It is a fantastic course with a few absolutely great, unique holes, lots of good holes, and several beautiful views of the islands and the ocean.
However, I played at the Wailea Plantation two days after my round on the Kapalua Plantation Course.
Predictably, wherever I played immediately following Kapalua was going to pale in comparison to the unbelievable vistas and unique surroundings on Maui’s northwestern mountains.
Despite my initial impression that Wailea looked a lot more like Kahili Golf Club‘s near parkland style layout than Kapalua’s mammoth expanses, the Gold Course is actually very much wide open.
Not so open that you would mistake it for a seaside links course, but the small groves of trees, lava rock walls, and lush undergrowth abutting the fairways weren’t really in play unless I made a mistake.
Home to the Champions’ Skins Game from 2001 through 2007, the Wailea Gold Course was designed by Robert Trent Jones II (the only RTJ II course I’ve played), and opened for play in 1994.
Despite having a championship set of tees that measure 7,078 yards, the Gold Course also offers a challenging but more comfortable golf experience from the Blue tees, which plays to 6,653 yards and a course rating and slope of 72.1/136.
The beautiful thing about golf at Wailea, and Hawaii in general, is the laid back atmosphere at the golf courses. Sure, the clubhouses and restaurants border on lavish, but I never really got an overly stuffy vibe from any of the golf pros or staff.
For instance, when I asked the Wailea starter, “90 degrees in the fairway?,” he quipped, “You can drive wherever you want.”
Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw of the Top 100 public courses I’ve played so far, but at none of them did I ever really get the sense that I was under a microscope for risk of running afoul of the club’s or owner’s rules, a genuinely pleasant surprise.
Wailea’s Gold Course was covered in a stout, lush Bermuda grass from tee to green and from side to side. There was a steady breeze blowing from north to south all afternoon, and the course uses elevation changes similar to what I experienced at Kahili Golf Club.
However, undoubtedly, the key to Wailea’s Gold Course is avoiding the bunkers…which is easier said than done.
There are 94 bunkers on the Gold Course! In my first nine holes, I was in at least one bunker on 6 of the 9 holes.
While none of my bunker shots were abject disasters, I don’t remember getting up and down from any greenside bunkers or salvaging par from any fairway bunkers.
My other take away from the Gold Course after playing there is that the course is really long. Not so much on the par 3 or par 5 holes, but the par four holes played extremely long, due to actual yardage, wind , elevation change, and the bunkering.
After the round, I did some calculations, and discovered that I wasn’t just imagining the course was longer. According to the scorecard listed lengths of the holes, the Gold Course’s par 4 holes were almost 20 yards longer, on average, than the par 4 holes on the Plantation Course.
We started on the 10th hole, going off the back instead of the front. In retrospect, I’m glad we switched nines, because we got to close our round on what I felt was the vastly superior stretch of holes.
There is no nice way to say this: the back nine was disappointingly bland. Maybe it was the hangover of the Kapalua Plantation Course’s grandeur, or that time and tree growth had obscured the views of the mountains above and ocean below.
Regardless, the Gold Course’s back nine lacked that “Wow” factor. The ancient lava rock walls adorning the sides of the fairways and greens were a neat, unique feature to the course, but we’ve got 200 year-old stone fences in Kentucky that I see nearly everyday.
However, the lack “it” shouldn’t be confused for a lack of quality. Every hole on the Gold Course was in immaculate condition. My first nine certainly wasn’t easy, as reinforced by my 11-over 47 carded on the outward side.
I came to the turn needing a snack, a drink, and a refreshed attitude. Luckily, the staff and facilities at Wailea were accommodating enough (despite the lack of an easy access snack bar or grill room for goodies in between nines).
The front nine, despite generally being laid out at a lower elevation than the back, actually had the superior views of the ocean, the West Maui Mountains, and the islands of Molokini and Kaho’Olawe.
I generally enjoyed playing my TaylorMade rental clubs. However, after an entire first nine of hitting almost exclusively late-snapping draws, I realized that I was swinging fairly hard with clubs that have regular flex shafts in them. I play stiff shafts, and it turns out, for good reason.
Once I realized I was playing with these regular flex shafts, I was able to “gear down” and swing with probably 3/4 of the force I normally swing with.
My shots magically straightened up, got a higher trajectory on my shots, and the ball generally went where I wanted it to go. Following this “Eureka” revelation, I didn’t hit into a single bunker, and played much better golf.
Regrettably, I’d never given much thought to golf shafts and their possible effects on my play. Never again will I be so naive.
The unquestionable highlight of the round, and perhaps the golfing week, was the fun new experience I had on the 6th hole. At only 264 yards, it is Wailea’s ultimate risk/reward hole. For once, I took dead aim and executed my shot.
With 8 bunkers guarding the approach and green, there is a severe penalty for not laying back far enough or trying for the green and missing.
For instance, one of my playing partners tried to drive the green, missed, went from bunker, to bunker, to bunker, and ended up carding an “X” for the hole.
In a rare moment of sheer guts and dumb luck, I was able to drive the 6th green from the tee, my ball coming to rest less than 20 feet from the hole.
I missed the eagle putt, but the fact I attempted an eagle putt created such a sense of sheepish-I-got-away-with-one joy that I played the final three holes walking on clouds.
The most memorable stretch of holes on the Gold Course were my final four holes (numbers 5-9). Each presented a unique challenge that differed significantly from the prior hole. The magnificent views of the ocean, islands, and mountains was good and got better with each successive hole in this stretch.
Because these were such memorable holes, and I was playing better by the end of my round than at the beginning, I was able to walk off my 18th green of the day with a smile of satisfaction.
Also, I don’t know what “Wailea” means in the native Hawaiian language, but if it doesn’t mean “Mongoose Preserve,” the course is misnamed. These red-eyed, weaselly little critters were everywhere on the fringes of the course.
Apparently, the lush shrubs and undergrowth are to these Hawaiian mongooses what the Briar-patch was to Brer Rabbit.
My golf experiences in Hawaii were really top-notch. I don’t know the next time I will be able to get to back there, but it won’t be soon enough.
If you find the time and money to visit Maui, I highly recommend it. Golfing there really should be a bucket list item for every golfer.