Course Review: Kapalua – The Plantation Course

Kapalua (The Plantation Course) – Maui, HI (Architects: Ben Crenshaw/Bill Coore)

Background

The Kapalua resort on the island of Maui began building the Plantation Course in the early 90s after architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore were hired for the job. Coore and Crenshaw shaped the former pineapple plantation (hence the name) on the side of a mountain so that it traverses up, down, and across the mountain it sits upon. The course provides visitors with stunning views of Maui, the Pacific Ocean, and the island of Molokai that rests in the distance across the sea. 
 
Having previously hosted a silly season event sponsored by Cadillac around the Thanksgiving holiday, the Plantation Course has been home to the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions since 1999.

Layout/Scenery

The island of Maui is full of stunning views and scenery and so too is the part of the island that the Plantation Course rests on. In almost every direction you look while on the property you have a view of the mountain, a gorge, or the ocean and Molokai. Postcard views and surroundings of course only enhance and enrich your golf experience no matter where you play, at Kapalua, these views practically distract you from your golfing tasks at hand.

The layout of the Plantation Course is almost as good as the scenery. Crenshaw and Coore’s routing along the mountain side gives you a fantastic mix of holes that play both up and down hill as well as into and with the prevailing wind direction. The yardage listed on the holes of the Plantation Course mean almost nothing. There are 380 yard par 4s that play uphill and into the wind that play the same as a 460 yard hole that is downhill and down wind. This part of the design is brilliant in my opinion. The architects also allow for you to play several different styles of shots from one hole to the next. Your knock down shot will be required on several holes you’ll play with the wind in your face, but you usually have the option of running the ball along the ground or flying it on the green when playing such shots.

Your round starts with a dramatic opening tee shot that if struck too well down hill and down wind could end up going some 350 yards through the fairway. If you watch the the tour pros play the 520 yard par 4 (that’s not a typo), you’ll see that several of them hit less than driver on the 1st hole so they can assure themselves of playing from a flat spot in the fairway instead of going through it. The 1st hole sets the tone for what you’ll find throughout the rest of your round. Down hill tee shots can go up to 40% longer than the distance you would normally hit. On 18 you’ll even get a crack at hitting a legit 400 yard drive if you find the speed slot and the hole is downwind (as usual). In contrast, a drive that you might normally hit 260 yards will only go about 220 on some of the uphill and into the wind tee shots. This is part of the fun of Kapalua. Embracing it will only make your round more enjoyable.

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The course routing is about as good as it gets. Coore and Crenshaw take you on an adventure throughout the entire 18 holes. Some other holes of note are the 5th and 6th holes somewhat shown below. The 5th is the easiest hole on the course as a risk reward par 5. It plays about 45 yards shorter than the yardage listed on the card as you can cut off yardage to the green on your 2nd shot if you don’t lay up to the left side of the fairway. My only complaint on the course design is that you must drive nearly 5 minutes to the other side of the gorge shown below to play the 6th hole. Almost every other distance from green to tee is walkable. 

The tee shots at 6, 7, 12, 17, and 18 are all-timers, so soak it in when you get to those holes. Depending on where the tees are on 6, you can tee it high and let it fly in hopes of catching the slope to run your ball down near the green some 400 yards away.

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Because of the variety of shots you’ll hit playing the Plantation Course, the ridiculous views of the ocean, the perfect use of the natural lay of the land by the architects, I’m giving the course the highest score I can in this category. A round here is like nothing else you’ve ever played and if you can’t embrace the few oddities it does have while playing in paradise, perhaps golf just isn’t your sport.

Score: 5.0

Conditioning

When you get perfect weather 365 days a year and enough rainfall to almost qualify as being in a rain forest you have no excuse to not be a perfectly maintained golf course. Kapalua doesn’t disappoint in its conditioning. For the most part the course plays firm and decently fast unless there’s been too much rain in recent days. The greens aren’t terribly quick, nor should they be for typical resort play. You’ll still see plenty of speed on down grain/down hill putts, but you’ll never hit a 20 footer harder than when you face a stroke that is up hill and against the grain.  IMG_20101126_131654

Some parts of the Plantation Course have a more rugged look than what you’ll see at a resort course in other parts of the country. That’s just fine here on Maui as it gives the course a more natural appearance that I think they’re going for. The Bermuda rough can be a bit harsh and prevent you from hitting some of the shots you’d want to if the ball nestles down in it. My only complaint in this category might be the condition of some of the bunkers. There were actually stones in a few of these that could take a chunk out of your club if struck while playing a sand shot. I didn’t notice stones in the greenside bunkers, only the ones that you probably shouldn’t be playing from anyway. 

Score: 4.5

Value

The rack rate at Kapalua for the Plantation Course is $278 with a mid-day rate of $228 being available after 10 am. There is also a resort guest rate, a twilight rate, and a replay rate. Whatever you end up paying, it’s worth it. I find it hard just to say that a $300 round is a good value, but if you’ve already spent to the dough to get to the island, what’s another couple hundred to play one of the most unique courses on the planet?

Other marque courses on the island can be played for almost half the price of the Plantation Course, but trust me, they’re also only half as good. If you want true bang for your buck, make sure you play early enough in the day to take advantage of the replay rate. Paying roughly $80 to get another shot at the course is the best bargain on Maui. Just be weary of leaving your wife at the beach for 9 hours while you play 36 holes at Kapalua. I’m told that it can get a little chilly in a wet bikini once the sun goes down. 

Score: 4.5

Service/Pace

Like most resort courses, Kapalua isn’t built for a quick sub four hour round. There’s too much ground to cover to make that happen. Throw in several tourists taking pictures and you have yourself what comes close to a 5 hour round most days. If there was ever a good place to play slow, this is it. Just sit back and enjoy the views. If you play in the afternoon you might find the pace a bit faster until you catch the last of the discounted mid-day golfers on the final few holes. 

The staff at Kapalua is helpful and accommodating, but perhaps a little too laid back for those of you expecting service akin to what you might get at a private club. Because the routing of the course brings you back near the clubhouse at the turn there is no true halfway house. If you’re hungry you need to duck into the restaurant to order food. This was probably the worst part of my day at Kapalua. In between 18s I ordered a tuna sandwich that took nearly 30 minutes to make while I sat there and starred at an open 1st tee. The food options are also a bit limited if you’re trying to eat on the go.

Score: 3.5

Amenities

Kapalua is a premiere resort with plenty of lodging and recreational options. The Ritz Carlton on site is a pretty awesome place to stay if you can afford it. Paradise is at your fingertips, so too is a world class spa, snorkeling, beach activities, a beautiful pool, dining, or almost anything else you could want. Staying at a villa might even provide you with a view like this out your front door. 

If you’re on Maui to do things other than golf, my recommendation would be to hit the zip lines offered at Kapalua. They’re the best you’ll find on any of the Hawaiian Islands according to some locals. The zip line experience will satisfy almost any level of thrill seeker. Guides drive you up the mountain and train you on how to glide down the line, adjust your speed, and dismount the line, then you’re off down the mountain reaching speeds of nearly 60 mph. Some lines are so fast that they’re shut down if the wind is too strong at your back.

 

As for the true golf amenities at the Plantation Course, well, they’re a tad underwhelming. The range and practice facility at the course are average and if you’re there within 6 weeks or so of the PGA Tour event you’ll have to hit balls off plastic mats. That doesn’t feel right when you’re in Maui. The good news is Kapalua has an entire academy and separate practice facility at the resort you can use to hone your game. This range at the academy is much more friendly to getting some work done before your round than the range at the course.

Score: 4.5

Difficulty

Negotiating the grain of the greens, severe undulations and elevation changes, and the extreme wind at Kapalua can make the Plantation Course difficult, but it is still quite playable for golfers of all skill levels. The landing areas off the tee are very generous. The course does impose a few forced carries that may not be easy for an average weekend hack, but those few shots are the only harsh and overly penal shots you’ll face. There are several risk/reward shots that provide the option of an alternative route that doesn’t require a forced carry.

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Putting can be extremely difficult at Kapalua thanks to the grain of each putting surface. Locals can easily see the grain and calculate how it will impact the speed and break of a putt. Tourists will take a few rounds to get a handle on this phenomenon. Additionally, there will be times when it appears as though your ball broke up hill on its way to the cup. The reality is that a mound on one side of the green made it look as though the ball might break right, but the mountain you’re on is leaning left and the laws of gravity always win and force your ball in that direction.

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Because of the course’s location on the island and the mountain is rests on there is never a calm day with regard to the wind. The Plantation Course would actually be relatively easy if played without any wind. This is part of its defense. Even in extreme wind, I think the course is playable for everyone. Three sets of tees are available for men and they allow for big hitters and short knockers to enjoy the course equally.

Per usual, this rating isn’t based on a 5 being “way too hard”. I’m rating a course a 5 when I’d say it’s playable and enjoyable, but not easy, for players of all levels. The Plantation Course at Kapalua is exactly that.

Score: 5.0

Composite

Overall it’s hard not to love everything about the Plantation Course at Kapalua. The course is well conditioned and an absolute treat to play. Being at such a great resort with tremendous amenities is about as good as it can get for golf vacationers so long as you can afford it. If you have the means to get to Maui and the opportunity to play Kapalua I highly recommend it. 

Score: 4.50 (out of 5)

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4 Responses to Course Review: Kapalua – The Plantation Course

  1. cannuck says:

    Returned to Maui for our 25th. Stayed at Kapalua for 14 days with 10 rounds included back in 2006.
    They still had 3 courses then. Plantation course was played 3 x and I could not break 100. Shot my handicap, 15, on the other 2 resort courses. A very beautiful place but I wouldnt return due to the excessive travel time from Ontario.

  2. shutfacegolf says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:

    With the ToC this week, now is as good a time as any to revisit my Plantation Course review from last year.

  3. Pingback: Kapalua Time Redux |

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