The Grande Dame of Maui Golf

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Wailea Old Blue

Written by: Jack Byrne
Photographed by: John Byrne

Maui’s “must-play” place: Wailea Old Blue the legendary golf course designer, Arthur Jack Snyder, now lying at rest behind her 18th green, took his first historic steps across the lava paths that would become Jack’s “perfect blend of forgiveness and challenge,” The Wailea Old Blue Golf Club, more respectfully known as “Old Blue” and nicknamed by Jack as the “great lady of Wailea.”

Old Blue, born in 1972, was one of the early compelling attractions that lured the world to the south shores of Maui and a community called Wailea, where more than ten days of rain is a bad-weather year. Today, Wailea is home to six world-class resort hotels and five crescent beaches with access to the finest of life’s indulgences in The Shops of Wailea and to an abundance of sports and entertainment on land, at sea and in the air. Highly ranked among these tropical pleasures are Wailea Old Blue and her sister courses, Wailea Emerald and Wailea Gold.

Old Blue is truly the Grande Dame of Maui golf courses. She has earned deep respect, having hosted many professional events including her frequent visits from the LPGA Women’s Kemper Open. At 6,765 yards from her blue tees, her slope is, nevertheless, a reasonable 129. Her par is 72. She is commanding and demanding but is also giving and forgiving. She’ll present you with a challenge of distance but give you a wide, hazard-free path upon which to meet the challenge. Or, she’ll demand that you hit hole high or face a watery grave, but then offer you a safe and dry bail out along a touch longer but gentler path away from water’s edge. She wears a many-colored coat of exotic tropical flora and sings the songs of a score or more species of radiant birds that flock to her warm embrace.

Old Blue’s hospitality is felt immediately upon your arrival at the golf club, where, as one local player said it, you’ll find that “She’s fair, reasonable and competitive, both in price and play.” Her course rates certainly show that old-fashioned aloha spirit. That hospitality continues the minute you step up to the first tee and see, in the green acres spread out before you, the splendid condition of the Grande Dame, a testimony to the year-round devotion to her maintenance driven by the respect felt for Old Blue by her seasoned grounds crew.

Jack Snyder, her creator, believed that the amateur golfer “might have a bad score but should never have a bad day.” We imagine his heart skipped a beat on that 1968 day in the Wailea sun when he saw an opportunity to create his dream course in the protective shelter of what Wailea Old Blue Golf Club general manager, Barry Helle, calls, “the world’s most beautiful windbreak,” the 10,023-foot dormant volcano, majestic Mt. Haleakala.

Now, four decades after Jack took his first steps on the lava of the islands called the Paradise of the Pacific, Wailea has become known as Paradise Plus for its island-topping record of days in the sun and breezes that are rarely ever winds, and Wailea Old Blue has become a must-play stop for the first-time and repeat visitor alike.

What assures your “never-a-bad-day” at Wailea Old Blue? Certainly much of it lies outside the game: the aloha spirit of every member of the club’s staff and management whom you come upon, the selections, style and values in the Old Blue Pro Shop managed by Pat Kaiwi, the handicap-lowering guidance given by club professional, Brenda Rego, and her associates and the lots-of-fun nights of entertainment (and daytimes of Sports Bar TV) at Mike O’Dwyer’s Mulligan’s on the Blue, the only true Irish pub on Maui. But after all is said and done, the most credit for your pleasure will go to your sun-days at play on Wailea Old Blue.

The Grande Dame greets you with catch-your-breath beauty that goes on and on throughout your round: the towering distant mountains of West Maui across the bluer-than-blue Maalaea Bay, Kahoolawe island and horseshoe-shaped Molokini islet sitting in those shimmering waters, her many-colored coat of exotic tropical flora, and the songs and the dances of her kaleidoscope of radiant tropical birds.

Let’s take you out on Old Blue’s 16th, for example. Here, the Grande Dame gives you four shots to make a birdie but places the target 536 yards from where you stand in the blue tee area to make the effort interesting. (Naturally, she is far more kindly to the ladies in red.) Then, she helps you relax at the tee, first, with your view of blue Maalaea Bay backed by the shimmering mountains of West Maui, then by presenting you with a wide-open, all downhill run for your go at birdie. Ah, but as you address the ball with a certain confidence, someone calls your attention to a breaching humpback whale and her calf in the blue-blue bay behind you. Moment enjoyed and experience noted, you turn back to business and whale your white missile down her welcoming fairway. You move off the tee, hopefully with a satisfied grin, but, if not, she forces one from you anyway, by the ungainly dance across the fairway of two pure-white, long-necked egrets. Then, she further cheers your spirits with the trilling vocalizations of a brilliant yellow Amakihi (Hawaiian Honeycreeper) perched ahead upon the lush green rectangle of the manicured Sea Mulberry tree, planted to mark what will be the final 150 yards of your journey to the green. If your shot has sliced and brought you near fairway’s edge to the right, you may decide to take a few steps toward the Grande Dame’s fragrant red floral display, and to paraphrase Walter Hagen: “Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. You’re only here for a short visit. So don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.” Spirits recharged, your relaxed swing brings you close to her friendly apron in two, a deft pitch from the hole. The rest is up to you. Such are the ways of the Grande Dame of Wailea. You may yet take three or four more strokes to get down, but not to worry. She is rooting for you to have a good score, but Old Blue makes it absolutely-positively certain that you will have a good day.

And, if two holes later, at the Grande Dame’s 176-yard 18th, should you over-club to the right and run over the lip into the waiting bunker, your finish on this course will have brought you to its true beginnings. Here is the place on earth where, after a lifetime of great course design and sixty-plus world-class courses in action, Arthur Jack Snyder chose to have his ashes spread; here in her final bunker in the arms of his great lady.

It is fitting that Jack’s influence is still active in the presence of Arizona course architect Forrest Richardson, the protégé of Jack Snyder and author of Routing the Golf Course, Bunkers, Pits & Other Hazards and On Course – A Dictionary of Golf Course Terms. Forrest knew Jack better than anyone. We were fortunate to have had an opportunity to meet with him when researching this story, and that which follows about Jack.

Just as one should never visit Hawaii with out Maui, or Maui without Wailea, it follows that seeing Wailea without visiting the Old Blue is less than prudent, especially in the face of the Grande Dame’s benevolent pricing, her gifts to the senses and her historically great game of golf.

The Grande Dame’s great architect: Arthur Jack Snyder 1916-2005

A lifetime of accomplishment and recognition defines the unusually gifted course architect who created Wailea Old Blue, Arthur Jack Snyder. Jack, as he was known, not only became president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects but also was prolific enough to be one of only a handful of professionals to be a member of the ASGCA while also a member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the American Society of Landscape Architects. His awards are legend and were earned year after year throughout a career spreading over six decades. As recently as 2003, at the age of 86, his work in Utah received the “Development of the Year” honor by the jury of Golf Inc. Magazine.

This beloved visionary, who brought us Wailea Old Blue, in his own words, “learned to walk on a golf course.” His father, Arthur A. Snyder, was greenskeeper at the Alcoma Country Club, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At age 10, Jack began caddying and by 12 was spending full summers working at the course. His life plan was never in question. Even before graduating from Penn State in 1939 with a Bachelor of Science in Landscape Architecture, as a senior, he was already teaching a course in golf course design to his fellow students. Just two years following graduation, Jack designed his first course, the Harmony Farm Golf Club in Jane Lew, West Virginia. During World War II, Jack served as a land surveyor and was involved in defense design. Following in his father’s steps as his two younger brothers followed in his, Jack chose as his early golf career golf course superintendent, initially at the famous Oakmont Country Club, located outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With wife, Ruth and family, Jack moved westward to Arizona, settling in Pinetop to run the White Mountain Country Club. Here, Snyder helped layout the club’s second nine, constructing the course using his knowledge of golf course design and maintenance. This turning point ultimately established Snyder as a respected golf course architect, and he moved his family to Scottsdale in 1959, allowing him to focus full-time on course design.

Jack came to Maui in 1965 as a consultant to Amfac, Inc. on their growing Hawaiian golf and resort properties. The islands suited his spirit, and he was involved deeply with the developing Kaanapali Resort and several other golf course projects, eventually designing six 18-hole courses in the islands, helping to pioneer golf in Hawaii and to establish the state as a major golf destination.

In his prolific career, Jack designed more than 60 golf courses and remodeled numerous others across the mainland and Mexico, including planning activities in places as remote as the Pacific Rim to Russia, where he worked with an international team to plan six golf courses along the Sea of Japan. Among his own list of favorite accomplishments are the famed Phoenician in Scottsdale, AZ, Arroyo del Oso in Albuquerque, NM (Rated by Golf Digest in the Top 50 Municipal Courses in America), The Hideout in Monticello UT (2005 #2 in Utah, Golfweek Magazine) and the back nine at Volcano G&CC on the Big Island.

Of these famed courses and Jack’s other great productions, none had ever filled him with more pride and joy than his great lady, Old Blue at Wailea; whose design he would call his “signature” course. He displayed his affection during his lifetime with license plates reading WAILEA. At the end, he confirmed it forever by requesting that his ashes be spread on the bunker behind Old Blue’s 18th, where Jack rests to this day.

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