Play Where The Pros Play At Kapalua's Plantation Golf Course In Maui

Visitors of all experience levels can walk the same fairways as the game’s giants during a round to remember.

Ever since I was a boy, I've watched the world's best golfers tee it up on tropical Maui at Kapalua Golf's Plantation Course, host of the PGA Tour's year-opening event each January. I'm always cozied up near a furnace, of course, 4,000 miles away in a heated Missouri basement as the onset of a long and frigid winter begins to rear its head. More years than not, I gawk at the paradisaical setting of Hawaii's oft-considered top golf course on a big screen alongside my dad. Clubs comfortably stowed for the season, save for the flat stick we use to roll ProV1s across the carpet during commercial breaks, the broadcast is the closest we get to warm temps and green fairways until The Masters has come and gone.

The star-studded Sentry Tournament of Champions has called the Plantation Course, a superb Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw design in the West Maui Mountains, home since 1999. Never short on fireworks is its famous 18th hole, one of the most beautiful drives in the game. In 2002, Tiger Woods hit the longest drive of his career—a 498-yard blast—on the titanic downhill par-5, which drops 150 feet in elevation from tee to green. Catch the speed slot on the firm and fast mountainside fairway and your ball will be on a nonstop flight to the Parking Lot/Gravity nuptials, a match made in golfing heaven.

Fast forward 20 years and I'm staring down the Plantation Course's postcard finishing hole atop the gold tees, 587 yards from the pin. Before settling over my soft-covered Callaway golf ball, emblazoned with Kapalua's trademark butterfly logo, for a few reasons, I take a deep breath and collect myself.

Backdropped by towering pine trees and a Pacific Ocean panorama that stretches to Molokai, the surreal scenery demands a pause for both photography and admiration. Secondly, on a hole I've admired from afar for so many years, where the game's greats have produced so much Sunday night TV drama, I'd love nothing more than to import a birdie—maybe even an eagle, a la Tiger and Ernie Els on the 72nd hole at the venue's thrilling 2000 edition—back to the mainland. That, certainly, begins with my tee shot, which breeds the most pressing matter of the moment: where on Earth do I aim my ball?

"Third chimney on the right," John, one of my playing partners, tells me, pointing at the distant clubhouse, cocktail in hand. I know everything funnels to the ravine on this dogleg left, but the direction feels more dramatic than the landscape around us, as if I'm trying to hit my ball out of bounds. Nevertheless, I trust John's tip, backed by some 20 rounds of golf here, and pound one up the right side, pushing it ever so slightly. There goes birdie, I think silently. "That'll be perfect," he promises me. Sure enough, I find my ball, center-cut of the fairway, 368 yards closer to the hole. Bar none, it's the longest drive of my life.

Well before I watch my second shot dart 250 yards through the green into a gnarly back bunker, I knew 5-iron was too much stick. Maybe the grandstand and gallery and post-round interview I envisioned got to me. Or maybe, like my friend John, who Texas wedges his 80-yard eagle putt to two feet (veteran move!), I should have clubbed down and fed one up there. No red number for me on this go-at-it, but I do bury a slippery 10-footer to save par—and my pride. Fortunately, my round began on Hole 10, so there's plenty of time to chase down the imaginary leaderboard in my head.

At the turn, I pop inside the clubhouse for a tropical refreshment, where the PGA Tour's imprint can be felt all the more. From Vijay Singh to Jordan Spieth to Justin Thomas, photo plaques of past winners line the walls. Be sure to snap a selfie in front of the whale-shaped championship trophy on display, currently held by Aussie Cameron Smith, who set a tournament record earlier this year with a ho-hum 35-under par. After your round, tally up your scorecard over a Majestic Mai Tai or Bikini Blonde from Maui Brewing Co. at the Plantation House, the club's open-air restaurant overlooking Hole 18. Like the course, it's open to the public, and worth hanging around for the local cuisine—ahi poke, macadamia nut mahi mahi, and pineapple upside down cake highlight its menu.

kapalua plantation course
The unfathomable beauty of this course will make even the rustiest golfer feel like it's Sunday afternoon on the PGA Tour. | The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua

Down by the ocean (courtesy of a five-minute complimentary shuttle), Kapalau also offers a fun waterfront golfing option at the Bay Course, renowned for its 17th hole, which plays straight over Honokahua Bay's crashing surf. The track rubs shoulders with The Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua, where the pros and their families overnight for the annual event, thanks to the Tournament of Champions package.

The sprawling, 466-room resort, built adjacent a Native Hawaiian burial site, recently unveiled the results of a $100 million refresh, underlined by an infinity-edge lobby lanai, renovated 10,000-sq. ft. pool, and new club lounge armed with a personal concierge. It's the ideal luxe basecamp at Kapalua, especially when booking its Golf in Paradise package, which includes breakfast and daily golf for two.

Back up the mountain, Coore and Crenshaw's 30-year-old gem is not only the pearl of golf in Maui, but a high-ranker across the board, sitting in 40th position on GOLF magazine's lauded "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" list. It was laid out on a former pineapple plantation three decades ago and recently restored with new grass, fresh sand, and reshaped greens. Despite its tropical coordinates, the Plantation Course is technically a "mountain" golf course, peaking at 510 feet above sea level. There aren't any water hazards out here, but its unforgiving slopes, forced carries over jungle chasms, and blind tee shots (pro tip: book a forecaddie in advance to optimize your round) make posting a respectable number a tall task, burly trade winds aside. 

From the tee on No. 5, do yourself a favor and gander across the steep, verdant canyon beneath you to where you'll be putting from on the sixth green. The fall-off marks one of the best spots to appreciate the wild topography and masterful routing of this Coore/Crenshaw design. On paper, both risk-reward holes offer birdie opportunities, but you can easily make a mess of things with an unlucky bounce.

I miss a long birdie attempt on the fifth, before three-jacking my way to a careless bogey. At the sixth (my favorite hole on the course), once again, the gods of the greens derail my aspirations for that ever-elusive scorecard circle, lipping me out from 7-feet in cruel fashion. Corey, the starter, was right to spend the bulk of my warmup honing my pace on the practice green. I did make it up there but opted to use it as a perch to whale and birdwatch with my binoculars instead.

For anyone, not just golf purists, the Plantation Course at Kapalua must be seen to be believed. Challenging are its holes, unforgettable are its views. At some point in your round, you'll hit the bomb of your life down its volcanic fairways. Above all, you'll have the time of your life, no matter what you shoot, from first tee to last.