Princeville Makai Golf Club on the Island of Kauai -- Golf by the Sea

By Jeffrey A. Rendall; Photos by Scot and Chuck Rendall

PRINCEVILLE, KAUAI, HI –  “Everyone comes to Hawaii to enjoy the views of the ocean. No one would travel here just to look at the mountains and not enjoy that ocean,” remarked Doug Sutter, Sales & Marketing Manager for Makai Golf Club at The St. Regis Princeville Resort on the north shore of the beautiful Garden Isle of Kauai.

Though Kauai’s mountains and inland waterfalls, flora and fauna are certainly unique and spectacular, Sutter has a point – you come to Hawaii to glare at the water. Teeing it up at Makai will help in that regard, as several holes are either next to the sea or provide unimpeded ocean views. Simply put, it’s quite a place.

The first tee hints at what is to come, namely plenty of Hawaiian beauty.

The word “Makai” itself means towards or by the sea… very appropriate.

The Robert Trent Jones Jr. design opened in 1971 and has been thrilling visitors ever since with the consummate Hawaiian golf experience. Makai was Jones Jr.’s first “solo” project and has long occupied a special place in his heart. Jones came back to renovate the course in 2008 (it reopened in January of 2010), bringing Makai up to modern standards.

Today, it offers one of Hawaii’s most diverse golf environments. Sutter expounds: “What I think sets us apart from other courses are the ocean holes. While the others may have one or two holes on the ocean, we have stretches on both the front and back nines where you’re right there. It’s not like you have to stop and say, ‘Okay guys, we’re coming up to the ocean, let’s get the camera ready.’ You’ll have lots of those moments here.”

The word Makai in Hawaiian means towards the sea. Here, the par four 12th hole.

Sutter continues, “We also have beautiful fresh water ponds which Hawaii is known for. Then there’s the wildlife – we have over 10% of the Nene (The Nene Goose is Hawaii’s State Bird and one of the rarest geese in the world) population living on our golf course. We have albatross that come seasonally to nest. And our other nine (The Woods nine) is all about the flora. It’s got flowers and beautiful Cook Island pines and amazing mountain views.”

So you’ll get a little bit of everything while touring Makai’s 27 holes.

Jones himself often mentions Princeville when talking about his favorite places. He accepted a house on a nearby beach as part of his initial compensation for designing the course, something he cites as one of the smartest decisions he ever made.

Near the green of the par five 2nd hole, you see the ocean for the first time.

Sutter says Jones comes back two to three times a year to check on things – and will perhaps be back even more often as he oversees renovations on the nearby Prince Course.

As for Makai’s renovation (completed on the 18 holes making up the former Ocean and Lakes nines), Jones merely built the course he would have done in the early 70’s if he’d had the resources.

“The construction equipment was somewhat antiquated by today’s standards when they originally built the layout,” Sutter explained. “They had small bulldozers and mostly man power digging holes -- so they weren’t really able to push the earth.”

The 17th hole is the longest par four at Makai golf club.

“It was a beautiful golf course prior to the renovation, but it was very flat. The bunkers were very small, not deep. The fairways had nice doglegs but they didn’t have very many shapes to them that the designer could work with it.”

The routing of the golf holes remains virtually unchanged from before, but the course has taken on a whole new look and character with slopes and movement in the fairways and new sand in the bunkers. New salt water tolerant paspalum grass was installed on the course as well. Finally, the Jones group added over 300 yards of length to the championship course, stretching it out to a meaty 7200 yards.

Jones’s team also repositioned some of the greens, creating an “infinity” look on a couple of them, specifically the par four sixth and par four twelfth.

From behind the flag on the par five 5th hole, you see that spectacular views are not always just in front of you.

“As you’re about 150 yards out on these holes, you feel like the ocean is directly behind the green. It appears like an infinity pool would look, where the water just flows off into the valley or into the ocean, whatever that backdrop may be,” Sutter said.

The effect is pretty neat to see and plays havoc with your mind when hitting into those greens. You feel like anything long will go right into the ocean.

The relatively short par four fourteenth hole was also changed considerably. Sutter says Jones added about five bunkers to the hole to add visual drama, but the greatest modification was repositioning the green itself. Jones moved it about 30 yards closer to the cliff – talk about adding drama.

The signature par three 7th hole is nothing short of stunning.

The renovated Makai course still plays relatively friendly for resort players (the Prince course has a reputation for being the stern challenge). As you would expect for a course of this kind, the driving areas are more than generous on many of the holes. Jones himself described it as a hard par/easy bogey – and that’s pretty accurate. Keep it in play and you’ll see it as manageable.

In contrast, Sutter thinks the distracting ocean views and the prevalent but unpredictable trade winds offer the greatest challenges in touring the layout.

“Most places have a prevailing wind that is very constant, but not on Kauai,” he elaborated. “Here, it’s very gusty. It can switch for five minutes, it can switch for ten minutes, it can completely stop for thirty seconds and then completely blow for thirty seconds… If you’re really trying to score the wind plays with your mind.”

The par three 13th hole measures 255 yards from the back tee. Thankfully, the green is large.

According to Sutter, trade winds (from the east) blow about 85-90% of the time, something Jones took into account when designing the holes. Naturally, the long holes play with the trade winds and the short holes more into them – but if the directions reverse, watch out. A westerly wind can make some of those long holes nearly unreachable.

“The undulation on the greens makes it challenging as well. The greens are not flat and you see that ocean over there and you always think the ball’s going to break towards it -- but it tricks you sometimes even though there’s no grain in the paspalum grass.”

Grainy Bermuda grass greens are a staple in Hawaii, but not at Makai.

The par four 14th hole is a risk-reward opportunity.

Yet another unique aspect of the Makai experience is its connection to Hawaiian history. Princeville (from Wikipedia) itself is named in honor of an 1860 visit by Prince Albert Kamehameha, son of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma.

Prince Albert was a little boy who became ill and tragically died at age three or four. Queen Emma found solace in the Princeville area’s beauty, which brought about pleasant memories of their time there.

The Makai course offers an excellent vantage point of Queen’s Bath, which is visible from the seventh tee box. Sutter explains: “Queen Emma would come back to this area because it reminded her of her son and how much fun he had splashing around in the water.”

The par four 6th hole features an infinity green that leads directly into the sea.

“It was kind of an honorary trip every year during the summer to be with him in spirit. Queen’s Bath is a very safe little natural bath in the actual lava rock on the water’s edge.”

It’s a beautiful sight, but then again, the entire trip around Makai is an aesthetic journey for the senses. For those familiar with Robert Trent Jones Jr., you know he likes to instill a little of his unique personality into all of his designs. Makai is no different.

Jones went out of his way to incorporate Kauai’s vivid imagery into the layout.

Robert Trent Jones Jr. says the third hole is one of his favorite par threes. Here, you see why.

Again, Sutter explains. “The third hole, I’ve heard him say, is one of his most prized par threes that he’s ever designed -- and he’s even read poetry to us on that tee box. In the poem, he wrote about how he integrated the Hanalei Bay views and the whitecaps of the waves into the design of the green complex.”

That sounds like quite a task, but after hearing how he did it, it makes sense.

“As you’re staring down the pipe of the trees there, you can see the body of water in the background. And unless we have a decade-size swell where the whole bay is breaking, the middle of the bay will be nice and blue, calm waters. And then on the other side of the bay (Waikoko break) it’s shallow reef, so you’ve got some waves constantly breaking there,” Sutter continued.

The par four 15th hole offers views of both the ocean and mountains.

“The closest part to you as you’re up on the tee box is called the Hanalei break, also known as ‘the bowl’ -- that’s always breaking because once again, there’re shallow reefs.”

“On the hole itself, there’s a bunker on the front left, then you’ve got the green which represents the blue water in the middle of the bay and then you’ve got a bunker behind the green. So the two bunkers mimic the white caps at either end of the bay.”

Now THAT is the way to describe a golf hole. You can almost see it in your mind.

Bold bunkering defines the Makai course. Here, the par four 9th hole.

Helping to create the visual illusion (as alluded to above) is the new white sand, imported from Vietnam. Prior to the renovation, Makai used the local sand which is reddish/brown in color, not at all like breaking whitecap waves in the distance.

Jones utilized the scenery on other holes too, though Sutter didn’t mention any additional poetry contributions.

Take for example the par four fifteenth hole. “Mount Hihimanu, which means ‘manta ray’ in Hawaiian – Mr. Jones highlighted it as well. Out at the fifteenth hole, you can hear the waves crashing and the whales jumping from the tee box, but as you turn in the dogleg, you’re staring right into Hihimanu, and it’s one of the most amazing mountain views that we have here,” Sutter said.

You will need to cross the water to reach the green of the par five 18th hole.

Beautiful, indeed. We only played it once and appreciated it all.

One other aspect of the Makai experience stands out – the time it takes to play the golf course. You can either play it quickly, or take your time and enjoy the ride… really.

Under the “Troon Values Your Time” program, they’ve set a time par for every golf course.

“This is one of the few golf courses in the world where people don’t really mind being out there for five or six hours. They just want to enjoy it, take a bunch of photos and don’t want to be sped up,” Sutter added.

“We have ‘Troon Values Your Time’ for the traditional golfers that are trying to get in and out and enjoy spending time with the family for the rest of the day. We also offer a leisure round for the rest of our golfers in the afternoon, where they can take the time they want to play and soak in the sights.”

Robert Trent Jones Jr. said this about Makai: “In all the world, I never expected to find a more spectacular beautiful place to build a golf course than Princeville overlooking Hanalei Bay.” With a lifetime of experience, Jones should know – he’s been to a lot of places.

The Makai experience is not inexpensive, but most everything in Hawaii comes with a noteworthy price tag. But if you’re looking for the best in what Hawaiian golf has to offer, Makai should be near the top of your golf bucket list.



Princeville Makai Golf Club
4080 Lei O Papa Rd.
Princeville, Hawaii 96722

Golf Shop/Tee Times: (808) 826-1912;
Fax: (808) 826-1017 


Course Designer: Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Head Golf Professional: Alex Nakajima, PGA
Sales and Marketing Manager: Doug Sutter


Black   7223    134/75.4
Blue     6496    127/71.4
White 6134    125/69.6          130/74.8 (W)
Red     5466    122/71.4
Albatross         5078    118/69.4


Check the website for current rates and specials.

Notes: Walking is allowed, but no discount in fees. Troon also offers a number of programs in conjunction with a stay at the resort. Again, consult the website.


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