As a person who learned his golf in Texas, finding copperheads in the rough, having tee shots blown into the windshields of passing cars, with hardly anything more romantic to gaze at on the horizon than the rooftops of ranch-style houses, I was a natural mark for the Garden Island, Kauai, oldest and most exotic of the Hawaiian chain, and for all of the teasings of paradise that exist there, golf being only a part.
There is a place on the far side of the island called Hanalei Bay, near the end of the last paved road in the United States, so to speak, and this is where paradise awaits. Mount Waialeale seems always to be towering above you, dripping with waterfalls, moody with jungle. And almost everywhere else lies the ocean, heaving, enormous and blindingly blue. With all of this there are dramatic cliffs rising straight up to challenge a tidal wave, dark paths leading up or down to natural swimming holes set within lava rocks, trails where tribes have been lost, deserted beaches back dropped by botanical wonders of every kind, hidden caves, lurking rain forests, a meandering river straight out of literature, a canyon almost as devastating as the Grand and a nightly sunset that could awaken the soul in a mummy.
The place makes you want to do all the foolish things that are not a part of income tax, the phone company and Charga-Plates. To surf, swim, hike, fish or simply stroll. To climb, sail, sleep, strum or smoke. To breathe. To sit in the bar with the bamboo curtains and the ceiling fan, waiting for Jane Greer to walk in with a plot to murder her husband. To think about the novel you'll never write, or ponder the mysteries of the ukulele. To look off where Japan is, or the Aleutians. To watch the splatter of waves and the cascade of waterfalls simultaneously. To be suspended by time.
If Hanalei or the entire island of Kauai had nothing else to offer but its rare beauty, that would be enough. But as an ancient volcano once coughed up this paradise, man has been inspired to give it his own brushstroke in the name of truth, progress and artistic achievement. Fortunately, the right men came along. And the result is not what one might normally expect, which would be a contest to see what developer could chop down the most hala trees, bulldoze the widest swath, build the ugliest condominiums and design the dullest golf course outside of Florida.
What has happened is a lesson for us all. Princeville at Hanalei has happened, and the resort is proof that if progress must invade paradise it can be done tastefully, even with a touch of genius. For right now on steep cliffs above the Pacific where cattle once grazed, looking back toward the mountains, there has bloomed a stunning new golf course the equal of any that ever pretended to make use of the natural assets of the land. And in this setting, Princeville Makai Golf Course is the most enthralling that I, for one, have ever seen.
We seem to have been getting a lot of brilliant new courses in recent years from all sorts of good architects. Among those that have already earned a sort of renown, or at least a general acknowledgment of their existence, to name only a few, are Harbour Town in Hilton Head, S.C. by Pete Dye (aided by Jack Nicklaus), Spyglass Hill on the Monterey Peninsula by Robert Trent Jones Sr., Jupiter Hills in Florida by George Fazio and Crockett Springs near Nashville by Robert Von Hagge (aided by Bruce Devlin). These are all courses struck with distinctiveness and charm, courses designed by men who have many other credits, each of whom has talent and a high regard for his profession. But let's welcome now another man to the club, Robert Trent Jones Jr., a son of the most famous of all modern designers. It is Bobby, as he's called, who has given us Princeville Makai.
Nothing could have been more appropriate than for Bob Jones Jr. to get the job. He once discovered Hanalei on his own, and not because he had heard that Hanalei had been used as the principal location for the filming of the movie South Pacific. He spent his honeymoon in Hanalei and never recovered from the beauty of the island. Kauai does that to you.
When Jones learned that some 11,000 acres in and around Hanalei had been purchased for a "second home" resort community and "championship golf course"—the usual come-on, except that a lot of the acreage will become agricultural and forest preserves—he practically dived into the sea from his home near San Francisco and began swimming toward the 50th state. The developer was a company called Eagle County Development Corporation, out of Denver, headed by a man named Doug Hoyt. A businessman also, like any other golf architect, Jones wanted the job first, but secondly he was concerned about what ruin this man Hoyt would bring down on paradise.
"The general attitude of most developers, on our continent at least, is to use the golf course simply as a sales tool for the land," says Jones. "Doug Hoyt is different. He instantly had as great a feeling for the place as I had. He drove me straight to the prettiest land in the package and said, 'The course goes here.' He wanted to maintain the integrity of the place. I got truly nervous looking at that beauty and knowing it was mine to use."
Jones is armed with a fine education (Yale), a long apprenticeship under his father, an ability to play the game well and the experience of extensive world travel. He has a lot of thoughts on land booms and golf architecture, and with Princeville Makai behind him, there is reason to listen to him.
"The best golf courses are being built at resorts—and outside the continental U.S.," he says. "The reason is simple. They give you better land. Just like Doug Hoyt. A fine golf course is a lure to the house buyer. But you can't have a fine course if you take the good terrain for sites."
Jones adds, "It's unfortunate that because of the boom in land development related to golf courses, some developers turn for advice either to land planners who have only a superficial knowledge of the game, or else to some golf pros who may have no more real knowledge about the architecture of the courses they tear apart than they do of the design of the golf balls they endorse."
Fancy wording for a harsh thought, but it rings brutally true.
Essentially, a golf architect is a defender, a man setting up defenses against a series of shots. He hopes to make a course challenging but not unfair, rugged but fun, and always memorable. Some defend with large greens and length, others with small greens and narrowness.
"The one thing I've learned through experience is not to emphasize one aspect. I like a mixture. Large and small greens, contoured and level, tightly and openly bunkered tee-shot targets. And all of it blending into the look of the area," says Jones.
Jones got to do all of this at Princeville, and more. He had three different nines to design, all of which were to be equally demanding. Ocean, Woods and Lake were to be their names. Each has the mood and feeling and look of its name. Each is a par 36. Thus, any two nines that the player selects give him a near-7,000-yard course of par 72. And Jones offers no escape from unique shot-making in any direction.
On the Woods nine he placed the green of a par-3 on the other side of a jungle cavern. He fronted a par-4 with a lake. He put the green of another par-4 in a cluster of silver oaks after discovering that they were "anthrax trees," or trees planted nearly a century ago to mark the burial ground of some diseased cattle. At still another par-3, he invented a Zen bunker, chiefly to have a private joke. A Zen bunker, according to Jones, is a bunker with one huge and two semihuge stones sitting in the middle of the sand. It may please Zen and Jones, but it is no joke for high handicappers.
On the Lake nine Jones thought up a par-5 finisher that one almost needs to play with a motorboat. It is little more than a tee and a green with water in between, except for a couple of square feet where your tee shot and Second shot might land.
It was on the Ocean nine, however, that he really got going. It is a remarkable achievement on which the golfer feels that he might be playing through several different worlds, hitting every imaginable shot. There happen to be two or three prairie-type, wind-swept holes, a dainty pitch, cross-bunkering, doglegs, rolling greens, and still there are two holes falling into a deep valley of foliage with a lake. To top it off, there is a par-3 demanding a wood shot over the ocean from the brink of one high cliff to another—a hole that will surely take its place among the postcard par-3s in the world.
Standing on that tee one day, about 160 feet straight up from the Pacific, with mountains to the left, Japan to the right and the green way over there on another ledge, across the bashing waves and lava rocks, Bob Jones smiled and said, "Most golf architects go an entire career without ever getting to design a hole over an ocean. It's quite a feeling."
So is the whole of Hanalei. Although it is only a little over an hour from Honolulu (by 30-minute flight and 45-minute drive), it's an eternity from Waikiki Beach, or traffic, or high-rise hotels. Or people, so far.
The people will come, of course. But they will be secluded at Princeville over there by the cliffs, away from Ching Young's general store, gas station and antique magazine rack, a school where children go barefoot and get days off to surf, a church, a couple of bars, a few homes. Not far away from the river and taro farms, from the beaches, palm groves, trails, caves, mountains and the one road leading almost to the very end of the U.S.
Somehow it doesn't seem so bad for paradise to have what could rightfully be called The Last Golf Course.