They say that the Hawaiian Islands are further from the continental landmasses than anywhere else on earth and while that may be true, they are closer to paradise than anywhere else I know. And given that you are in paradise, what would you rather do but play golf? But where to play? All of a sudden you are seized with worry and anxiety about picking the right venue since, after all, there are so many wonderful locations and so many fabulous courses. Well worry no more because I am here to reduce the stress of such oppressive decision-making by telling you of a recent island adventure and a birdie in paradise.
Staying at Wailua on Maui provides ample opportunity for a wide choice of courses but early one morning, late in my visit I found myself standing alongside the harbour by the historic Plantation Inn adjacent to the famous Banyan Tree in the port town of Lahaina, one time home of the Pacific whaling fleet. Our voyage was not one in pursuit of Moby Dick but a much more modest journey of 45 minutes across the intervening channel to Maui’s nearest neighbour, Lanaii (pronounced La’nye’ee, in the same way that Hawaii itself is pronounced). A smooth crossing was occasionally interrupted by large swells that remind you how much this group of islands is isolated in the middle of the Pacific. Oahu itself can be seen on the horizon and closer still, the high ground of Molokai is very clear. In the opposite direction is Lahowee and the captain of the vessel assures us over the loudspeaker that on a clear day the big island of Hawaii itself is sometimes visible in the distance. All the while the shores of Maui slip away behind you and the outline of Lanaii starts to dominate the view. It is a most auspicious beginning to a round of golf.
Ever a worrier, I check my watch, anxious not to miss my start time. I can tell you right now, just don’t worry, the tee time waits for you. The docking process at a small, not to say intimate quay let’s you know straight away that you have stepped beyond the traditional tourist haunts. Amenities are rudimentary but highly functional. A small bus picks you up from the water’s edge and whisks you (and most of the other non-residents) on its general tour of the facilities such as they are. Climbing up into the higher country away from the shore you get a much better appreciation for Lanaii. Not overburdened with beaches, the attraction here is the privacy, Lanaii is indeed ‘far from the madding crowd.’ Eventually, our driver dropped me off at the fabled destination; ‘The Experience at Koele.’ In the distant past I had seen a screen-saver shot of the 17th hole and had made a promise to myself that “one day..” and so today was the day. The first impression of this Greg Norman-designed facility is pure joy. Whisked through the obligatory preliminaries my daughter and I readily found ourselves on the first tee facing our first decision – which tee to play? The four choices range from ‘Tournament’ to ‘Forward’ bracketing a fearsome 7000 total yards to a much more benign 5400 from the front. We plump for the ‘Resort’ level at 6100, after all, we’re not here to beat ourselves up!
The first is a gimme 310-yard par 4 with a wide open driving area and a come-on more appealing that of a hot hula dancer. My good drive is blunted by a poor second, I’m chipping early. Then disaster, I three-putt on slick but true greens and I eat a double-bogey which blots out the sun. My daughter avoids my eye as we ride toward the second. I manage to avoid the lake off the tee but again can only manage a bogey – did I really pay all that money for such punishment? The 3rd is described as ‘one of the toughest on the course.’ A long par 5 with water threatening on the right, it promises a rollercoaster ride. I manage a reasonable poke off the tee and then a glorious 3-wood off the deck for a second – shots like that are becoming more rare over the years. At about 90 yards left and I’m in position for the high degree wedge and miracle of miracles it finds its way over the trouble and sits down nicely in the middle green. The sun emerges from behind the non-existent clouds. By now I’ve got the speed of these excellent greens and the best part of my game with the short stick comes into play. It’s a slider and it’s from twenty feet and now with a gentle tickle, it’s in the hole! A birdie, yes a birdie in paradise indeed. My daughter smiles since lunch will be on me. Going bogey, bogey on the 4th and 5th doesn’t faze me. The thought of that birdie in my back pocket is spiritual sustenance indeed.
Now comes a purple patch. Six is a challenge, across waterfalls to begin and a difficult second. I have to chip on but one putt leaves me par. Seven is a short par 3 and the green is essentially in the Lake but my tee shot is sweet and I have a ten-footer. No repeat of the birdie but at least the par is a tap in. On almost any other course, the 8th would be the signature hole, inviting long hitters to destroy themselves with a drivable green surrounded by a moat that would not look out of place on a fourteenth century castle like Bodiam! I opt for reality and hit a solid but rather tame drive, it’s the second that’s going to be the test here. And then I smack a great 6-iron; not close but not wet either and on the dance floor in two is nothing to sneeze at. I nearly putt off the green – the daughter did! Screaming and chasing her errant putt all the way into the water – watching the performance was almost as much fun as my birdie! I made the uphill return and am now ready to face the par-5 9th. A two-curve fairway means accuracy is vital here and I get on to the clubhouse-shadowed green in regulation but nowhere near enough for a tweeting hope. But that’s four pars in a row and 40 on the out half. Four-over is never bad and I’m ready for lunch.
One of the more delicious but more expensive burgers of my acquaintance finds its way down the little red road as my daughter and I gird our irons for part two. One of the most interesting experiences of the whole trip was the drive from clubhouse to the 10th tee. It is up! A few minutes of driving around ascending tropical forest switchbacks brings you out to a high plateau and part two of your ‘experience.’ Ten is rather like the 1st and this time I decide not to mess up and make an easy par; thank you that’s five. But now the wheels don’t exactly come off but they start to slide really quite dangerously. The bloodbath of bogeys on the 11th and 12th are only halted by a good par on the 13th. The description says ‘give yourself a hand – it’s a well earned par.’ But it is no harbinger of better things to come and the three successive bogeys which follow have their inevitable effect on morale.
But now we are standing on the 17th tee. It is the signature hole of the whole of Hawaii. The first surprise is that it’s a par 4. The screen saver on my computer had made it look like a downhill par 3, but that was just a visual illusion. This is a 400-yard par 4 and the last third is actually uphill. But the first two-thirds drop you 300 feet and all the juices rise as you envisage the majestic blow. All that went before is simply preamble to this one sublime moment. No, I did not choke but neither did I hit the shot I would have liked to remember. The drive went a good 270 sure, but it was off to the right and a little in the rough. The trip down the hill in the golf cart is alone worth the price of admission. A small piece of advice, don’t let your daughter drive! Over to the right on the descent you can see the Ocean. It peers out across the approaching 18th, it’s an awesome sight. However, the uphill approach needs focus and its soon back to the important stuff. Only 130 it’s true, but this is steeply uphill and for us the pin was in the back. For me the ball was on the front; leaving 50 feet for a memorable birdie. Not even close, it was ten feet short and the par was a grind, but it did go in the hole. Now a nice little 140-yard par 3 to finish up. Some sadist called course architect Ted Robinson made sure you won’t catch a break at the end. It’s all over water, I know I landed in it. In the description they claim its ‘mind over matter.’ I’d have preferred ‘ball over water.’ The salvaged bogey was just about to sour my world when I looked back across the 17th and 18th. It is a heavenly sight and ‘dull would he be of soul’ who could not pass by a forgivable one over for a ‘a sight so touching in its majesty.’
Whisked away again by bus we endured a hiatus at a nearby facility, the ‘Lodge at Koele’ until the transport arrived for the harbor. We had to content ourselves with a full English tea of scones, jam, and clotted cream (it did manage to make the flight from Devon). By now I was not simply used to, but almost blasé about the VIP life. The trip back across the water to Maui was much more energetic and we had much collective fun standing in the front of the open cabin avoiding the spray. Sadly the dipping sun found us once again in Lahaina alongside our rental car, ready for the journey back to our base. The one last consolation for the end of a long and wonderful day was to be able to bug my daughter all the way back to the hotel – ‘did ya see my birdie, did ya, did ya, did ya ..’ It made even ‘Are we there yet?’ sound sweet or is it tweet?