Kaanapali Golf Courses -- More than just back on the map

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos by Chuck Rendall

KA’ANAPALI BEACH, MAUI – Hearing the story of Ka’anapali Golf Courses made me think back to an old saying my grandfather used to use: “Even a Rolls Royce needs a tune-up.”

It’s true, the very best of the best eventually can use some fine-tuning, and that’s definitely the case for golf courses – even those situated in a heavenly spot like Ka’anapali Beach (on the island of Maui, Hawaii). Courses not only must deal with the ravages of weather (like with Hurricane Lane five years ago that dumped huge amounts of rain on parts of the Islands) and time, they also must contend with an even deadlier ‘enemy’ – the onset of technology.

The good news was, when the tune-up was finished, the engine ran as beautifully as the day it rolled off the assembly line – and in the case of Ka’anapali’s two golf courses (Royal Ka’anapali and Ka’anapali Kai), they’re arguably ‘better’ than new and have been for season after season.

The long and demanding 5th hole (Royal) ends up right alongside the beach - try to focus on golf.

Ka’anapali’s Director of Operations, Todd Madden, takes the story from here. “For more than 50 years, Ka’anapali Golf Courses has hosted various Tour and competitive events including Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, LPGA Women’s Kemper Open and the PGA Senior Tour’s Ka’anapali Classic. Being the original planned destination resort in the state of Hawaii, the renovations in 2006-2007 were much needed.  The idea of hosting high profile events such as Big Break Ka’anapali and the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game in the future was a given. Our renovation plans allowed for such improvements to be showcased to the world.”

Indeed. If you’re a golf fan, you can’t set foot on the Ka’anapali property without thinking of the big-time TV events that have taken place there in the past decade – and all that’s missing are the spectators and TV trucks in the parking lot.

Though not exactly rare in Hawaii, a rainbow on the golf course is always a sign of good luck. Here, the par four 5th hole (Kai).

There’s interesting history here, too. “During the time of the monarchy, Ka’anapali Beach Resort was the vacation spot of Hawaiian royalty and if you were not of royal blood, you literally had to take a boat ride around what is now the resort area.  The golf course land was home to taro fields, Hawaiian lawn bowling, and the scene of many fierce battles.  Where else in the world can you experience playing golf in such an area not only steeped in Hawaiian culture, but also where golf legends like Billy Casper, Jan Stephenson and Arnold Palmer have played?” Madden wondered.

The course is still hosting events, as it recently held the Kā‘anapali Pro-Pro Championship Presented by Golf Concepts on its fairways and greens.

The Royal Course's par four 10th hole is all downhill, and often plays with the prevailing wind.

There won’t be any bloody battles to witness these days, but the courses receive a fairly steady amount of play, so it’s not like there aren’t people around – it’s just not necessarily the famous ones. Madden says not a day goes by when some guest talks about the headlining events that have taken place there – and they’ve proven to be a big draw for the resort’s ‘rediscovery.’

“Hosting an event where the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Fred Couples, Nick Price, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson play, gives an instant ‘Stamp of Approval’ from golf’s greats. In addition, we've been ranked as high as the No. 11 ‘Top Tour Courses You Can Play’ by Golfweek,” Madden said proudly.

At 225-yards from the back tee, the par three 3rd hole (Kai) is quite a challenge, right off the bat.

For those staying along Ka’anapali Beach, you also can’t beat the convenience of the golf courses – they’re literally right across the street from the hotels and timeshare resorts, within easy walking distance.

Getting back to the ‘tune-up’ part, it’s hard to remember that in the early 2000's the Ka’anapali golf courses were desperately in need of an upgrade to bring them up to the standards of contemporary professional events – and also allow them to compete with their famous Kapalua neighbors to the north and Wailea at the center of Maui.

At only 155-yards, the par three 17th hole (Royal) has made for some exciting shots during the Champions Skins game.

Again, Madden elaborates. “Being classic designs of the 1960s-early 1970s, both courses needed a ‘modernization’ so to speak.  With new technology in golf equipment and golf balls, the layouts needed some modifications, but still keeping with the classic design of Robert Trent Jones and Arthur Jack Snyder.”

He continues, “Bunkering was altered, added or moved to create more visually appealing layouts and bring their relevance in line with current technology.  Additionally, new hybrid Bermuda green surfaces allow for a better putting surface and consistently great greens – something we want to be known as having the best in state. A new irrigation system was put into place to allow us to present a more consistent product year-round.”

The 360-yard, par four 15th hole (Kai) does not look intimidating on the scorecard, but be conscious of the two-tiered green.

Not having played the courses prior to their renovation, I can’t speak to the conditioning improvements – but the layouts themselves are certainly on par with those you’d expect at a high-profile resort. Both Royal and Kai are very generous in the spatial sense, which will certainly spare you from frustration in terms of the need to look for wayward golf shots. Who needs that on vacation?

And they’re lush green as you’d expect in the tropical paradise of Hawaii, too. Having played them again in 2018 they were in outstanding shape.

When you reach the par four 16th hole on the Royal Course, you see a wide panorama of golf.

Other improvements included adding a new forward set of tees to both courses. “Ka’anapali is a family destination and we cater to a vast array of handicaps,” Madden explained. “By adding the new forward tee, it provided a better golfing experience for those in that category and we’ve seen a significant increase in families, junior golfers and couples coming out to play. A keiki (children’s) set of tees ranging from 100-150 yards from the green was also added to the Kai Course. Keiki also have their own scorecard, complete with colorful crayon and their own par which creates a fun experience for the kids.”

In other words, not only are kids welcomed at Ka’anapali, they’re encouraged. There’s hardly a better place to bring youngsters out for the first time, either – playing golf in Hawaii would have a way of getting kids interested in the game when you get back home, too.

My teenaged son enjoyed both courses and was able to do what he does best -- advancing the ball without being overwhelmed by oversized bunkers or water hazards. If you have younger golfers, it's hard to beat Ka'anapali.

What a beautiful backdrop to Kai's par three 11th hole.

A further nice thing about Ka’anapali is the fact that the courses aren’t just carbon copies of each other – both have their own distinct flavor and challenges. Madden highlights the differences: “The Royal Course is a classic Robert Trent Jones design (opened in 1962) -- very straight forward layout, with generous play off the tee. But Jones’ large, undulating greens will cause even a great putter to be challenged.  With the new putting surfaces, these greens are quick and true, allowing for players to test their ability.”

“The Royal Course is also demanding, with many holes playing into the island trade winds and measures more than 6,700 yards.  Although long and demanding, the fourth set of tee boxes allows for all levels of play – you get to pick your poison,” he added.

The view from behind the par four 4th hole on the Royal Course is spectacular.

In contrast, Madden says the Kai course (originally built in 1971 as an executive course, the layout was redesigned by Arthur Jack Snyder in 1976 to a full 18 hole resort-style course) is more of a ‘thinker’s’ golf course. “With its deep, large bunkers that surround the greens, it is important for the golfer to be on the correct side of the fairway off the tee so they have a better approach shot to the green.  Playing along the West Maui Mountains, the Kai Course has amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and neighboring islands of Lanai and Molokai.  Prior to renovations, this course was the underdog of the two courses; now, it’s the locals and families’ favorite, a course you can play over and over again.”

The Kai seems to be a bit gentler on the scorecard as well, so it could be the better choice if you haven’t teed it up in awhile. Again, neither course will frustrate you with lost balls – but if your short-game needs a ‘tune-up’ of its own, then the Royal will be more punishing.

I will note the Kai greens were particularly vexing to us on our recent trip. If you're not used to Bermuda greens you'd better get a refresher on how to read grain, etc... Otherwise be ready for some very long comeback putts if you misread your first putt.

Finishing up on the Kai Course, the par four 18th is a terrific way to remember your round.

Highlight holes include the Royal Course’s fifth hole, a long par-4 that concludes alongside the sandy Ka’anapali Beach shoreline.  According to Madden, this was one of the holes where the fairway bunkering was modified to a more pronounced dogleg left, adding a little more challenge off the tee. Most people will be lucky to bogey this demanding 474 yard par-4. It may not be the length, but the distracting view of the beach that breaks your concentration.

The other memorable hole on the Royal Course is the par four finishing hole. A 440 yard double dog leg hole, with a lagoon snaking along the entire fairway -- and the green has seen its share of tournaments won or lost (and this one is always fun to watch and see how the pros play it).

The short par four 7th hole (Royal) won't require a driver, but you'll still need to position it well off the tee to set-up the second shot.

On the Kai course, the par three 11th hole was one of the holes that had its layout completely re-designed during the renovation. This created a more visually appealing hole, where players are treated to panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and neighboring islands of Molokai and Lanai. The 182-yard hole has two large bunkers protecting the green and with cross trade winds, players must be careful with club selection. The key to this hole is to land the ball just short of the putting surface and let it release onto the green, which runs away from you.

Though golf is certainly the attraction at Ka’anapali Golf Courses, the attitude of the staff should be given credence as well. While everything is laid back in Hawaii, the resort’s people will ensure that the details are taken care of for you – and that’s nice.

From behind the par four 16th hole you get a beautiful mountain view. Hawaii is not just ocean scenes, after all.

“The authentic Aloha Spirit of the staff is truly what makes the experience at Ka’anapali different than any other course on Maui,” Madden said. “Many of the employees have been at the facility for more than 25 years and welcome back returning guests with open arms of Aloha and warm smiles, happy to see them and their families again and again.  What’s unique about the resort is that the two courses offer different experiences so guests are allowed to have two very different rounds of golf, all within one resort.”

One of the ways the Ka’anapali folks go out of their way to please is through flexible scheduling.

“We offer various ways guests can ‘consume’ golf at Ka’anapali. With our Junior program, we give great access to families to be able to spend valuable time together while on vacation. We also offer a program called ‘Golf My Way’ – this program allows for a golfer to play 18 holes stretched over seven days. With time being the most valuable thing on vacation, sometimes it’s hard for someone to leave the family for four hours to play a round of golf. This program allows for a guest to play when it’s convenient for him/her,” Madden added.

A final terrific benefit: you can walk the courses anytime (if you want). The resort just introduced its “FIT CLUB,” a monthly afternoon walking program on the Royal Course after 4 p.m.. Madden says they have more than 20 players a day take advantage of the program and they are so excited to be able to play a few holes after work (for residents) or after a day at the beach or activities with the family.

To conclude, Ka’anapali is a great place to visit in order to walk in the footsteps of legends or the TV stars featured in the Big Break show some years back – but it’s also just a great place to play golf when you’re on vacation.

The ‘tune-up’ the resort’s courses received in the last decade not only put Ka’anapali back on the map – it’s a must-play for your next trip to Maui.


Ka’anapali Golf Courses
2290 Kaanapali Parkway
Lahaina, HI (Maui) 96761
Phone: (866) 454-GOLF
Designers: Robert Trent Jones (Royal), Arthur Jack Snyder (Kai)
Renovation Architect:  Robin Nelson
Director of Operations: Todd Madden
Royal Ka’anapali Course
Tees/Yardage (par 71)
Royal Blue                  6700   
Sandy White               6267   
Gold                            5839   
Burgundy                    5016

Ka’anapali Kai Course
Tees/Yardage/Slope/Rating (par 70)
Lava                6388    135/70.7         
Sand                6010    130/69.0
Fern                 5563    126/67.1
Hibiscus          4522    109/62.2


Guests staying inside the Ka’anapali Beach Resort are offered a preferred rate.  They also have some great multi-round packages for guests interested in playing several rounds during their stay: 
  • Mixed Plate Special (one round on each course)
  • 123FREE (4 rounds either course)
  • Whale of a Deal (5 rounds either course)
  • Royal Package: 7 days of unlimited golf
 The resort also has room and golf packages available at almost all of the hotels within the resort. Guests should visit the website and click on the Vacation Packages section to check out the latest specials.

Related Links   Comments on this article?
Maryland National Golf Club
Hollow Creek Golf Club
Rocky Gap Resort
PB Dye Golf Club in Ijamsville
Whiskey Creek Golf Club
E-mail Jeff Rendall, Editor: