are annually held at Turtle Bay. The greens fee at the Arnold Palmer Course is $175, reduced to $100 after 2 p.m.

The Makaha Resort Course also gets raves for quality of setting, with the towering cliffs of Makaha Valley as a backdrop. Tough greens make the course challenging. Fairways are generally wide and forgiving. The greens fee is $169, reduced to $110 after noon.

There are several independent courses on Oahu, including the Hawaii Kai Course, designed by William Bell, and the three nine-hole, flatland Hawaii Prince courses in Ewa, about 45 minutes west of Waikiki.

The best and most unique of the independents is the Koolau Course in windward Kaneohe, about a 40-minute car ride east of Waikiki.

Situated at the base of the towering pali, or cliffs, the Koolau Golf Course was once extremely difficult. Modifications have made play easier.

The course, designed by Dick Nugent, remains challenging, with narrow fairways and vegetation to avoid. The setting is Hawaii at its most magnificent. A greens fee of $135 is reduced to $85 for play starting after noon. The course has a restaurant and full-service pro shop.  

The Royal Kunia Course is another good course. A short, fun course, Royal Kunia offers broad, hillside views of Pearl Harbor and the leeward Oahu coast. The greens fee is $110 on weekdays and $120 on weekends, reduced to $55 and $60, respectively, for play after 2 p.m. 

Municipal courses on Oahu include the Ala Wai, one of the world's busiest, across the Ala Wai Canal from Waikiki, where tee times are hard to come by.

Other nearby municipal courses include Olomana and Pali. They show the wear and tear of heavy use.

To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].

Get More!

For the first part in the two-part series on Hawaii's best golf courses, see "Teeing it up, Part 2: The best golf in the Islands."   

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