The Three Best Golf Courses in Hawaii

July 19, 2019

It’s not an overstatement to claim that playing Wailea’s golf courses, all clustered within a 2-mile stretch on Maui’s southwestern shore, is a benchmark experience for mainland golfers. Few places boast as many sweeping ocean vistas from nearly every hole, well-conditioned courses, challenging layouts from highly acclaimed course architects and top-notch service. Not to mention the perfect year-round weather that graces this southwest region of the island. These three standouts exemplify Wailea’s best. 

Old Blue Course

Wailea Golf Club’s Old Blue course is perpetually rated among the most enjoyable on all of Maui, and packs as much vivid scenery and as many wide-open fairways as anyplace you’ll play golf. From its relatively easy, straightaway par-4 first hole traversing toward the ocean to its expansive back nine fairways, Old Blue is an ideal first course to play during your vacation, especially if you’re still in a travel fog or your game is rusty. This 40-year-old gem was designed by Arthur Jack Snyder, who has a reputation for maximizing fun without taking away the challenge of a good design. Holes are forgiving, and you’ll often find your ball rolling back toward the fairway—whether your shots veer right or left. The large greens roll true and are perpetually in terrific condition.

That said, Old Blue is no cakewalk. The afternoon breezes can be brisk, making the open fairways seem like wind tunnels. There are also plenty of bunkers—many of them greenside—but the fluffy sand makes for relatively easy bunker shots. Greens hold the ball well, but beware of the optical illusions: Locals say that all putts break toward the ocean and move faster in that direction, despite how they might appear. You’ll swear that some putts break uphill. 

The front nine feature continual rolling undulations along the fairways and greens, with some uphill tee shots and downhill approaches—many with mesmerizing ocean views. Holes six and seven each have a fairway tree that challenges your drives, particularly if you draw the ball on the tee shot. Speaking of trees, the back nine fairways are nearly all tree-lined. And because this side can be more susceptible to wind, the trees become much more reachable. In fact, the wind can stump even the most-seasoned golfers who may often think that every hole plays into the breeze. No doubt, if you want to play a gorgeous, well-rounded course on Maui with magnificent views from most holes, Old Blue is a must.  

Many of Wailea’s courses offer stunning ocean views, and while the scenery is a major bonus when playing here, the steady offshore breezes—particularly in the afternoons—can pose a challenge to golfers unaccustomed to playing in the wind. Rather than adjust your swing, however, the trick is to “treat the wind as a friend, not as a foe,” says Eddie Lee, a PGA Teaching Professional with the David Leadbetter Academy at Wailea and two-time Aloha Section Teacher of the Year. Lee offers these tips for making the most of Wailea’s breeze. 

Makena Beach & Golf Resort 

The south course at Makena Beach & Golf Resort is among the most challenging on Maui, with narrow fairways and plenty of hazards. It’s a well-rounded course, however, and offers plenty of rewards for golfers who take the risk. 

Another unique jewel designed by Jones, this is a phenomenal 6,914-yard test that can be difficult. There are hills, hazards, tough hole designs and less-than-forgiving terrain that force you to think through every shot before you swing, or you’ll suffer the consequences. Fairways are relatively narrow and are bordered by mature trees—which means they can snag inaccurate shots— and regardless of which tee box you drive from, you will hit traps if you’re not careful with direction and distance. with direction and distance. Aside from the varied distances from one set of tees to the next, you’ll also find the angles of your tee shots, the elevations and the direction to the hole to be completely different, offering a unique playing experience from each tee. Course highlights include the 12th hole, a 185-yarder over a canyon and toward the deep blue Pacific that is, perhaps, the prettiest par-3 in the state. Then there’s the 620-yard, par-5 14th hole that descends 200-plus feet and also plays toward the ocean. The generous greens are not as enormous as those at Old Blue or the Emerald, but they roll perfectly true, smooth and fair. Beyond all the challenges this course presents, you’ll walk away feeling sufficiently tested and with lingering impressions of the dramatic ocean views.

Wind In a cross-breeze situation where the wind is blowing from left to right, open up your shoulder slightly and position your toe-line, in relation to your hips and shoulders, slightly left of the intended target line. Take dead aim at the target with your club face, and your body will naturally align in that direction. “That’s the key,” Lee says. “Aim with the club face, not your body.”

The opposite is true in this case. Keep your toe-line aligned slightly right of the intended target, aiming your club face directly at the target.

Downwind shots offer a tempting situation—when else can you hit a Tourworthy drive? But beware of overpowering your swing. A general tip: “When it’s breezy, swing easy,” says Lee. The wind will flatten the launch angle and your ball will go out, not up. It’s also a good idea to select one club down from what you’d normally use at the given distance. In Hawaii, says Lee, every 10 mph of wind generally equates to a one-club adjustment.

Headwind shots generate drag, which sends the ball upward. To avoid losing yardage, play your ball position from your normal setup, widen your stance and focus on maintaining rhythm and balance on your backswing. Your downswing is the key. Slightly arch and raise your left wrist bone so that your hands lead the clubhead, and keep the clubhead low to the ground through the hitting zone (approximately 10 inches before and 10 inches after you hit the ball), which will send the ball on a lower trajectory with less curve.

Emerald Course

Your next stop should be one of Old Blue’s two sibling layouts. The nearby 6,825-yard Emerald Course is an outstanding Robert Trent Jones Jr. design and plays in the same fun spirit as Old Blue— but with a bit more of a bite. Jones’s self-described mission at the Emerald, which opened in 1994, was to make it up to “24-karat gold” standard. Mission accomplished! The fairways are narrower than Old Blue’s, the greens are large and the pace of play is nice and breezy. There are ocean views from every hole, which often compete for your attention when you’re trying to make quality swings at the ball. In fact, many shots seem to play longer than they appear on the Emerald because of these expansive views. But fear not, the fairways slope toward the middle, coercing mishits safely into the short grass. Texas Wedgers will rejoice in the well-manicured fairways that practically goad them to putt from far off the green, as the aprons roll just as smoothly.

As an added touch of generosity by Jones, many of the tee boxes are elevated so that drives travel downhill and pick up some added distance. Bunker sand is even softer than Old Blue’s, making for fairly predictable play. Greens hold well, too, so you needn’t worry about shots bouncing and rolling well beyond their landing points. Emerald also boasts Maui’s only double green, which serves holes 10 and 17. A greenside lake can also come into play on both holes. As is the case at many resort courses, Jones made the 18th hole relatively easy—in this case a par-5—to allow golfers to end their round on a high note. 

There are ocean views from every hole, which often compete for your attention…. In fact, many shots seem to play longer than they appear on the Emerald because of these expansive views.