Wailea's Gold Course -- Champions Skins Game and Vintage Hawaiian Golf

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

WAILEA, MAUI, HI – When Wailea Golf Club’s Gold Course was completed in 1994, I doubt anyone could say for sure that one day Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus would make it famous.

Wailea Gold's 1st hole introduces you to what's in store -- beautiful ocean scenery, and a strategic, downhill golf hole.

But that’s exactly what’s happened to this 7,078 yard, Robert Trent Jones Jr. design, perched on the slopes of the ancient Haleakala volcano overlooking the deep blue Pacific Ocean on the island of Maui.

Jones certainly must’ve realized that this would be a course of some distinction, but who could’ve predicted at the time what event would set it apart from the rest?

2006 will mark the sixth consecutive year that the Gold Course plays host to the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game, and this year boasts a unique format – something different than any Tour’s Skins Game has ever tried, in fact.

The 530-yard 13th hole is reachable for long hitters if you can hit a draw off the tee and stay out of the rough.

Eight legends of the game will be divided into four two-man teams, playing in an alternate-shot format.  In essence, there’ll be eight players competing on every hole.

It’d be a starter’s worst nightmare if those names were anything other than Palmer, Peter Jacobsen, Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Hale Irwin, Raymond Floyd and Dana Quigley.

When you’re following behind this kind of eight-some, going slow isn’t a problem, it’s an honor.

Looking from the forward tee box on the par three 3rd hole. There's a lava outcropping to the right, which accents the hole, but won't come into play.

This Made-for-TV event is the 19th edition of the series that debuted in the early 80’s.

True, the professionals are competing for some great prize money, but over the years, the Skins Game has also proved to be a grand forum for showcasing the fun part of pro golf as well.

“The most thrilling part about this tournament, for me personally and I think for a lot of people, is the chance to see my golf heroes in person,” said Barry Helle, Tournament Director for Wailea Golf Club.

Starting the back nine on the par four 10th hole. Like many holes on the Gold Course, it looks like there's a lot of trouble, but there's still a ton of room to land it safely.

No doubt about it. 

And with Nicklaus’s farewell to competitive golf last year, and Palmer’s statements to the same effect, the Skins Game represents a rare opportunity to see them play golf in front of a gallery once more.  Nicklaus returns as the defending champion, having captured eleven skins and $340,000 in the 2005 version.

Watching the Champions play the Gold Course is certainly a thrill, though fortunately for the rest of us, Wailea Club is open to the golfing public the rest of the year. 

Go for it on the short par four 6th hole (287 yards). But as with all good short par fours, the magnitude of your trouble will be determined by the amount of your miss.

Its three courses are the figurehead of golf in South Maui (the Gold along with the Blue and Emerald Courses), but thankfully the locale is also easily accessible to those staying on the western end of the island in the Lahaina and Kapalua Resort areas (though it’s about an hour’s drive from there).

Wailea Gold embodies just about everything you’d envision from golf in Hawaii – private club level service, lava rock outcroppings, lush Bermuda grass, dramatic views of the ocean, palm trees and sand… LOTS of it. 

The Gold Course features 93 attractively sculpted bunkers, filled with Idaho silica.  It wouldn’t be Hawaii without sand and water, right?

Keep away from the water on your approach to the par four 14th hole -- but there are also sandy penalties for missing left.

Only one lake, though.  You’ll have to ‘soak in’ the water from the ocean views, instead, which are stunning and difficult to tune-out.  Not that you’d want to.

In addition to the anticipated features, the Gold Course also contains stacked lava rock walls which the native Hawaiians called papohaku. Though it’s not entirely clear what they were used for, these low barriers are believed to be hundreds of years old – and built without mortar. 

They’re an attractive accent to the golf course, but also help remind you of the land’s historic character and significance.

The 590-yard, uphill par five 7th hole is the Gold's #1 handicap hole. Almost a double dogleg, it's certainly one you'll remember for its challenge.

Rusty Hathaway, Wailea’s Head Golf Professional, says the views are what you’ll remember, but the golf course itself is what keeps people coming back – including the Palmers and Nicklauses. 

“Most of the players who come here are on vacation, and getting a chance to play a course like the Gold, with its notable history, is something fun for everyone. They’ll remember the views of the ocean and up the slope of Haleakala (which means ‘House of the Sun’), but it’s the overall experience that’s giving them that impression – and that’s what we’re striving for.”            

“The course plays like a resort course, with lots of room to play the ball, but it’s also very strategic, which is what I think attracted the pros. I think the isolated feeling of the course, away from the hustle-bustle of the island’s resorts, without houses or condos or things like that, provides a nice retreat when you’re looking to relax,” Hathaway continued.            

The shortest hole on the Gold Course is not without its challenge, as the par three 11th hole's small green and large bunkers will still require good shots to score well.

“But it’s a whole lot of factors – the weather, the views, the conditions, the design… all those things make the Gold Course what it is. I’m a little biased, but when you think about all we have here, you can’t get much better than this,” Hathaway added.            

Because of its hillside location, the Gold Course also plays longer than most of its resort course cousins. The nature of the land provides a lot of topographical variation, and there are plenty of uphill, downhill and side-hill shots and lies to navigate. The thickness of the rough demands that you pay attention to the fairway lines, as you won’t be able to advance it nearly as far if you’re not in the short cut – but you’ll still be able to find the ball easily if you’re in it – resort play at its finest.

One thing we noted on the Gold Course – many of the teeing areas are highlighted by native grasses, which provides the layout a bit of a contrasting look to a lot of Hawaiian (mow down everything) golf courses.  The grass won’t trap anything but a flat out shank, but it contributes nicely to the aesthetic look of the property, and gives a much more natural feeling to the atmosphere.

Native grasses, a lava rock wall, palm trees and the ocean as a backdrop. This is the par three 8th hole, and what you expect from Hawaiian golf.

There are a number of carries from the back sets of tees, but even beginners should be able to handle the more forward sets. We played with a gentleman and his young son, and they adhered to the resort strategy of short but straight, and got along just fine. The fairway cuts are large enough to keep things moving in the pace-of-play sense, and the greens are large and approachable.

In addition, missing short on the approach to the Gold’s greens will rarely punish you, as nearly all the complexes are open in front (except on the short par threes). Better players and the pros will have to contend with the tucked positions on the contoured putting surfaces, but anticipate being able to use the flat stick quite a lot on this course.

“You can make it as easy or difficult as you want,” Hathaway explained. “I think that’s kind of a trademark of Robert Trent Jones Jr. – you can play it short and have a completely different look than from way back, or even in the middle. If you’re hitting fairly straight, you’ll just have to contend with the bunkers – but play away from those, for sure.”

Finishing up on the par four 18th hole. One last look at what makes Wailea's Gold Course one of the best on the island of Maui.

One thing the Gold is not – is walk-able. To the extent that that matters to the vast majority of resort visitors who don’t even think twice about jumping in a cart when they get to a course, it’s not a problem. But if you’re looking to combine your golf round with a little exercise, you will be disappointed (the option is given after four, for the truly hearty). 

The distances between tees and greens will cause too much of a pause in the pace-of-play, and the 200 foot difference in elevation (from the highest to lowest points) would also take its toll on the less than fit.

Our round took us five solid hours in a cart, and that was without hurrying to keep ahead of the group behind us. Bring your sunblock as well, and be prepared to spend some time in the glorious Hawaiian sun that you’ve been dreaming about (and paying handsomely for).

Jones Jr. does not like the term ‘signature’ holes, so we’ll say the highlights include the eighth hole, a 216-yard, downhill par three that will likely challenge the pros to try and make a birdie, and the rest of us to get up-and-down to salvage a par.

The tee view is looking down towards the ocean, and the green is framed beautifully by palm trees, grassy slopes and, of course, those monstrous Gold Course bunkers. This is certainly one you’ll remember for its post card quality looks.

The Gold’s lone lake lies off the tee of the par five 13th hole, but will probably only come into play for the back sets of tees (if even that). The same lake hugs the right side of the par four 14th, and definitely will swallow anything hit to that side as you get close to the putting surface (there’s still plenty of room to run it up, though).

Hathaway says the closing hole is his favorite. A 438-yard, par four dogleg left, it sets up perfect for a draw off the tee. The fairway is very wide, so you’ll have a chance to let fly for your final tee shot of the round. The approach is downhill to another well protected green, with the island of Lanai as the backdrop, and of course, the beautiful blue water.

Not only will you remember the Gold Course for its layout and views, but also the playing conditions – the best we saw in Hawaii. It’s not inexpensive to play there, but you get the experience you pay for.

And hopefully Arnie and Jack will be coming back to test it (and entertain us) for many years to come.


Wailea Golf Club’s Gold Course

100 Wailea Golf Club Drive
Wailea, HI (Maui) 96753-4000
Phone:  (888) 328-MAUI
FAX:  (808) 875-5114
Designer:  Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Tournament Director, Champions Skins Game:  Barry Helle
Head Golf Professional:  Rusty Hathaway, PGA
Gold    7078                139/73.0
Blue     6653                136/71.4
White  6152                131/69.0
Red     5442/5317       121/124           70.3/71.0        
Wailea Golf Club caters mostly to the major hotels and condominiums at the resort.  The rate is $160 if you’re staying at one of the resort’s hotels or properties.
The general public rate is $190.
Rates are seven days a week.  Includes cart and greens fees.  $6 for a bucket of range balls. 

Afternoon rates are available during the low season after one o’clock.  The high season runs from the beginning of November through about mid-April.

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