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There are innumerable reasons to love the Hawaiian island of Kauai. From fifty miles of beautiful beaches, which is more beach per mile than any of its sister islands, to the fact that only about 5% of the island is developed at all. No building can be taller than the tallest coconut tree, and many places on the island are only accessible by air or sea. Nicknamed the “Garden Isle,” the landscape is lush and verdant, rife with green and gold mountains, turquoise Pacific Ocean waves and waterfalls.

Wailua

Golf is a key component of the myriad recreation options available. Grab a National Rental Car at Lihue, the island’s primary airport, and in ten-minute’s time you’ll be at Wailua, regarded as one of the most beautiful municipal courses in the nation, and recently named the third-finest public course in Hawaii by Golf Channel. Built on the site of an old coconut plantation, the course’s original holes date back to the 1920’s, and in 1962 then expanded to a full eighteen under the direction of Hawaii Golf Hall of Famer Toyo Shirai. There are some ocean views, plenty of breeze, and the sticker shock will be minimal, especially considering how expensive Hawaii can be. Green fees top out at about $60. (Sounds too good to be true, until you consider residents can play for $15!)

Puakea is another fine course in very close proximity to the airport. It doesn’t have the jaw-dropping scenery or scintillating ocean views of other Kauai courses, particularly on the opening nine, which have a few holes near roadways and retail establishments.  But this course, which happens to be owned by AOL founder Steve Case, is adjacent to the actual Jurassic Park movie set at the foot of Mount Ha’upu. It has many natural streams and ravines which are lovely and provide challenging design features. The inward nine is more remote, with a series of tough par 4s, varying length par 3s and some slam-bang par 5s, the split-fairway eleventh, in particular.

Poipu Bay

For a dozen years Poipu Bay played host to one of the most exclusive professional golf tournaments in existence, so restrictive it makes the Masters look like an open audition.  For a dozen years, from 1994 through 2006, the course played host to the annual PGA Grand Slam of Golf, open only to the winners of that season’s four Major championships. Once-and-future Hall-of-Famers named Norman, Crenshaw, Els, Lehman, Mickelson, Furyk and Woods have all tasted victory at Poipu Bay, considered by Golf Digest to be among America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses. This seaside beauty sits on more than two hundred manicured acres adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, with its dramatic open-air lobby looking out to the Pacific. This Robert Trent Jones Jr. creation, set between lush mountains and rugged ocean bluffs, is one of Hawaii’s most colorful, not to mention enduring, golf venues. The resort underwent a comprehensive renovation in 2012, and now features a water playground with river pool, waterfalls and a saltwater lagoon, among other amenities.

It’s an ongoing shame that the ferocious Prince Course at Princeville Resort, on the island’s north end, remains closed. It was one of the most exciting and memorable tracks in all of Hawaii. However their eighteen-hole Makai Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., is open and ready for play, and is a favorite of visitors and islanders alike. Makai offers many memorable holes, but none better than the seventh, a long par-3 over a gaping chasm, the turquoise Pacific waters churning below. It is one of the most thrilling holes on Kauai. It incorporates serene lakes and stunning ocean coastline throughout, while the adjacent nine-hole Woods Course winds through native woodlands against a backdrop of lush mountains.

Morning on the beach at Hanalei Colony

Not too far from Princeville is a unique hotel that will appeal to those who enjoy getting ‘off the grid.’ (The polar opposite of a St. Regis, or other glitzy resort hotels.) The Hanalei Colony Resort is found north of the town of Hanalei. It’s about fifteen winding minutes, and seven one-lane bridges from town. There’s no AC, no TV, but comfortable rooms, superb ocean views, the soothing sound of pounding surf, a very nice on-site restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Speaking of eateries, Kauai doesn’t offer the richness or diversity that are found on other, more populous Hawaiian Islands, but nobody’s going hungry either. One of the best bets is also one of the most cleverly-named restaurants on the island. Bar Acuda, in Hanalei, offers delightful tapas of all kinds in a very hip setting. The seared tuna and lamb chops are particular highlights, but everything they serve in this ultra-hip outdoor-and-indoor bistro is wonderful.

In busy Kapaa Town, there is a sedate, French-inspired bistro called Art Café Hemingway, which is unique in that the same space affords two separate-but-connected eateries. The original founders, Markus and Jana, run the operation Friday through Sunday, while talented protégé Jeremiah is in charge Monday through Thursday. It doesn’t matter what day one visits, because they offer delectable brunch (with vegan options) and subtle, savory dinner (fresh fish, wonderful cuts of beef, ethereal desserts, etc.) every day of the week.

Viewing the ocean from the fairway is one thing, but all visitors would be well served in getting out onto the deep blue proper, and no outfit does a better job than Holo Holo Charters, which offers a wide range of water-borne activities, including sightseeing, snorkeling, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the ‘forbidden island” of Niihau, which offers no visitor’s accommodations, and is home only to native Hawaiians. (IE—of pure Hawaiian ancestry.)

Try their Napali Sunset Tour, which brings lucky passengers up the remotely beautiful Napali coast, on the northwest side of Kauai. The amazing craggy, mountainous topography, which is characterized by sheer drops right down to the azure waters, is unforgettable. Add in the flowing bar, fine appetizers, excellent dinner service and lively music, and you have the recipe for a vacation highlight in a trip that will have plenty, both on and off the course.

There are individuals who know more about golf on Maui than Rick Castillo, but it would be a short list. Currently the head professional at the uniquely named King Kamehameha Golf Club, Castillo has been gainfully employed in the golf business on Maui since 1979, including nearly twenty years as the head professional at Wailea Golf Club.

“There are three major golf resorts on Maui,” begins Castillo. There’s the three courses at Wailea, which are known as the Blue, the Gold and the Emerald. In addition, there’s Kaanapali, with two courses, and Kapalua, which also features a pair of courses.”

The Blue opened in 1972, its younger siblings in the middle ’90s. Castillo, the son of a golf professional himself, explains that the trade winds blowing in off the ocean make for challenging golf. “However we need them, because otherwise the temperatures would be too hot for most people.”

Wailea Gold

The Gold is the bellwether course at Wailea, the longest of the trio, and like the Emerald Course, a pure golf experience, unsullied by condos and roadways. The Gold played host to the Senior Skins Game for nearly a decade, and unlike other golf areas on the island, some of the wind-related challenges are mitigated by the buffering presence of Mount Haleakala, a dormant volcano that stretches to nearly 10,000 feet in elevation.

“Kapalua is probably our best-known resort,” continues Castillo, whose four siblings are also longtime members of the golf profession. “The Plantation Course is famous as the home of the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions every January. It’s a massive course, par 73, with huge greens and tilting fairways. The Bay Course is also hilly, with uneven lies, plenty of wind, and some gorgeous ocean views.”

Kaanapali is the third resort offering, and while the Royal Course is known as a terrific test of golf, beginning at sea level and climbing up into the West Maui mountain foothills, there are some roadway and highway views that detract just a bit from the ‘walk in the park’ sensibility that many golfers, particularly those on vacation, seek out. The Kaanapali Kai course is a bit shorter, and more forgiving.

“Golf on Maui offers great conditioning, consistently good courses, and strikes a wonderful balance,” concludes Castillo. “Some people find Oahu too busy, and Honolulu a very hectic city. others love Kauai, but some consider it a bit too sedate. Maui is somewhere in between.”

Hotel Wailea

There are nearly as many fine resort hotels on Maui as there are beach umbrellas stuck in the sand, but few, if any, would be superior to the exceptional Hotel Wailea. It’s the only hotel in Hawaii with the coveted Relais & Chateaux designation, not to mention being designated at the #1 hotel in Maui by Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best” awards.

To put it delicately, this is a place to make the babies, not bring the babies. The hotel features seventy-two single-bedroom suites tucked amid fifteen secluded acres, just a three-minute shuttle ride to the beach, and is blissful, tranquil and a marvelous getaway. Among numerous on-site amenities, their delightful restaurant might top the list. Gorgeous ocean views, attentive service, and an emphasis on locally grown food (and amazing, fresh fish) are hallmarks of this ‘special occasion’ eatery. (And if you’re on Maui, every day is a special occasion!)

Speaking of special occasions, Mama’s Fish House, about forty minutes from Wailea in the funky, shop-lined, surfer-centric town of Paia, is one of the most memorable restaurants you will ever have the privilege to visit. Most eateries are attractive for one, or maybe two of four reasons: The food (of course) the location, the service and the ambience. Mama’s checks all the boxes. First, it’s located just steps from the crashing surf. (Some of Maui’s biggest waves are just a mile down the beach.) Second, the food is magnificent. They even credit the local fishermen, bringing in the catch or catches of the day, by name on the menu. (And the apps, entrees, meats, cocktails, desserts, etc, are equally impressive.) The service is impeccable, and the various dining rooms, (the canoe room, the deck, the lounge, etc,) are eclectic and filled with cool memorabilia from the owner’s extensive travels in the South Seas. Mama’s Fish House is expensive, understandably so, but three words suffice: Don’t miss it.

The best way to work off all that seafood might be to swim with the fish themselves. Try Maui Kayak Adventures for an exhilarating early-morning kayak-and-snorkel escapade. (And early means just that–you convene with your guide at 7 am, to be off the water by late morning before the trade winds start to blow.) The day begins with a brisk kayak excursion, maybe thirty or forty minutes, along the coast. Then participants don snorkels and fins, floating, swimming and diving near reefs and coves, observing large sea turtles, and all manner of ocean life. Once back in the kayak, it’s another forty-odd minutes back from whence you began. In its own nautical way, this is as much fun as any golf course you might care to visit–even on the magical island of Maui.

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Golf travel can be exhilarating and exhausting concurrently. It’s always great to check out new courses and destinations (and this correspondent knows of what he speaks—more than nine hundred courses played in forty-plus states and fifteen countries), but there are tips, tricks and hints that can make the trekking a bit easier on both the body and the mind. Here are some thoughts on minimizing hassles and getting the most enjoyment out of a trip; whether with the boys, the girls, the spouse, or as couples.

  1. Bring two pairs of golf shoes, and a pair of sandals. The shoes need to be rotated daily to air out and dry out. With the evolvement of modern golf shoes, many of which look likesneakers or casualwear, often they can substitute for evening shoes in restaurants, grill rooms or pubs. The sandals are there for the off-course hours; to let your feet breathe either in transit, near the pool or in the hotel or condo.
  2. Invest in a sturdy travel bag, preferably with wheels, for ease of transport through airports. Be sure to insert a towel covered broomstick longer than the driver into the golf bag. (There is also a commercial product called the Stiff Arm which is expressly for this purpose.)This will ensure that if a ham-handed baggage handler drops the bag upside down, the broomstick or Stiff Arm, not the driver, bears the brunt of the impact.
  3. Maximize your time. Depending on how much golf the group is willing and/or able to play, by leaving early and returning late on departure day, it possibly affords the opportunity to play a full round, or maybe just nine holes, on both travel days.
  4. Shipping can be your friend. On that same subject, if there’s a tight connecting flight, consider shipping golf clubs (there are a variety of reputable services available) to the final destination, or risk arriving to the course without benefit of one’s own clubs.
  5. Cut yourself some slack on a new course after a long layoff. Instead of tying self-worth to the scorecard, consider a ‘traveler’s game.’ Divide the round into ‘good holes,’ (often pars or birdies) ‘OK holes’ (usually bogeys, and depending on the skill level in question, sometimes double bogeys.) And ‘others.’ (Doubles, triples or X’s, depending.) At round’s end see if you managed a goodly number of good’ or ‘OK’ holes, and hopefully a dearth of ‘others.’ It will help with equanimity, and lead to a more enjoyable excursion.
  6. Weather the weather. Don’t forget the umbrella (always) and rain pants. (Sometimes. But particularly in the UK, or in coastal Oregon, AKA Bandon Dunes.)
  7. Pack lighter than you think. Most golfers tend to pick up a shirt, wind vest, rain jacket, sweater, etc., while visiting a marquee destination. Leave some space for the mementos that mark your adventures on and off the course.
  8. Don’t skimp on the rental car size. Four people, with four days worth of luggage and four golf bags and covers, equals serious volume. Reserve a large SUV, even a mini-van, for maximum comfort. Golf bags and travel covers fill up the trunk of even the most capacious sedan much faster than you think!
  9. Schedule a day off, even two, if the location chosen is heretofore unexplored. This advice is primarily directed at travelers to the UK, but is equally applicable to those who plan golf-themed travel to more exotic locales. South Africa, Asia and continental Europe come immediately to mind. First off, the body can use the time off from incessant golf. Secondly, playing course after course becomes a blur, especially when indulging in links golf, as many of these courses have a similar feel and look regardless. Third and most importantly, take some time to explore the culture and the community where you’re visiting. The pubs, the castles, the museums, the wildlife, the countryside are all worthy of one’s attention. Engage some locals, and try and get a feel for the area, beyond the course or courses themselves. This advice, much like the advice in the opening paragraph, comes from hard experience. So myopic was this correspondent earlier in this golf-travel writing career, I once spent five days in greater Seattle, and never visited a coffee house or the Space Needle! Similarly, some years back I spend an equal amount of time in Chicago, and hopscotching from one course to the next, never found time to visit Rush St. or Wrigley Field. Don’t make the same mistake.

Renowned architect Pete Dye was born in Urbana, Ohio, but has lived most of his life in Indianapolis. Much of his seminal work took place in his adopted hometown. His most highly regarded creation there is Crooked Stick, where an unknown John Daly rocketed from anonymity to stardom thanks to an out-of-nowhere victory at the 1991 PGA Championship.

Crooked Stick is very private, but Indianapolis is peppered with some fine examples of public-access venues where the traveling golfer is welcome. Grab a National Rental Car at Indianapolis International Airport, and explore some of Dye’s hometown creations. Now he’s a Hall-of-Famer, but back in the day, he was an insurance man-turned course designer, and a golf tour around Indy offers some fascinating insight into the majestic career that would unfold in the ensuing decades.

The Fort

The Fort is easily one of the most memorable and challenging golf experiences in greater Indianapolis.  It’s located within an hour’s drive of a million citizens, but it’s an isolated entity unto itself, not a roadway crossing anywhere, not a home on property, or even on the periphery.  Fort Benjamin Harrison was a military installation dating from World War One on Indianapolis’s east side.  It closed in 1996.  The state of Indiana purchased the property from the federal government—2,000 acre Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park, and the military-only golf course contained therein.  Pete Dye was called upon to renovate the existing course, which was slated to open to the general public.  He magnanimously charged the city fathers a single dollar, not even the price of a Big Gulp soda.

A big gulp is what most golfers will be taking, after a couple of easier warm-up holes, when they stand on the tee of the swooping  par-4 4th, nearly 480 yards from the tips, a full 440 from the penultimate markers, narrow and tree-lined.  It’s a wakeup call, as the Fort is as rugged and hardy as the military personnel it once served.  The golf course is almost 240 acres in size, a scope and breadth that is nearly double the acreage of an average course. Central Indiana is generally flat as a Scrabble Board.  But this heavily wooded, heaving and rolling parcel, rife with wetlands, gullies and ravines, and teeming with wildlife, is a geographical aberration.

The final four holes are the most demanding on the course.  The 15th is nearly 450 yards, followed by a true three-shot par-5 of 560 yards, which sets the stage for a 230+ yard par-3.  The final hole plays uphill, more than 425 yards, unless play is being conducted from the tips, in which case the mileage swells to some 475.  It’s safe to assume that many a good-looking scorecard have been defaced in the final hour.

The Brickyard

One of the most unique courses in the Midwest is The Brickyard, where Dye actually put four golf holes (numbers seven through ten) within the confines of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the remainder winding their way around the spacious grounds outside of the fence line. Because the property is so massive, and the use of trees and mounding so clever, even from within the oval it’s sometimes easy to forget about the one-of-a-kind location. But the irony is that the proximity to the grandstand is never closer than outside the oval, on the property’s northeast corner.  An errant approach to the long par-5 twelfth, or a pulled tee shot on the tough par-3 that follows could potentially clatter into the stanchions supporting the stadium-style bench seating on the infamous third turn.  Making birdie on this hole, with railroad ties left and the always-lurking Little Eagle Creek to the right, is high excitement.  But it’s a mere trifle, say veteran race patrons, compared to the thrill of some three dozen super-charged race cars roaring down the mile-long straightaway at nearly 200 mph, prior to the turn.

Kampen Course

Although not quite in Indy proper, the Kampen Course at Purdue University is definitely worth the fifty-mile drive to Lafayette. This is one of the best college courses in the nation. Dye took agronomy courses at Purdue as he was learning his craft, and decided to renovate the course that had been on site for decades. Much of this heavily bunkered, fescue-laden course is routed around a natural marsh known as the celery bog, to the right of the brutally long par-5 sixth hole.  The greenish bog is home to all sorts of birdlife, and thanks to the sophisticated filtration and recycling system Dye devised, the course’s water runoff goes through several stages of cleaning before entering the bog.

Just off the eighth tee, a tough par-4 with waste bunkering down the entire right-hand side, is a sign for the Turfgrass Research and Diagnostic Center, which is housed in a building just a long iron from the hole itself.  It showcases the symbiotic relationship between the course and the Purdue agronomy students who take care of it and study it on an ongoing basis.

“It used to just be a farmer’s course,” explains a longtime golf course employee.  “It was long, flat, back-and-forth, with almost no features whatsoever.  What’s transpired here is amazing. It’s a great course, very challenging and full of contour. The 17th is a wicked par-3 over water, two hundred-plus yards, often into the wind.  The last is an exhausting par-4, a driver and then a 3-wood, where you’re just hoping to reach in regulation.  But the fact the renovation was done so inexpensively, so quickly, and using student labor with no prior golf course construction experience, makes the end result almost hard to believe.”

 

Even though Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is one of the nation’s most desired golf venues, in the minds of many it isn’t quite family-friendly. After all, if dad wants to get out and play a few rounds in Orlando, Myrtle Beach or Scottsdale, to name just three examples, there are scads of other activities to keep the rest of the family, IE—the non-golfers, happy and entertained. But what of the non-golf opportunities along the Trail? It stretches through much of the length and breadth of Alabama, which isn’t quite at the forefront of many would-be vacationers when they think ‘tourist destination.’

It just so happens that there is plenty to do along the Trail, activities that will appeal to all members of the family, whether they’re interested in smacking the dimpled ball or not.

For example, a prior column extolled the virtues of playing The Shoals, in Muscle Shoals, with their Fighting Joe and Schoolmaster courses. But music lovers might be inclined to visit the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, located in nearby Tuscumbia. The state has a rich history of musicians who went on to worldwide acclaim, and the hall includes tributes to Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, Lionel Richie, the Temptations, the Commodores, and of course, Alabama, among other luminaries.

Highland Oaks

Highland Oaks is in Dothan, in the southeast corner of the state. They offer a trio of nine-hole courses, with a par-3 (also nine holes) thrown in for good measure.  The Highlands is relatively open, with several lakes in play. The Marshwood is known for its notorious sixth hole, a mere 700 yards, and the 422-yard, par-4 ninth which includes a left-to-right dogleg and a tilted green elevated above a ribbon of wetlands. The Magnolia is well named, graced as it is by magnolia trees on high ground that is reached via a 1,000-foot wooden bridge spanning a marsh filled with lichen-dappled trees. Because the majority of the nation’s peanuts are grown within a hundred-or-so miles of Dothan, those so inclined might want to check out the National Peanut Festival, which is held each autumn. It’s a full ten days of agricultural displays, rides, games, amusements, concerts, and livestock showings.

Hampton Cove in Huntsville offers three championship courses. The Highlands is as close to a Scottish-style course as you’ll find on any Trail course, and features thousands of Japanese black pines, oaks, dogwoods and crepe myrtles. The River is the only Trail course without a single bunker. Laid out on former soybean fields in the flood plain of the Flint River basin, The River is a throwback to the simplistic way courses were built early in the previous century, with dirt pushed up to create the greens and tees. The course features massive oak trees, including an enormous, 250-year-old black oak behind the eighteenth green, reputed to be one of the oldest in the state. Meanwhile, the par-3 course on site is no pushover. Eleven of eighteen holes on the Short Course have water in play.

Hampton Cove

While big hitters can seemingly launch golf balls into orbit, the real deal is found nearby at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team helped transform Huntsville from ‘the Watercress Capital of the World,’ as it was known in the 1950’s, to a leading edge technology center and research park. The U.S. Army donated land for this fascinating museum, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center opened its doors in 1970. Since then, nearly seventeen million people have toured the Center. Many of the more than 650,000 annual visitors are school students on field trips, perhaps contemplating their future. Dozens of interactive exhibits encourage guest participation, prompting the oft-repeated motto: Here, everyone can be an astronaut for the day!

Grand National, close to Auburn, is one of the best-known Trail stops, and offers a trio of eighteen hole courses. The Links is the cornerstone of the Grand National complex, and the finishing hole is billed as the strongest concluding hole on the Trail. The drive must carry a corner of the lake while the approach is played to a shallow pedestal green shored up by boulders. The Lake course includes a dozen holes that hug the shoreline, and its 230-yard island green on the fifteenth is among the prettiest holes in the state. Keeping with the theme, more than half of the par-3 holes on their eighteen hole Short Course abut the lake. Be sure to check out the magnificent campus and famed Toomer’s Corner at nearby Auburn University, the ‘other’ major University in the state. (Alabama’s Crimson Tide attracts the lion’s share of the rooting interest, but the Auburn Tigers have no shortage of devotees themselves.)

From Prattville to Birmingham, Anniston to Auburn, Huntsville to Greenville to Dothan, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has resulted in huge swaths of underutilized acreage repurposed into these marvelous playing fields. And every stop on the Trail offers something intriguing, to see, to do, to experience, for golfers and non-golfers alike.