If you win a tournament on the PGA Tour, one grin-inducing benefit is that you’ve earned a trip to Kapalua. This spectacular seaside resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui is home to 36 holes, including the Plantation Course, which hosts the annual Sentry Tournament of Champions. At the 2020 event, (January 2-5), champion Justin Thomas and the rest of the PGA Tour winners from the previous year encountered a Plantation Course that recently completed a significant facelift.
The changes aren’t dramatic, but they’re very influential. Original Plantation Course architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw carried out the work, together with Troon’s Design, Development & Agronomy team, including Ron Despain, and Golf Channel personality Mark Rolfing. All bunkers were rebuilt with new drainage, capillary concrete, new shaping and new sand. All greens were rebuilt and all tees were laser leveled. We asked the Plantation architects, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, to explain what they altered — and why they did it.
TROON: Is this a redesign? A restoration? A renovation? Or none of the above?
COORE: I would call it a rejuvenation. If it’s any of the above, it’s a restoration. It is certainly not a redesign. We were trying to recapture the essence and particularly the playing characteristics of the course the way it was when it first opened 28 years ago.
TROON: What prompted Kapalua’s owners to shut down the course and take on this project?
COORE: There were different agronomic reasons. They felt like it was time after 28 years that the greens be rebuilt and the grass changed out, particularly in the fairways. Fairways grass and the roughs were old 328 (Bermuda grass), the same grass that had been originally imported into Hawaii back in the 1960s. There have been many newer varieties of Bermuda in the years since the Plantation course had been originally built. Getting better drainage in the bunkers was another factor. Conditions had become too soft. Overall, it’s just the usual evolutionary things that needed to be addressed. No major design changes.
CRENSHAW: Mr. Yanai, the present owner, is very proud of this property and so is Troon. Mr. Yanai had a simple observation: “The course looked a little tired.” He wanted to elevate conditions. The PGA Tour wanted to do it as well.
TROON: In the restoration, you’ve resurfaced every green with TifEagle Bermuda and changed out the old 328 on the tees, fairways, and roughs to Celebration Bermuda. How will this affect playability?
CRENSHAW: The grass species for the greens should work really well. We’ve also calmed down some of the slopes on the greens, especially at Nos. 3 and 8, to make them not quite so wild, a little more playable.
COORE: Celebration Bermuda is a much tighter grass. It’s a much more aggressive form of Bermuda, much finer bladed. In theory, this should help the firmness of the fairways and the roll of the ball. The top priority was to try to get the firmness and the bounce and the roll of the ball back to how the course originally played, certainly with tee shots, but far more importantly with the approach areas leading to the greens. We wanted golfers to have the ability to land the ball short of the green and allow it to bound onto the green, particularly on the long, downhill, downwind par-4s, like Nos. 1, 7, and 17.
TROON: What changes did you make to address how far the pros are hitting it these days?
COORE: Not many. The prime purpose of these changes was for the resort guests. The tournament aspects were a secondary priority to this whole project. We built more new, shorter tees than longer ones. There are new back tees at Nos. 3, 9, and 10. We moved the back tee at 7 to the right, but it isn’t really longer. Number 5 is where our changes should make a big difference. Originally on this par-5, if you wanted to reach in 2, you had to flirt with the edge of a giant ravine on your tee shot to set up a shorter shot into the green. Through the years, as the ball went further and further, it got to where the pros were hitting driver and 7- and 8-irons. And there was little or no thought to the ravine, because they could play far enough left, knowing the wind, knowing that the fairway was tilted enough to the right, and knowing that it was soft. For players of that character, it was just a mindless activity. And the green would hold. It was very receptive. Every defense to the hole had been taken away because of two things: how far players are able to hit the ball today and the softness of the course. So we added one bunker, a tiny one in the middle of the fairway right in the Tour players’ landing area. It should be quite the talking point. We didn’t do it to aggravate people. We did it to try to create some thought and some interest to the tee shot. And if you play short of the bunker, it created enough lanes with the newer firmness of the greens and approaches. They may have to think about how they’re going to play the tee shot and the second shot this year more so than they have in recent years.
TROON: What’s one addition that’s a particular favorite?
CRENSHAW: I really like what we did with two of the greens, Nos. 10 and 13. The 10th had a very sloping green right-to-left. We broke the surface up in a nice spine-like contour where you can play on all sides of it. We did the same to the big sloping green at 13.
COORE: On No. 4, we had built a back tee in the late 1980s. The Tour pros who came out here — and this is in the age of persimmon woods — hit balls and nobody could get the ball far enough up the hill on that tee shot to where we felt comfortable that it was a fair proposition, even for the best players. So we never finished the tee. It was built, but never irrigated. It just grew over with tall grass. When we decided we needed a new back tee on that hole nowadays, we just went back, took the tall grass off it and irrigated it. They’ll now be playing a tee that was actually built in the 1980s.
TROON: Kapalua Golf & Tennis General Manager Alex Nakajima stated that this work should set the course up nicely for the next 25 years. How, exactly?
COORE: We’re hoping that the work we’ve done will reestablish the playing characteristics that the Plantation Course embodied in its earliest years. The ability to use the wind, the ground, and use these things to your advantage was important. There were different ways to play these holes, depending on your skill level and strength level. You could find a way to tack your way down and play the golf course according to your ability instead of the course dictating that you had to hit certain shots X distance in the air between this field goal and that field goal. It was a golf course that allowed you to play in multiple ways. We think that has been recaptured.
CRENSHAW: The course won’t look that different, but it will play different in the years to come, hopefully just like it did when we opened it. We’ve got new grasses, new sand in the bunkers, and we’ve recontoured some of the greens. We’ve put a shiny new coat of paint on it. It should last a long time.