Maui, a great golf destination for women too

Back in 2010, GottaGoGolf visited Maui to find out what it had to offer women who played golf. Beyond, of course, suntans and whale-watching. What we found surpassed our expectations. Look for an update, coming soon!

Image of woman playing golf at Kapalua

On a cold and rainy day in Northern California, I slathered myself in sunscreen, gripped a driver and watched my tee shot go bounding down a fairway of Bermuda grass with a backdrop of glimmering, calm Pacific Ocean.

So glad I was on Maui and not in Northern California.

With February looming, I wanted to give GottaGoGolfers an escape hatch from the gloom of golf in most parts of the country every winter. Wowie, warm Maui, did I ever find one. Maui offers a special aloha spirit for women who love the game, far beyond what is to be found at those golf destinations that call to the tee one foursome of men after another.

OK, so there weren’t any cute shirtless guys driving the beverage carts, yet. But I found a woman general manager at one of the island’s top golf clubs, a woman head pro at another, and a former USC women’s golf coach who years ago eloped to the island and opened shop at a teaching station so scenic, there are no bad-looking shots.

I found pro shops with as much as half of their space devoted to the latest merchandise for women, rental sets containing glittering new clubs for women – and I played golf with women wearing fantastic-looking golf shoes. When I finally did play golf with a man, it became apparent quickly that he might have the biggest female following in Maui for making his club’s monthly ladies’ days too much fun to be missed.

GOLF IN WAILEA

Maui’s “we love women” campaign doesn’t start and end with the golf business, of course – the resorts offer their own brand of lady love, pampering them at the spas, transcending them at the adults-only tranquility pools and feeding them fresh and local from the island farms.

But, back to that shot down the first fairway of Wailea Golf Club’s Emerald Course. Driving us to our golf balls, which were sunbathing just a few feet apart, Jennifer McNally shares the dirty little secret behind Maui’s woman appeal.

The thing is, she says, “A guy cannot tell his wife or girlfriend, ‘Honey, I’m going to Maui with the guys for a little golf getaway next month.’ That is just too hard for him to sell.”

Not without inviting the wife or significant other along. No wonder the golf courses here strive for at least a one-in-four ratio of women players. And no wonder women have risen to prominent roles in the island’s wonderful world of golf.

General manager Anne Takabuki runs the two courses at Wailea Golf Club, with Rusty Hathaway the head pro and McNally the director of sales and marketing. The shop is bigger than many sporting goods stores and seems to devote half its space to women, with many lines of golf attire as well as shelves filled with purses and trinkets.

It’s the Emerald Course that women like, the staff says – at just over 5,200 yards from the front, it’s not the shortest (that would be Old Blue), but it mixes great ocean vistas with interesting holes that do not all require driver. The 17th hole, for example, is just 234 yards long, and McNally shows me a line along the left side, over bunkers, to the shortest approach without risking running into the pond at the end of the fairway on the right.

“But, look over there, there’s all that open fairway short of the pond if you just club down and maybe split the hole in half or play it 140-100,” I point out.

“Sure, you can play it that way,” she says, grinning.

I take out my driver and follow her line. On the green in two, three putts.

McNally and I are both bogey golfers with similar driving distances, so we set out to break 90. When I reach the first green in two, she pauses for a moment to give me instructions on reading grain. My putt, with the grain, should be pretty quick even though it runs away from the ocean. I overcompensate, come up short and three-putt.

The story of my day. We come to the 424-yard, mostly downhill, par-5 finishing hole in wedge position for our approach shots – yet, McNally bogeys and I double, and she beats me by a shot without breaking 90.

Before lunch, I get a look at the adjacent Gold Course and am startled to see some ancient lava formations creating carries that are not part of the Emerald Course complexion. Architect Robert Trent Jones II seemed to make playability the theme on the Emerald Course and trouble the tune for the Gold. On some holes the forward tees had to be placed beyond intimidating carries.

McNally steers our cart uphill toward the club’s range and golf school. At the crest, with a majestic view of Wailea and the ocean, Cathy Torchiana holds court with students lucky enough to have found her so far from her Southern California roots. An art major at USC in the ’70s, she began working as clerk at a golf shop and quickly raised her profile. At Cal State Fullerton she started the women’s golf team, and then she coached at USC for 13 years.

At lunch at Gannon’s – even the course restaurant is run by a woman – Torchiana tells me love brought her to Wailea in 1993. Now a life member at the LPGA, she coaches islanders and vacationers. Her vacation tip: “You don’t want someone to rework your golf swing. Get a putting lesson, or spend some time in the bunker.”

Brenda Rego, my companion the next morning at Wailea’s Old Blue, has another suggestion for golfing vacationers. “A trip here might be a good time for a tuneup,” she says. “Especially if it’s cold where you live and you haven’t been playing.”

Rego grew up in Hawaii in a family of golf pros, including three brothers. She’s the head pro at Old Blue, perhaps the nicest surprise among the courses I played. Though houses line many of the fairways here, the course has an old-style country club feel and playability. We confront a couple of holes as if we care about our scores, but then Rego is working with me on my putting – so well that I one-putt three of the last four holes.

Rego’s wearing the feminine version of the shoes Freddie Couples has made popular – and they’re not only cute, they’re comfy. But they’re hardly broken in – Rego has been busy coaching local prospects. As great as the weather can be for golf, Rego says, the isolation of the islands makes it difficult for Hawaii’s juniors to raise their profiles nationally.

GOLF AT KAPALUA

I drive off to Kapalua with new respect for Michelle Wie’s emergence. And when I reach the Kapalua Golf Academy, Ben Hongo cues up the video to compare my swing to hers. Not my idea – I just want a little help with my short game – but, Hongo has picked up a couple of flaws he wants me to see.

I take his tips to heart and see fast results, so we go outside for a quick chip-and-pitch lesson. Afterward, I ask Hongo whether he can generalize about teaching women vs. teaching men.

“Physiologically, women’s femurs have a different angle than men’s, and I think that creates a tendency to sway,” he said. “And, there’s the comfort factor. It’s important for women to get comfortable with the game.”

The next morning, I’m to play a course that had made me very uncomfortable 15 years earlier, the Plantation Course. Fairly new to the game at the time and without an established handicap, I was so overwhelmed by the wind, the intricacies and the fast breaks, I must have taken 60 putts en route to an incalculable score.

But on this Saturday morning, I have been paired with Sharen Sylva, the principal broker for Kapalua Realty, and two of her friends, Sharon Rozic and Anne-Marie Dugre. After we all admire Sylva’s cute new mesh Nikes (her advice: stay out of bunkers in these), the three begin instructing me on how to tackle the Plantation Course. Rozic is a 14 and Dugre a 13, but I can drive almost as long as they can, so I try to follow along. Sylva – who I later find out, and cannot believe, is 64 – doesn’t have as long a game but plays smart to about a 20.

“How’s the wind today, on a scale of 1 to 10?” I ask them as we secure our hats.

They look at each other as if they don’t want to say. “About a nine,” Sylva finally admits.

We’re in for a wild one, with front tees at 5,627 yards and a par of 75 for women. But I don’t have a three-putt until the seventh hole and shoot 48 on the front. On the back, the wind takes charge – to some hilarity on the 120-yard 11th hole, where we aim right of the green in hopes of landing on it, and three of us are rewarded with visits to the bunker on the left.

Rozic and Dugre lead the way with 96s – and Dugre’s birdie putt on the canyon-hugging par-5 fifth is the hole to remember. I am so thrilled to card a 101 and to have had such great company, I suggest the course offer a play-with-the-locals package for visitors like me.

I pass the idea along to Laura Jones the next morning on the Bay Course. She’s the wife of resort Director of Golf Operations Mike Jones, who is home with the kids on his day off. Illinois State Amateur champion in 1993, she met Jones when he was head pro at her father’s club.

“I thought about pursuing a career on the LPGA Tour,” she says. “But I don’t know how players manage to do that and raise a family too. I married Mike, we had kids, and look where I am now.”

She’s playing a little golf on Maui, teaching at the local high school and being mom. I measure one of her drives at 304 yards (OK, it was on the downhill 9th), and admire her no-holds-barred swing.

Things have calmed down this morning, but the Bay Course feels as challenging as the Plantation from the forward tees. Like all the tourists, we linger on the oceanside par-3 fifth for pictures, and roll a few extra putts, incredulous at the sharp break.

Jones’ birdie putt grazes the hole on 18, and she heads home to the family. I use the time to pick out a new outfit for my last stop, Kaanapali – one I’ve been told I’ll enjoy.

GOLF AT KAANAPALI

From the road, the golf complex appears to be jammed in between the beach resorts and the highway. But when I arrive in the morning – greeted by a female mannequin in the pro shop window! – I am in for the most fun golf of my trip.

Playing the Royal Course in the company of sales and marketing manager Melissa Ludwig and head pro Sutee Nitakorn, I learn that the course had been one of the most unfriendly to women in the islands, measuring over 6,000 yards from the front tees. A 2006 re-do positioned the forward tees at only 5,016 yards – with an option of 5,839 yards for the long hitters. Ludwig and I loved playing six par 4s at under 300 yards, with a seventh at 301.

And just a few holes in, I learn the greatest appeal of Kaanapali: beautiful, expansive views from the seventh hole and beyond, with light tradewinds keeping us cool as we navigated what-you-see-is-what-you-get golf. By the end, we are relaxed enough to cruise the high-climbing Kai course, which looks like even more fun at 4,522 from the front.

Kaanapali embraces everyone, charging juniors little or nothing with paying adults, offering a six-hole “fit club” for afternoon walkers, and holding a themed monthly “ladies day” open to visitors for only $50, including prizes and lunch.

“Sutee comes up with all of it,” Ludwig said. “The women just love him.”

He’s got the players decorating carts and dressing up to such themes as: “It’s OK to wear white after Labor Day” in September, “Trick or Treat” in October, “Jingle Balls” in December. There’s always a golf game attached.

When I ask Nitakorn what inspires him to make the game fun for women, he has a “why wouldn’t I” reaction. Then he tells me how his mother used to drag him out to play golf or hit balls under the lights when he was growing up in Dallas.

Good mom. And I hope one day soon I get back to Maui to join in Sutee’s game. Come to think of it, this month sounds just perfect.


PLANNING FOR MAUI: THE DETAILS

On my first night in Maui, Wailea Resort Association Director of Marketing and Communications Kathy Costello explained that there are seven different climates on this island half the size of Rhode Island. She said that even with just two days each at Wailea, Kapalua and Kaanapali, I would pick up on distinct differences between the three golf resort destinations.

At that moment, the two of us were savoring Hamachi Crudo, Surfing Goat Cheese Fritter, Blue Cheese Creamed Spinach and then a chef’s selection of miniature desserts at the casually elegant Duo, in the Four Seasons Hotel. By the end of my six nights, I understood that Wailea is where the beautiful people would go – celebrities, honeymooners and fans of upscale hotels, including a big Marriott that has a gorgeous serenity pool for adults only. WaileaGolf.com

Kapalua, I found, has more wind and showers than the other two golf getaways – but also the most dramatic and challenging golf courses. Its golf villas appeal to golfers in pairs and even foursomes, and its new spa and the ever glorious Ritz Carlton offer adult alternatives to the golf. Kapalua.com

I’d send a family or a group with diverse interests – and anyone who does not want to rent a car – to the happening Westin or Kaanapali’s other beachfront hotels, the center of many alternative activities for the nongolfer and a short walk to shops and restaurants. Kaanapali-golf.com

If you want to visit Maui, start researching the possibilities at www.visitmaui.com.

This story first appeared in the February 2011 edition of GottaGoGolf Magazine.

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