Puakea Golf Course -- A Place to Call Home on Kauai

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos by Charles and Matthew Rendall

LIHUE, KAUAI, HI – “Playing the course so often enabled me to better understand how the wind came into play,” said Robin Nelson, course designer for Puakea Golf Course on the beautiful island of Kauai.


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“As a result, I was able to tweak the holes from my original design and make them play differently from any of the existing ones.”


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Near the green of the spectacular par four 17th hole.

Nelson used his personal knowledge to lay out one of the most popular golf courses in Hawaii. It doesn’t hurt that Puakea is located very conveniently to visitors staying in Lihue or at one of the plentiful resorts on the east side of Kauai -- and it’s also a reasonable drive from the tourist-heavy areas at the south end of the island.

Puakea is well regarded for its value as well as the high quality golf experience, as relayed to us by some players in the parking lot the day we visited.

Nelson, who passed away in November of 2012 (at the age of 61), clearly thought of Puakea as a special place in the Aloha State, and he should know, having designed or redesigned roughly one-third of Hawaii’s approximately 90 golf courses. It seems like everywhere you look in Hawaii there’s a Nelson golf course, a fitting legacy to a man who is remembered for his vivacious personality in addition to his architectural talent.


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The view from the tee of the par four 1st hole. As you can see, there is a lot of green space out there, but you still should place the ball towards the bunkers on the left.

Seeing his work, there’s no doubt that Nelson was also a patient man, and Puakea’s unique history demonstrates how you’d need fortitude in order to see it through to the end.

According to Billy Casper Golf (which has managed Puakea for over ten years), the course is built on the site of a former sugar plantation – Grove Farm – which began operating more than a century ago.

Construction began in the early nineties, and then came the massive Category 4 Hurricane Iniki in 1994. Iniki literally leveled the island, disrupting communications for months and destroying much of its infrastructure.


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Looking back at the par four 12th hole, you see the undulating nature of the Puakea property.

Because of the devastation caused by Iniki, Puakea didn’t open until 1997, and even then it began as a 10-hole golf course. It remained that way after the original developers ran into financial trouble and had to sell before the final eight holes could be finished.

Again, according to Billy Casper Golf, AOL Founder and Hawaii native Steve Case then purchased Puakea – through Grove Farm Company – and gave Nelson the green light to wrap-up the job.

Making the layout complete would only improve the course, but the first ten holes had already earned notoriety. Sports Illustrated tabbed Puakea as one of the best 9-hole (10, right?) golf courses in the United States.


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Looking towards the green of the par four 3rd hole, you will need to avoid the water on the left and the bunker on the right.

As far as completing those eight links (which opened for play in July of 2003), Nelson was given a spectacular piece of land to do so. They move away from the main clubhouse area and several of them are set with unbelievable Hawaiian mountain backdrops. Jurassic Park was filmed in this area, and you can easily see why a filmmaker would choose it for a movie set in a wild “prehistoric” tropical paradise.

The property’s varied topography is great for a golf course, too. Nelson let the land do the talking, as he did for all his courses. "My main idea is to let the site speak for itself, to take whatever the site has and transform it into a golf course, if at all possible. I hope to achieve the combination of variety, fairness, presentation and a challenge to the player."

Mission accomplished at Puakea. The vegetation surrounding the course is so dense and the environment so lush that you wonder if there were special considerations to building a golf course in such a place.


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If the wind is not favorable, it would be tough to clear this ravine off the tee of the par four 7th hole.

As mentioned above, Nelson worked in the state so much that he was known as “Mr. Hawaii.” Upon being asked if working in Hawaii presented any special challenges, Nelson said it wasn’t really different than many places he’s labored.

One somewhat unique Hawaiian element Nelson did point to was wind, since it can vary widely on Kauai and all throughout the islands. Because of Puakea’s location on the windward side of Kauai, the prevailing wind is from the east/northeast – a trade wind. But that doesn’t mean the wind can’t switch to any direction, sometimes at a moment’s notice.

The breeze plays with your mind -- and also with your golf game, since the winds really blow fiercely at times. We played first thing in the morning when the winds tend to be the lightest, and it wasn’t really a factor for us. But the holes are strategically positioned in every direction on top of over 200 acres, so we could see where wind would make a big difference. Puakea is quite spread-out.


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The 15th hole is one of the longer par fours at Puakea, challenging you on both tee and second shots.

The course’s variety is both refreshing and challenging, with no two holes looking the same. Again, Hawaiian paradise.

Kellie Hines, Puakea’s Director of Golf, shares her thoughts on what makes the course challenging. “Golfers have to hit a few ‘carry’ shots over water and ravines. The fairways are undulated and the greens have many contours which require reading and putting them well.”

“Also, Robin Nelson designed it such that the wind varies widely in direction throughout the round. With our prevailing trade winds, that means players have to account for the wind.”


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One word describes the view from the par four 14th hole -- wow.

On the player-friendly side, as you would expect from a resort course in Hawaii, the fairways and playing areas are more than generous. The greens are large and pin positions were certainly accessible. Every course plays easier the second time around, and Puakea would be no different.

There are many ball-swallowing ponds and streams if you’re a little wild off the tee. It’s no cakewalk at Puakea.

Hines describes her highlight holes:


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The par three 6th hole is set near the location of the filming of Jurassic Park.

“No. 6 is our signature hole, a par-3. You hit from an elevated tee over water to a green with a stream in the back and surrounded by Hau bush, mango trees and a bamboo forest. Jurassic Park was filmed in the background area behind the hole, and it is lush and gorgeous.

“No. 8 is a reachable par-5 with six penal bunkers guarding the right side of the fairway. And there is a devilish slope from the middle of the green to the front.

“No. 14 is my favorite hole. The panoramic view starts from Nawiliwili Bay along the Hau’upu Mountain Range and continues with the Waialaeale Mountains. It feels like you are in a beautiful valley/basin. It’s a shorter par-4 but demands an accurate second shot into the green.


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What the short par three 16th lacks in length it makes up for in beauty.

“No. 17, a par-4, is one of most recognized and scenic holes, thanks to the mountain range behind the green. You hit from an elevated tee box, with the mountain range as your backdrop.”

We would add the par three 13th hole to our highlight list. From the back tees it’s 228 yards in length – and protected by water to the right and a couple bunkers to the front right and left. The target looks narrow from the tee, but it’s really not – and bailing to the left is an option. You might even get a friendly kick off the slope. Great hole.

With the remarkably stable weather on Kauai (low 70’s in the mornings, 80’s in the afternoons), we wondered if anyone ever walks the course. It’s hot in the afternoon, and with the humidity, it’d be a physical challenge to haul your bag and deal with the heat.


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Kellie Hines says the par five 8th hole is reachable, but not if you are in one of the bunkers off the tee.

Hines says people do walk, and they’ve even developed a unique program to encourage it.

“Yes, you may walk. There is lots of traveling time between holes for those who walk, but we’ve turned that into a great program – our afternoon Fit Club program.”

She continues, “This is a golf fitness program through which players may walk however many holes they want after 3 p.m. for $50 a month. So you could walk 9 holes a day every day of the month and still only pay $50. This may be the best golf value in America, and it’s good for golfers’ health.”


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Intimidation is the word off the tee of the par three 13th hole.

Almost everything in Hawaii is expensive, but I’d agree with Hines – all the golf you want for $50 in a month is a tremendous value.

It’ll keep you coming back – and a great way to stay in shape. Who could ask for more?

For our part, we enjoyed Puakea and would highly recommend it to visitors. The staff was very friendly, and the starter even gave us some tips on trying the other courses on Kauai.


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Water should not come into play on the par four 5th hole unless you pull it badly.

Naturally, Hines agrees with our assessment. “We are known as a great golf course at a great price, and also known for our very welcoming customer service. Our marketing slogan best describes the golf course and Ho’okipa Café – ‘A Place to Call Home.’”

You’ll likely feel the same way on your visit.

Note: Another inexpensive aspect of the Puakea experience is its close proximity to Costco – so you can golf and do a little shopping after the round!

 


Details:

Puakea Golf Course
4150 Nuhou Street
Lihue, Kauai
Hawaii 96766

Phone: (808) 245-8756
FAX: (808) 246-8537
Toll Free: (855) 773-5554

Website: www.puakeagolf.com

Course Designer: Robin Nelson
Director of Golf: Kellie Hines

Tees/Yardage/Slope/Rating

Green 6954    135/73.3
Blue     6471    129/71.0
White 6061    123/69.2          128/74.0 (L)
Red     5225    113/69.3

Rates:

$99 before 11 am; $59 after 11am; 9 holes anytime of the day $35

Click here to book your tee time for Puakea at GolfNow.



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E-mail Jeff Rendall, Editor:
jrendall@golftheunitedstates.com