Kaanapali Golf Courses' Tournament North Course - Ancient Royal Retreat, Contemporary Golf Paradise

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


LAHAINA, HI (Maui) – “During royal times on the Island of Maui, the Hawaiian rulers treasured Kaanapali as their savored retreat and ‘playground,’” remarked Melissa Ludwig, Sales and Marketing Manager for Kaanapali Golf Courses, located just across the road from the famous beach resort of the same name.

The Tournament North Course begins with a 530-yard, dogleg right par five that shares a lake with the 18th hole on the other side of the water. If you can get good distance off your drive, it's definitely reachable in two.


Ludwig continues, “Three miles of golden sand, soft gentle waves, idyllic weather conditions with gentle afternoon breezes and the vast green slopes of the Kahalawai (West Maui Mountains) created the perfect escape for royalty.  They raced their canoes and surfed on the shorelines of Kaanapali, then feasted at their luaus that would last for weeks.  The ancient Hawaiians also played their own form of lawn bowling using stones on what are now the fairways of the Kaanapali Golf Courses.”


Though the Hawaiian royalty has since faded into history and the Hawaiian Islands are now part of western civilization, the above alluded to pleasures and employments of Kaanapali’s hills and shoreline are still very much in existence.  And those ancient fairways Ludwig was talking about are also getting their share of modern day workouts, being converted into two golf courses, the Tournament North Course, which we played, and the recently re-opened Resort South Course, which we’ll save for a future look.

Gauge the wind and let fly on the par three 17th hole. At 158-yards, it isn't really scary, but that lake looks awfully big, too.


Although the Tournament North Course’s history doesn’t stretch to ‘ancient’ proportions, its 40+ years of existence is still pretty significant.  You probably won’t hear Kaanapali mentioned in the same breath with its more famous younger cousin to the north, the Plantation Course at Kapalua (home to the annual PGA Tour Mercedes Championships), but there’s little doubt that Kaanapali’s Robert Trent Jones designed layout paved the way for many important attention-grabbing events to come.


For starters, it’s one of only two original RTJ designs in Hawaii (the other being Mauna Kea on the big island), and immediately you’ll recognize a few of the legendary architect’s trademarks, namely ‘runway’ style tee boxes and large, sloping green complexes.  Time and technology have reduced the length of the course, which at 6,700 yards (par 71) actually plays fairly short in today’s golfing world – but it’s just perfect for resort players and visitors.

The 4th hole is a short par four (358 yards) that plays uphill and features a huge, sloping green. Note the pin position, and don't be above the hole.


Golf’s celebrity ‘royalty’ is interwoven into the Tournament North Course’s history as well.  Bing Crosby opened the course with a ceremonial shot in 1962 (it was formally called Royal Lahaina Golf Club) and then the course served as the venue for numerous professional events on all levels, the PGA, LPGA and Champions Tours.  The ‘King,’ Arnold Palmer himself, called the 18th hole one of the most challenging he’d ever played (and with water all down the right side, it continues to test).


Other notables having graced its manicured fairways include Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Amy Alcott – so when you come here, you’re in good company, whether you wear a crown or an airline crumpled golf cap.  As mentioned, the scenery is postcard quality and the courses’ proximity to your hotel or villa on Kaanapali beach is second-to-none.  There’s nothing like leaving for your tee time and getting back to the ‘other’ prevalent fun at these resorts just a few hours later.

Slicers paradise off the tee of the par four 16th hole. You won't lose your ball no matter how far you are to the right, but if you're not in a good spot in the fairway, you won't have a clear shot at the flag, either.


And if you’re there in the winter, you can watch the whales go by as you’re moving your golf ball along.  Not a bad distraction.


Turning to the course itself – it’s a fairly gentle resort-style layout with plenty of room to spray the ball around for resort players, and some testy greens for better players looking to score.  We didn’t know it when we visited, but apparently the Tournament North Course is about to undergo a renovation, which will bring it up to standard (from a design standpoint) with more modern drivers and golf balls.  The course will close in April and re-open in November, 2006.

The par four 12th hole doesn't look intimidating on the scorecard (362 yards), but if you're on the wrong part of the putting surface, you'll have a hard time sinking it in two putts.


Course Architect Robin Nelson (who’s worked on over 30 courses in the State of Hawaii) will be overseeing the renovation, as he did for the changes to Kaanapali’s Resort South Course, which was just finished in November (2005).  His goal will be to preserve the basic RTJ features on the North Course, but bring the course’s conditioning up to where it should be, considering its storied past.


“I look forward to bringing the layout up to optimal conditions and having it placed back on the map (of great golf courses) where it belongs,” Nelson said.  “Mr. Jones did a magnificent job here, and it’s my duty to restore the course to its original glory.  We won’t change the style, as it’s a historic piece of golf architecture – but we’ll adopt new standards to compensate for the distance golfers are hitting the ball these days.  A lot has changed since the early 60’s, but the essence of the design is still there.”

One of the nicest views on the course, soak it in on the tee of the short par five 10th hole.


Nelson adds, “By rebuilding the bunkers in his (RTJ’s) style, adding tees, enhancing the landscaping, adding new cart paths and restoring water features, the Tournament North Course will be amongst the best in the Pacific.  We’ll also change over the putting greens, as we did on the South Course – then the North will also have the best putting surfaces in Hawaii.”


As you’d expect, as long as they’re going to the bother of making such drastic improvements, Kaanapali’s going to re-grass the hitting surfaces as well.  The fairways will be blanketed with the new Tifway ‘419’ hybrid Bermuda grass, which is smoother than the common varieties and is also much more weed resistant.

The #1 handicap 5th hole is quite a challenge. You'll need a moster drive to leave a mid-iron into the green -- and don't go right on the approach, or you're literally 'on the beach.'


In essence, the North Course will have a couple new wrinkles to it, but in general, the layout will look as it has for all its years.  Considering the amount of play it’s endured over four plus decades, it still looks pretty darn good – and with the improvements, it’ll be in top-notch condition.


Contrasting it to Kaanapali’s Resort South Course, the Tournament North layout has wider fairways – practically as wide as we’ve ever seen.  As is so characteristic of golf courses built before the huge real estate booms later on in the century, the setbacks are considerable, and very friendly to the horizontally challenged players.  You might lose some balls in the water here, but you won’t be out-of-bounds unless you really hit it foul.

Getting towards the top of the hill on the par four 13th hole, the wind's blowing hard and the depth of the green is obscured from the fairway. Here's the challenge of the Tournament North Course.


As previously mentioned, the greens will provide the challenge.  For first time visitors, it’s a bit of an adjustment to see these kinds of slopes, which probably won’t mirror what you’ve got back home.  Like the wide setbacks, they’re characteristic of a day when the greens weren’t mowed so tight – and although the greens’ speed wasn’t lightning fast, you’ve still got to be on your game to avoid the dreaded three-putt.  Take good heed of the local advice, too – putts always break towards the ocean.  Aim away from the big blue, and you’ll be okay.


Also for the unfamiliar, Hawaiian weather is fairly predictable – sunny and warm, yes, but also quite windy in the afternoon.  The day we played the wind was blowing hard at around mid-day, and would’ve made the holes playing into the wind seem twice as long.  The nice thing is it makes play more challenging, but you won’t freeze to death or be bogged down by heavy windbreakers.

View from in back of the 3rd green, you can see Kaanapali's gentle slopes and wide-open spaces. Resort golf at its best.


Personal favorite holes included the fifth hole, an RTJ special, 473-yard par four – the course’s #1 handicap hole.  The tee box is elevated, so you’ll get some additional air under your ball, and also provides a beautiful view of the scenery.  But what distinguishes this hole from just about everything we’ve ever seen – the latter portion of the hole runs right along Kaanapali Beach… affectionately known as the ‘world’s biggest bunker.’  Slice or push your approach shot, and you might come face-to-face with some sunbathers.  Now that would be embarrassing.


Speaking of views, looking down from the tenth tee box is also something to remember, as you’ve got the Pacific and the Island of Molokai as the backdrop.  And at 488 yards and downhill (par five), it’s a good birdie opportunity as well.

Here's part of why Arnold Palmer said the 18th hole was one of the hardest closing holes he'd ever seen -- water all down the right side, and a pretty narrow landing area for tee shots. It's not that tough to make a bogey here, but any par will be well earned.


The front nine has three par fives and plays to a par of 37.  The back nine is about 200 yards shorter and is all 3’s and 4’s (par 34).  So there’s a non-traditional hole configuration on the Tournament North Course, which helps add some variety. 


The back nine is highlighted by the final two holes, the 158-yard, par three 17th hole over water, and the tough 449-yard (par four) finishing hole.  The 17th hole’s green is perched perilously close to the pond’s edge, and requires pinpoint accuracy to get it close.  The 18th has water all down the right side and the tee shot landing area is squeezed by bunkers – so it’s demanding both off the tee and on the approach.


The golf is enjoyable, certainly, but what you’ll take from the experience at Kaanapali is perhaps best summed up by Ludwig:  “We want our guests to leave with a sense of Aloha spirit from our staff and the beauty of the islands.  We feel our staff is filled with the sunshine and aloha spirit that is so prevalent across the islands, and we work hard to pass that along to everyone visiting us.”


The views and the atmosphere don’t hurt, along with the convenience to your temporary Hawaiian place of residence.  Taking it all in, it’s easy to understand why the ancient royalty chose this place to ‘party,’ and you’ll appreciate the contemporary decision to incorporate the game of golf into Kaanapali’s tranquil surrounds.



Kaanapali Golf Courses’ Tournament North Course

2290 Kaanapali Parkway

Lahaina, HI (Maui) 96761


Phone:  (866) 454-GOLF


Website:  http://www.kaanapali-golf.com


Designer:  Robert Trent Jones

Renovation Architect:  Robin Nelson

Sales and Marketing Manager:  Melissa Ludwig



Championship                    6693   129/71.8

Regular                   6136   126/69.4

Forward                   5436   123/71.1




Tournament North:  $160 (non-resort), $130 if staying in Kaanapali.  $85 twilight rate (after 2 pm).

Resort South:  $140 (non-resort), $115 if staying in Kaanapali.  $95 12 noon special, and $75 twilight rate (after 2 pm).


There’s also a juniors play free program in the summer (after 11 am), with a paying adult (one free per paying adult).

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