Lanai Golf - The Experience at Koele - A Taste of the Blue Ridge in Hawaii

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos By Jeffrey A. Rendall


The Experience at Koele's Website

LANAI CITY, HI – I’m not sure why you’d travel thousands of miles to play at a ‘local’ feeling golf course, but if you’re an East Coaster looking for a little bit of Blue Ridge ambiance and charm far from home, try The Experience at Koele on the Island of Lanai, Hawaii.


The par five 3rd hole presents your first glimpse at Robinson's waterscaping talents. And if you leave it short on your approach, you'll add a ball to the feature.

It’s safe to say, The Experience at Koele was different from every other golf course we saw in Hawaii, as it’s safely tucked away on the top of a mountain, and its looks reminded us a bit more of West Virginia than the palm tree laden tropical paradise you’d typically envision in the Aloha State, which was both a surprise and a welcome change.


“I think it’s really neat that The Experience is a total departure from what people expect the first time they come here,” remarked Koele’s Director of Golf, Doug Stephenson, commenting on what sets this course apart from its Hawaiian relatives.  “It’s a golf course in an environment that most people who come to Hawaii don’t actually get to see.”


He continues, “Most of the people when they come to Hawaii spend almost all their time within a mile of the beach.  And that’s the interesting thing about The Experience – it shatters the stereotype of Hawaiian Golf.”

Standing on the tee box of the signature par four 17th hole -- you can see why Robinson wanted to put a golf hole up here. One of the most spectacular golf views you'll ever 'experience.'


Indeed it does.  You can see the ocean from a couple points on the course, but it’s a long ways off.  You’ve got to take a bus to reach the property, and along the way you journey from the hot, relatively dry south shore of Lanai to an elevation of more than 2,000 feet – to a mountain atmosphere that’s decidedly cooler than where you just left, and a golf course that just might engender thoughts of ‘home.’


Even the playing surfaces are different.  Hawaiian courses near the shore are dominated by Bermuda varieties, or even the saltwater tolerant Paspalum grass – but you won’t see much bent and bluegrass in this part of the world.  You will at The Experience.


More waterscapes towards the green on the par five 9th hole. You'll remember this hole as much for its thoughtful layout as you will its scenic beauty.

The golf course was the first ‘major’ 18-hole facility to open on the island, built to compliment The Lodge at Koele (a Four Seasons Resort), an ultra luxurious compliment to its sister resort near the ocean, Lana’i at Manele Bay.  Suitable to its surroundings, the Lodge offers hiking, horseback riding and tennis along with its Greg Norman signature course.  If they added a carriage ride or two, you might be looking out for the moonshiners around the next curve.  Just kidding.


Norman’s signature may be on the card, but most would agree the course has architect Ted Robinson’s fingerprints all over it.  Opening in 1991, The Experience came at a the beginning of the Great White Shark’s design career, and Robinson said his firm did most of the nuts & bolts design work – with Norman providing approval along the way.


“When The Experience was built, Greg was still playing full-time on the PGA Tour (in 1990, during construction, he was the Tour’s leading money winner), was one of the top players in the world, and was just getting into the golf course design business,” Robinson said.  “We developed the routing plan, did the rough grading and proposed the features on the course, and he approved of everything we did.  We were hoping to get to know him a little more, but I’d say our working relationship was pretty solid in that there were no real disagreements.”

Looking at the par three 13th hole. Don't go left, but plenty of room to miss in the other directions.


Because of his multitude of commitments, Norman wasn’t able to visit very much – but that also could be because of Lanai’s remote location.  Nicknamed Hawaii’s ‘private’ island, there’s a relatively small local population, the two resorts, and not much else to provide distraction for vacationing visitors.  It’ll certainly seem private when you go there, including on the golf course.  Norman probably flew into the island’s small airport for his visits, but most guests take a ferry from Lahaina on Maui – about 45 minutes each way, and that’s how we got there.


Robinson’s influence is felt most in the ‘split’ nature of the course, with one set of nine holes lying on the flat land in the valley near the Lodge, and the other nine up on top of the mountain, winding in and out of forested glades – with long-range views of the north side of the island, and ‘shipwreck beach.’


Water's all down the right side on the tough par four 6th hole. The hole slightly doglegs left from the landing area, so it's wise to stay away from the water in all possible scenarios.

“They originally were going to put all 18 holes on the lower part of the land, because there was going to be some real estate going in there,” Robinson said.  “So one day we hiked up the hill and found this spectacular valley, where the 17th hole is now (it was originally the 8th hole).  I thought it was an incredible setting for golf, so we basically convinced them to put nine holes up on top there, and designed the entire golf course around that one hole.”


Quite an ‘anchor’ for the course, the 17th hole stretches to 444 yards from the back tees, though you probably won’t need more than an iron to tee off – because the fairway’s 200 feet below.  Here’s a chance to air-out that three-iron, and still leave a short club into the green.


Another Robinson ‘signature’ you’ll see on several of the holes are ‘waterscapes,’ cascading waterfalls with flora to add color – which only supplements the tremendous natural beauty of the site.  Robinson said, like on all of his courses, he tried hard to preserve as many of the property’s gifts as possible.  “That’s the beauty of a golf course in that setting, to use what’s there and fit the golf course onto the land.  It won’t have a manufactured look, and people will think it was just kind of ‘there’ all along.”

This large sand monster guards the green on the par four 11th hole. Behind the green through the gap in the trees you can see Shipwreck Beach. Good golf, great views.


In that sense, the golf course enhances the environment.


As hinted at earlier, the climate’s a fair amount different on top as well.  Though you won’t have to dress for the temperature extremes of an eastern mountain course, Stephenson says you’ll see more rain ‘up there,’ and you should probably bring a jacket to play there during the winter months.  A coat in Hawaii?  Who would’ve thought?


A very inviting view from the tee box of the par three 4th hole -- but at 220 yards, you'll need some length and accuracy to get it there.

Playing the course, it’s both harder and easier than the oceanfront Manele course.  Stephenson explains the contradiction:  “For a good player, The Experience is a bit more difficult because you have to drive it straighter here – the fairways aren’t quite as wide on the upper course.  In addition, there are some real strong par fives on The Experience, with only a couple that might be reachable in two.  Finally, the par threes are also quite a challenge from the back tees.”


“But for your average resort player, from the front tee locations, I think it’s very fair.  There’s plenty of room for the shorter hitters, and you can spray it around a little more on The Experience, because if you’re off the playing areas at Manele, you’ve probably lost the ball.  Not so on Koele.  The beauty of the course is that it provides two different kinds of ‘experiences’ for two different types of players,” Stephenson added.


Finally, the putting surfaces are relatively flat, without a lot of movement.  There a few greens with terraces (another Robinson trait), but in general, if you’re on the same level as the hole, you can roll it straighter.

Off the tee on the par five 15th hole, if you've got any curve on your ball, those trees can very well come into play.


Hole highlights include the final three holes on the front nine.  The seventh hole is a difficult 209-yard (from the back tees) par three, with a full carry over water to reach the green.  There is ample room to bail on the left side, but missing there will leave a tough up-and-down.


Eight is a short par four, 308 yards in length, with a green that juts out into a large lake.  Stephenson said long hitters can have a go at the large island from the tee if the wind is right (wow, that’s a carry), but for all others it’s still a decent birdie opportunity if you’re savvy with a sandwedge.


Looking towards the island on the short par four 8th hole. Reaching the land mass isn't so much the problem (it's a big island), but getting it to where you can score is quite another matter.

Other than the signature seventeenth hole, the par five ninth is probably the one you’ll remember most from The Experience.  There’s ample room off the tee to hit driver, and the second shot provides a striking backdrop, with Robinson’s classic waterscapes and trees framing the green.  This hole was conceived by an architect with an eye for challenge, fun, and beauty.


Stephenson describes his favorite hole on the back nine, the par five fifteenth hole:  “It’s a strong par five, pretty much a three-shot hole for all but the longest hitters.  It’s a tough drive there, as you’ve got to draw it up the left side, and the wind usually blows left to right.  The bunkers on the right catch a lot of balls off the tee, and if you’re in those, you’re going to have a longer third shot than you’d like.”


Then there’s seventeen, with its awe-inspiring tee shot.

The postcard quality setting of the concluding par three 18th hole. It may seem anti-climatic after you've just lived through the dramatic 17th, but certainly not to be discounted.


As a side note, the 18th hole is a par three, again with some scenic waterscapes, and Robinson said he really didn’t like concluding the nine with a par three – but that’s just the way it ended up, with the ultimate location of the clubhouse influencing the routing.


Though Robinson may not have been completely satisfied with the way the course ends, you certainly won’t feel the same once you’ve made the journey around The Experience at Koele.  It’s Blue Ridge golf far from home, and very Hawaiian at the same time, with its laid-back, ‘private’ atmosphere.  Not a bad combination, you might say.


If You’re Staying On Lanai


We didn’t get a chance to go there, but a fun-sounding afternoon excursion would be to go to Shipwreck Beach, which earned its name because of powerful offshore currents that have led many seafaring ships to meet their watery demise within sight of the beach.  The first documented wreck was the British ship ‘Alderman Wood,’ which sank in 1824.


Not for swimming, we’re told, but you’ll be able to see the ‘remains’ of a World War II Liberty Ship clinging to a reef near the shore.  Though this particular ship didn’t end up here because of an accident, you’ll still get the idea – and harken back to the sunken ships that arrived there through more ‘natural’ and tragic means.


Not to mention the views of Lanai’s neighboring islands, Maui and Molokai.  Rental vehicles are available at both resorts.

The Experience at Koele

PO Box 310

Lana’i City, HI  96763


Phone:  (808) 565-4653




Designers:  Greg Norman and Ted Robinson

Director of Golf:  Doug Stephenson



Tournament   7000   141/75.3

Champion      6617   134/73.6

Resort           6128   130/71.6       146/77.3 (L)

Forward         5414   123/68.1       130/72.6 (L)




$185 for a guest of the hotel, $225 for a day visitor.  Fee includes cart and range balls, and is an all day fee.  If you’d like to play the Challenge at Manele on the same day, there’s an additional $70 fee.


Note:  At press time (9/2005), both the Experience at Koele and the Challenge at Manele Bay had recently become Four Seasons properties.  It is not known if that will influence the rates – please consult the website and your booking agent for further details.

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