Wonderous Wailea: Maui’s 24-Carat Option

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Have you ever heard of Wailea? It is the place where Cannes and Sundance meet in paradise. Where Hollywood’s luminaries converge for their annual film festival—on the golf club driving range! Where the rich and famous, who could go anywhere, chose Wailea because its velvet fairways are sprinkled with stardust. And Hollywood’s elite aren’t the only ones who have their own annual pilgrimage, there are other golfers all types who come to Wailea like birds of a feather, migrating to this remote refuge, to put that little white ball into the cup.

Maui has many fine golfing venues, and in fact, some might say it is the world’s preeminent golf destination. But Wailea somehow manages to stand apart from the pack, exuding a luster that is crisp and clean, like the soft white silica sand in their exotic bunkers. Its endless ribbons of perfectly groomed fairway is of a different pedigree—cut from a different swath of hybrid bermudagrass, like as if the labs in the deep south were co-conspirators.

It’s no accident. At Wailea, no stone is left unturned in its quest for perfection. Every cart, tee, fairway, and green is exposed, scrutinized, and made to be perfect. It’s as though Wailea, through sheer will, can bend nature to fit the needs of its guests.

The Gold’s par 4 18th looking across the green toward the clubhouse and Gannon’s restaurant.

And the well-healed patron who is naturally drawn to the best things in life gravitates to Wailea.  The resort knows this and strives to deliver the class of golf that has made its name the envy of all other resorts. One doesn’t pull their reputation out of a hat: they cultivate it over years, and Wailea has had four decades to perfect its game, and they never lose.

Suffice it to say when you play golf at Wailea, you’re in the lap of luxury. The uniforms a little nicer, the tenor seems just a bit more at ease, and when you instinctively reach for a club or a bottle of water or press on your cart’s pedal, things fall into place. There’s nothing awkward here.

Playing on Wailea’s Gold and Emerald golf courses transports you into a living tapestry of color, where you are part of it all—vistas that curve forever, and rows and rows of flora and deep green. Birds and the click of the ball of your fellow competitor’s clubface are the only sounds you hear. Plumeria and bouganvillia fill the air, ripe with a faint tropical cologne.

Views of the Pacific and Mt. Haleakala ensconce you as you play your way through the courses. There are no homes on these lush fairways. Just palm trees, kiawe, the sea, and the abundant flora.

Robert Trent Jones II designed both the Emerald and Gold courses. His mission was to make them the ’24-carat gold standard’ for the resort, and long after they opened, little doubt remains as to the authenticity of that audacious statement.

The green on Emerald’s 1st hole, all framed in palms, and ocean view backdrop.

The Emerald course is a fantasy from the onset. Instead of 6,825 yards of challenge, most who play it see fairways bending toward the middle, and greens that are perched at the ends of funnels. ‘Can I really roll my ball into the hole from here’ we might ask ourselves? Of course not.

The Emerald’s plush fairways and flowery tees are indeed beautiful distractions, but those who think they will walk away with a career score under their belts are often shocked at the numbers that end up posting to their handicaps. The Emerald and the Gold each have four to six sets of tees on every hole. Golfers who want a stern test, only have to hit first, from as far back as they want, and then they’ll quickly learn that the Emerald Course is quite a test.

“But Wailea somehow manages to stand apart from the pack, exuding a luster that is crisp and clean, like the soft white silica sand in their exotic bunkers. Its endless ribbons of perfectly groomed fairway is of a different pedigree—cut from a special swath of hybrid bermudagrass, as if the labs in the deep south were their co-conspirators.”

Conversely, Golf for Women has honored Wailea’s Emerald course seven times with a Top Fairways award for the country’s most women-friendly of golf clubs. Countless women golfers will attest to the fact that, when played from the front tees, the Emerald course is a gentler, friendlier venue. It is all about the tee you choose, just as Mr. Jones intended.

The obverse of all of this is the Gold course, with its 93 bunkers, and great length, which stretches to 7,087 yards. For years, Hale Irwin, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, and so many other legendary players came to Wailea to compete on the Gold course’s fairways during the annual Champions Skins Game. Despite their ages, they crushed the ball, and hit their irons as though they were guided missiles. For younger players to think these elder ambassadors of the game are incapable of playing any course, of any length, is a mistake. They bring even the best to their knees, but Wailea’s Gold course gave them a good fight.

Opened in 1994, Wailea’s Gold was quickly lauded by Golf Magazine and Golf Digest, both of whom recognized it as one of the country’s 10 best new resort courses. The readers of Condé Nast Traveler gave it plaudits as well, in the magazine’s first golf resorts poll, when they credited it with being one of the world’s best-designed courses. (Note: that’s not just one of the nation’s best but the world’s! And that includes Scotland.)

The third shot as you approach 13 on the Gold. 5.

The Wailea Gold Course is often labeled as a “thinking player’s course,” but that applies to the Emerald too. Both have their share of risk/reward holes, and neither will tolerate a lazy player.

Of course, then there are the views, which many will use as an excuse for their poor play, and on Maui, that’s a valid excuse. Thinking about course management is indeed a challenge when faced with such marvelous distractions as the views, which include the deep blue sea, Molokini islet, the neighbor island of Kahoolawe, ancient lava rock walls, coconut trees, and sparkling white bunkers. Then there’s the colorful flora, which is everywhere. If there is one excuse for a bad round, we anoint that to be Wailea’s spectacular scenery. It’s a local rule, but you won’t find it on the  scorecard.

Both the Gold and Emerald Courses feature welcoming opening holes, and dramatic finishers. The Emerald’s 17th is a driveable par 4 with a double green it shares with the 10th.  That birdie or eagle opportunity is the prelude to the course’s 18th, which is a dramatic and very reachable par 5, with views unlike any other golf course in Hawaii. The Gold Course also features a driveable par 4, and its finishing hole was the site of more sudden-death endings to the Champions Tour Skins Game than can be recalled. Two stellar golf courses, with exciting holes from the first tee shot, until the last putt falls. It’s no wonder people come back for more and more.

Wailea Golf Club goes beyond its 36-holes of spellbinding golf. Its pro shop is among Hawaii’s most renowned, and the clubhouse is a swank, trendy, open-air plantation-style building that is surrounded by waterscapes, and expands outward to the sea through its hot new restaurant, Gannons, named for one of Hawaii’s legendary chefs.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a day of golf is the retreat to the clubhouse, where cool drinks flow freely at Gannon’s Red Bar. The outdoor tables are perched in such a fashion as to maximize every possible angle and vista. The structure is an amazing architectural accomplishment and contributes to the experiential process of arriving, checking in, playing, and recovering.

Emerald Fairways: The grass really is greener at Wailea, as evidenced by the par 5 finishing hole on the Emerald’s 18th, where even the views pale in comparison.

Wailea Golf Club is a golfer’s paradise. Whether one has their A-game intact, or needs a refresher, Wailea is there for you. David Leadbetter has partnered with the venerable resort and opened his first Hawaiian Golf Academy at the Wailea Golf Club. Superstar golfing icon Eddie Lee manages the renowned pros presence here—one which is associated with the success of such playing greats as Nick Faldo, Nick Price, Ernie Els, Justin Rose, Charles Howell III, Sean O’Hair, Trevor Immelman, and Hawaii’s own Michelle Wie.

Rusty Hathaway has been Wailea’s head golf professional for a long time. He and his team are stewards of the Wailea game and have their guests’ best interests in mind. He helps shephard the machine that is Wailea Golf Club, and while he may be busy, his door is always wide open for anyone here on holiday who has a question. It’s an old-school approach to running a business in a modern world, but somehow, Wailea has struck a balance that is not only thorough, but in fact actually makes life easier.

The wonder of Wailea: it just keeps getting better everyday.

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