Kauai vibes are so strong, even strangers wielding golf clubs can get along

January 10, 2019
At Makai, many of the holes have a chummy relationship with the Pacific.

I’m standing on the first hole at Poipu Bay on Kauai, about to take the first swing on a golf trip with two guys I don’t know, and all I can say is that the air looks blue to me. I don’t mean the sky; I mean the air. It’s weighty with blueness. It looked that way last night at the airport, too. It’s blue here. This is neither a flavor nor an accent of the place. It may just be that on the first day in Hawaii, everything looks more like a painting than a place.

So I’ve got driver in hand and I’m beset with the thoughts of a lousy poet. I don’t know these guys, and I’m not going to ask if they see the color of the air too. No need to appear sensitive. These are not my boys. Not yet. So I go easy on the indigo and take the tee box.

Poipu Bay is a fine way to begin a golf trip in Kauai, a 7,100-yard Robert Trent Jones Jr. son-of-a-gun where Tiger once ruled the Grand Slam of Golf, winning it seven of the 14 times it was hosted there between 1994 and 2006. The first hole crawls slowly uphill, with a green nooked high at the left end of the fairway. I lay into it, and the strangers behind me, my partners for the week, whistle appropriately, murmur up a little praise.

“It sure is blue here,” I offer, as we leave the first tee. And no one in particular agrees with me.

We met each other the night before, at the Lihue Airport, after our mutual friend, the organizer of this jaunt, backed out of his own golf trip at the last minute. So: three strangers, one rental car, four days and five courses, gathered for no particular reason in the westernmost part of the United States, the leeward island in the Hawaiian chain. Golfers, not friends. Not yet. Together here for no particular reason other than the best one: to play.

This is Hawaii, of course, so yes—it looks fan-freaking-tastic, thank you very much. Hawaii always draws you in; it comforts the icebound heart of the most basic haole. It is a pull, a promise, a pressure-valve release. That’s why the Tour opens its year in Hawaii—at Kapalua on Maui and Waialae in Honolulu. But Kauai stands alone, the most remote island in the remote chain of islands, more like Montana than any tropical island in its travel class. Sure, there are resorts you can take in from the coastal road, and a host of mansions on the North Shore. But the fringes of this place are populated with busted-up farms splayed with grassland and fence lines that run into the rise of twisted black volcanic mountains. It’s crazy-quiet on Kauai. Weirdly chill chickens and geese wander everywhere. The ocean—broad and inky dark—grips the horizon. The sky balances atop all this. No kidding. Paradise. This is the place.

A beautiful sunset over Poipu Bay.

The company? Two guys who shave their heads. On my scorecard that first day I recorded their names as Earnest and The Cabbie. Figured it would get a good first laugh, but I’m in a cart by myself (the curse of the threesome) so neither of them notice. Earnest, a younger guy, just married, who swings harder than he needs to, is enthusiastic about everything he appreciates. And he appreciates pretty much everything. Earnest. Flat belly, fancy blades, works in luxury travel. Curiously cheap in his ball choice. A guy so early in the life of a man that he hasn’t yet learned to jabber about children or houses, about rum or even the predictably routine favorite of most millennials: the Red Sox.

The Cabbie, a book critic, looks every part the cabbie. Sturdy guy, well-chosen clubs. He’s more my age. In a given round, he sometimes looks a little stung but unsurprised by the deficiencies of his golf swing, which is still world’s better than mine. The Cabbie says he doesn’t play enough to have expectations of the trip. He’s not sure about his handicap, figuring he might play to a 15 on a good day. It’s clear from the start he has stories to tell if you can get him going. He seems to keep his eyes on the horizon, the next hole, or the last hole, or just the ocean itself, to remind himself of where we are.

On Kauai, humanity clings to the shoreline, the south, east and north of it. The west coast, the Napali coast, is uninhabited and primordial. No golf courses there. And we are just three men in a rental car moving south to north along those habitable fringes. Every bend in the road promises some discovery in the depths of shade. In every little burg with names like Hanalei and Kumukumu and Waimea: shave-ice stands, with their banded neon offerings of flavors. Blue Moon. Sharp Lemon. Tiger’s Blood. Fruit stands, vast and tiny. Secret beaches off every side road. Golf courses become a broad respite, hewn from the density of the natural place. Wild, but tended. Sometimes just barely. A tiny island, Kauai lays itself wide open on its golf courses.

Lifted by our scorecards at Poipu Bay and the lomilomi massage at the nearby Grand Hyatt, we take the half-hour drive to The Ocean Course at Hokuala, a sublime Nicklaus design that ticks along the Pacific and Nawiliwili Bay toward the steep descent of its signature lighthouse hole, where the green sits 75 feet below the fairway and the ocean 90 feet below that; where a helping wind and that hellacious plunge turn 60-degree wedges into 7-irons. For one hot moment thereabouts, the course abuts the airport at Lihue. The Cabbie and I mutely watch the spectacle of a commercial airliner crabbing its way toward a runway just a gap wedge from where we stand. Supremely close. A loud, magnificent, one might even say Jurassic pleasure.

The beautiful part of golf on Kauai is that you are never trapped in any one golf reality. You move, without loss, from a gorgeous resort course to a well-kempt public course like Puakea, a 6,950-yarder whose series of testy holes seem as though they ride the topmost spine on the island, then slip downward toward a broad and open expanse that takes you, at some point, within a hundred yards of a big-box retail store. No one apologizes for the proximity of life in Kauai. No one needs to.

From that sturdy public track, we make our way to the rarified North Shore, home base of movie stars, moguls, world-class surfers and the uber-elegant Princeville Resort. We are now three full days into the trip. Our experiences stack up and begin to lock us together. Earnest has told some stories. The floor plan of a yacht he traveled on just a summer prior is, after one vodka-soaked dinner and for all the wrong reasons, forever burnt into my frontal cortex. There have been laughs. And profundities. The Cabbie spoke up one night about having raised a family without getting married. “It’s still love,” he said. “Maybe it’s more love, even.”

A picture-perfect view of the par-3 14th hole on the Ocean Course at Hokuala.

We played the Makai course at Princeville, our most well-heeled site. Again, we were pushed to the water’s edge, where we looked down at the occasional rogue surfer and the sketchy shadows of distant humpback whales. Earnest put together a good round there. The Cabbie was close behind. I was not unhappy—by that point we were pals. But nothing good was happening for me on the North Shore, except my room at the hotel, which offered a singularly narcotizing view of sunset at Bali Hai.

Day four we play a notable muni called Wailua—notable not least because from its cinderblock clubhouse you can hit the mildly menacing Kauai Community Correctional Center with a soft-tossed Pro V1. Without doubt a shaggy course, Wailua is nonetheless beautifully set against the low running coast on the island’s east side. Locals stand gathered there, drinking beers, sharing sandwiches. The three of us are joined by one of them, a wiry chain-smoker who insists on his own cart, stripes it with disconcerting ease and accuracy, and eyeballs us warily.

It is at Wailua that I buckle, as I always do on the fourth day of a golf trip. Day four kills me. My mind runs away. I decelerate. I feel the heat. And my neck aches. I stare at the distance as if it were my enemy. My swing thought, such as it were? I sort of miss my dog.

I push shot after shot to the right, down the long, damp fairways. On the left side is the ocean, and I can’t even get myself a look. Bemused or disgusted, the local peels off after nine. Soon my fade diminishes and is replaced by a slice. Then a shank.

And then I actually whiff. Earnest, out of respect, walks ahead of me in silence. The Cabbie, unflinching, reaches into his pocket, and I think: He’s going to give me a ball or something. I want no part of it. No gifts for me. I’ve just met this guy. I’m a mess. SMH. For real, I’m shaking my head. Get back, brah, I’m ready to blow.

I dissemble. Things fall apart. But The Cabbie comes forward anyway, puts his hand on my shoulder and asks quietly, “What can I do for you, man?”

A magnificent view of Puakea.

I’ve never heard that question on a golf course before. Not on a dozen golf trips, not in a dozen dozen rounds. Squared. He is offering something, anything, the only thing we brought with us when we came here. Something ancient, like the game we are playing, something cosmic, like the island on which we stand. Friendship, even at this great remove.

Beyond that, there is nothing he can do for me. I figure I have to do it myself. I touch him on top of his shaved head and laugh. “It’s cool,” I say. “I’m just glad we made it this far together.”