When golfing, one is rarely if ever prone to imagining a herd of dinosaurs thundering over the near horizon – a vision that naturally extends itself to include golfers scampering for their lives, clubs pinwheeling, balls abandoned mid-flight, bright polyester clothing dirtied from huddling in bunkers to avoid the rampage.
Rare as such visions may be, it's not hard to foster them when playing the closing holes on the back nine at Puakea Golf Club on Kauai, particularly holes 14 through 17. The sweep and routing of these excellent holes place them close to the seaside mountain range dominated by the peak, Haupu. This area is instantly recognizable as the plain on which hundreds of stampeding Gallimimus herbivores leap over Sam Neill and a couple of kids as they flee from a T-Rex in Jurassic Park. I happened to be playing some shabby golf at Puakea – a Tin Cup laid-back kind of golf course – and perhaps the movie I ran in my head as I triple-bogeyed the tight dogleg par-4 15th was simply the result of knowing that being ripped limb from limb by a hungry raptor wouldn't have much affected my score that day.
The real herd that Kauai hopes to attract, however, is the one thundering over the horizon in golf carts. Kauai has often been viewed as second or even third fiddle to Oahu and Maui as the golfer's destination of choice in Hawaii, but the island's golf courses have formed a kind of informal coalition to change the dynamic. Nearly every course on Kauai has undergone some kind of renovation or upgrade in the last few years, and the strategy seems to involve spending its way out of the 2008 economic hangover. Golf can still be generally characterized as in recovery mode, but Kauai's new motto seems to be, "If you renovate it, they will come." There are early signs it might be working, with rounds per year inching up, but if the overall strategy does not work, it won't be for lack of investment.
The Makai Golf Course, which is attached to the St. Regis Princeville hotel on the north shore, is a fine example. It's undergone a recent multimillion renovation, but it's the nature of the renovation that is significant. The opening inland holes are a touch pedestrian, but the course picks up substantially on the 6th, when it snakes its way seaward. The par-3 7th is a stunning one-shotter across a gorge with the ocean churning below. There are similarly scenic holes throughout, including the risk-reward par-4 14th, where you can safely lay-up or take the risky direct route to the hole, which could leave you in the briny deep … your ball, that is. Given the steepness of the cliffside, it's a wonder they haven't lost a golfer or two as well. The key to the Makai reno, however – with its wider landing areas, softer contouring around the greens, and a cutback in the density of jungle off the fairway – is that the course is now challenging without being punishing.
The Prince Course at Princeville is a somewhat different beast, a carnivorous T-Rex to Makai's herbivore gallimimus. The Prince – known primarily for its difficulty and its use of the jungle topography about a mile inland – reopened in March after 13 months of extensive renovations. It's now less punitive, but still a difficult golf course and something of an odd fit in Kauai, given that the ocean and seashore never come into play. Once ranked as Golf Digest's #1 course in Hawaii, the Prince is a course good players will want to experience, but which might be too severe a test for beginners.
At Kauai Lagoons, two holes, most notably the 13th, share a spectacular proximity to both the sea and the airport; the regular high winds and the regular arrival of massive jets within snap hook range add an extra pressure to one's already compromised golf swing. It's bad enough to imagine bogeys and doubles, but it's not often you worry about taking out a 767. Like others, it's under renovation: An original Jack Nicklaus design, he has also been contracted to complete the renovation, which is now half done. The renovated back nine runs along the seashore close to the Lihue airport. Oddly, though, it might be stronger on the front nine, but the eye candy is the stretch from 12 through 16, where the sea, the lighthouses, the waves, the rocks and the wind all come into play. And the 767s.
The crown jewel of the Kauai golf scene may be the south shore's Poipu Bay, which has hosted the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. Poipu is difficult without being dispiriting, features immaculate conditioning, excellent but not egregious use of the seaside cliffs, and intuitive and satisfying routing. It just flows. The entire back nine is a master class in seaside routing and the use of natural elements and topography. Non-golfers will blanch at the statement, but it simply feels as though Poipu Bay was meant to be on that piece of land. The view from the back tee on the par-4 15th is about as good as it gets in golf. The course is also home to many significant historical sites, designed as it was around several ancient Hawaiian heiau (places of worship) and various handmade stone walls, some of which date back over 500 years. These areas are culturally protected and play in or around them is forbidden.
Kauai is a dramatic island, with soaring peaks, regularly scudding clouds pushed by temperate tradewinds, warm moist air and scenery so spectacular it appears computer-generated. This lush paradise is trying to reconfigure itself as a serious destination for golfers, and the strategy seems in keeping with American policy generally – it's all about stimulus. Spend the money, and see if people respond. Many fingers are crossed in Kauai. It may or may not work, given the unpredictability of the economy, but Kauai has successfully created a new golf vibe. The island's courses are playable and varied in setting and design, creating a high modern standard. No dinosaurs here.
IF YOU GO
Kauai Lagoons Golf Club: 18 holes for $195; 1-800-634-6400; kauailagoonsgolf.com.
Makai Golf Club: 18 holes for $220; 1-808-826-1912; MakaiGolf.com.
Poipu Bay Golf Course: 18 holes for $240; 1-800-858-6300; poipubaygolf.com.
Prince Course at Princeville Golf Club: 18 holes for $240; 1-800-826-1105; princeville.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail