Five Things to Know: Kapalua's Plantation Course
7 Min Read
Written by Jeff Eisenband @JeffEisenband
All-time shots from the Sentry Tournament of Champions
It’s that time of year again, when you turn on the TV for the Sentry Tournament of Champions and ask yourself, “Why did I go another year without booking a trip to Kapalua?”
The PGA TOUR’s 2022 winners and those who finished in the top 30 of the FedExCup will open the year in the first of the new designated events that will feature the game’s top players competing for elevated purses.
Kapalua has become known for its scenic vistas, low scores and wild finishes. A big reason for the theatrics? The uniqueness of the venue.
The Plantation Course is not your everyday TOUR layout. Severe elevation changes and dramatic slopes make for an unpredictable four days in paradise.
This course was the firstfruits of the famous design partnership between Bill Coore and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, and it is celebrating its 25th time hosting the Sentry Tournament of Champions. To mark this milestone, and the debut of a new era for the PGA TOUR’s schedule, here are five things to know about the venue where the PGA TOUR annually celebrates the New Year.
1. SEVENTY-THREE’S COMPANY
Ernie Els won at 31 under in 2003, and Jordan Spieth nearly caught him with a winning score of 30 under in 2016. Last year saw the lowest score in relation to par in the TOUR’s history (34 under). These scores for a four-round event may seem crazy until you check the scorecard. Kapalua is the only par-73 course on the PGA TOUR schedule, as it comes with just three par 3s.
The long holes are long and the short holes are short. The course has seven holes that regularly play longer than 500 yards – four of those are par 5s – but also has four par 4s playing shorter than 400 yards (all on the back nine).
Weather, especially the wind, is often a factor in Maui, but players making the trip to the South Pacific better be ready to make some birdies.
2. EXCITING FINISH
From the tee box, the 18th hole provides one of the most beautiful vistas in golf, looking straight down into the Pacific Ocean with mountains in the distance. But the journey, more than one-third of a mile when played at its longest, brings danger into play.
The par 5 can stretch all the way to 667 yards, making it one of the TOUR’s longest holes. With a wide fairway, players can take a rip off the tee but need to catch some help from a ridge if they want to attack in two.
It is site of the first 400-yard drive in TOUR history. Jonathan Byrd hit it in first round of the 2003 tournament.
The fairway slants sharply from right to left, and players often use those contours to feed their second shots onto the green, as well. It’s the safer route, as the entire left side of the hole is lined by a penalty area full of thick vegetation. The green also is guarded on the left by bunkers that penalize any misses short or left, especially to the left-side hole locations.
Justin Thomas found the hazard in 2020 and made a bogey to fall into a playoff with Patrick Reed and Xander Schauffele, which Thomas eventually won after playing No. 18 three more times.
A more conservative second shot is directed out to the right, where the contours will guide the ball back toward the green upon landing. However, if the ball does not get a kick, a downhill pitch shot awaits.
While having a par-5 as the 18th hole seems like an obvious birdie opportunity to finish each round, the 600-plus-yard gauntlet also provides a long strip of danger en route to the clubhouse. Birdie is manageable. Eagle is feasible, but risky.
3. RENOVATION PROJECT
When the Plantation Course opened in 1992, Coore and Crenshaw made sure to use the West Maui Mountains and Pacific Ocean for stunning views on every hole. Those features won’t change, at least for a few thousand years.
But the course’s firmness had decreased at a much faster rate and required a fix after almost three decades of existence.
“Years ago, you would hit a tee shot and it would chase and chase and chase unbelievable distances. But as the grass grew and grew for 30 years, a lot of that element was lost,” Coore said before the 2020 Sentry Tournament of Champions. “The course had gotten so soft that it was easy pickin’s for TOUR players and really long for resort players.”
In 2019, 100 acres of the Plantation Course’s fairways were stripped and regrassed with a new surface: Celebration Bermudagrass, a denser playing turf than the original Bermuda. This surface could be mowed tighter and controlled against year-round trampling.
“The idea at Kapalua always was to land a shot 60 yards short of a green and let it roll on,” Coore said in 2020. “In recent years, a ball landing 20 yards short of a green would just stop. It will play differently. … Players will be able to use side-slopes to feed shots to a flag. And drives will roll out farther, sometimes closer to trouble.”
The greens, which had shrunk over almost three decades, were expanded closer to their original sizes.
“There’s no question our greens needed a little more calming to offer some more pin positions,” Crenshaw said.
4. STEEP SLOPES
Most tourists may come to Maui for the beach. TOUR players come for the elevation.
The Plantation Course reaches a high point of 510 feet and spans 316 acres of property. The following week’s Sony Open at Waialae Country Club on Oahu will peak at roughly 10 feet of elevation change on a 120-acre property.
The Kapalua Golf website embraces the elevation change by noting, “This course offers plenty of downhill tee shots. You’ll feel like one of the pros when – with the aid of the aggressive slope of the 18th fairway – you will enjoy hitting one of the longest drives of your life.”
While most holes feature ocean views, there is no water on the course. However, various canyons, including the notorious penalty area on 18, provide potential trouble. Mountains, not water, define Kapalua.
The steep slopes mean the scorecard doesn’t tell the entire story. Holes can play much longer, or shorter, than advertised. Take, for example the 550-yard 17th and 541-yard 15th. The former is a par-4, while the latter is a par-5. The first and eighth holes are two more downhill par-4s that stretch longer than 500 yards.
5. QUARTER CENTURY
The 2023 Sentry Tournament of Champions marks the 25th time Kapalua is hosting the Sentry Tournament of Champions. It saw some dramatic finishes right from the start.
David Duval won the first Sentry at Kapalua during a hot streak that saw him supplant Tiger Woods atop the world ranking. Duval won by nine – the largest winning margin at Kapalua – then shot a final-round 59 to win The American Express in his next start. He won THE PLAYERS two months later.
The next year, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els engaged in a memorable duel that set the stage for Woods’ greatest season. They matched eagles on the 72nd hole to go into a playoff, which Woods won with a 40-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole. He went on to win three majors that year and Els was runner-up in two, albeit 15 shots behind Woods at the U.S. Open and eight behind him at The Open.
Jordan Spieth followed up his incredible 2015 – in which he won two majors and the FedExCup – with an eight-shot win in the 2016 Sentry.
The next year, Justin Thomas swept the Hawaiian events, winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions and Sony Open. He won the Sentry by three before shooting a first-round 59 at the Sony en route to a seven-shot win. Thomas went on to win that year’s FedExCup and his first major at the PGA Championship.
Two years later, Xander Schauffele shot a final-round 62 to rally from five shots back and win his third PGA TOUR title. It is the lowest final-round score by a winner at Kapalua.
Thomas, who won the Sentry again in 2020, and Jon Rahm then became the first players to shoot 61 at the Plantation Course, doing so in the third round last year.