The Plantation Course at Kapalua has undergone a 'refinement' that should present a stiffer test in PGA Tour's 2020 opener

December 30, 2019
Sentry Tournament of Champions - Final Round

Sam Greenwood

KAPALUA, Hawaii — Don’t call the upgraded Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort a renovation or a redesign, even though either of those descriptive terms would suffice.

“The word we like to use is refinement,” said Ben Crenshaw, who with his design partner Bill Coore came in after the completion of the Sentry Tournament of Champions last January and began the task of revitalizing—there’s another appropriate word for it—their initial creation that opened in 1991.

Whatever you call it, the Plantation Course, re-grassed tee to green in a proven durable strain of Bermudagrass called Celebration and given an end-to-end facelift, will be a notably different test for the 34 players committed to competing in this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, which starts Thursday.

“I like it a lot,” said Dustin Johnson, who broke the dawn on Dec. 26 as the first player in the field to get in a practice round, “but it’s definitely harder. It’s a lot more difficult.”

That was the mission—at least one of them—with which the Crenshaw and Coore team was charged as they worked with the Troon Development, headed by Alex Nakajima, general manager of Kapalua golf and tennis, and Mark Rolfing, the NBC and Golf Channel broadcaster who was part of the original Plantation Course development group. The PGA Tour also wanted to see the course play with more versatility, and to do that, the greens had to be “calmed down,” in Crenshaw’s words and recontoured to allow for more pin positions.

The most evident green refinements come at holes 6, 10 and 13, where the slopes were so pronounced only one side of the putting surface could be used to cut holes. The upshot of achieving that aim was the creation of distinct tiers.

Some greens also were expanded while others, like at the par-4 seventh and the par-5 15th, were reduced in size.

“The course is even more of a second-shot golf course than it was before,” said Rolfing, who watched closely from the time work started on Feb. 11 until the course reopened on Nov. 23. “There are more shelf areas. The PGA Tour wanted more hole locations. The greens were softened and you have some flatter areas, but those transitions are more severe. That puts a real premium on shot-making like it was more in the earlier days. There’s more strategy than before. You can’t just bomb it off every tee, either, because you want to set up that second shot.”

The changes came in on budget, at $12.5 million, and on time, “and we did it in Hawaii,” Nakajima said proudly with a wide grin. “To shut the course down for that period of time showed a huge commitment from ownership, but I think the results speak for themselves. We did what we set out to do.”

Most of the cost of the project was due to material and the transportation of it, namely 33,000 tons of sand, brought in on three barges from Oahu. The majority of it was used as the new base for the greens, but elsewhere there were deposits onto some fairway in the landing areas while three new teeing grounds were added at Nos. 3, 9 and 10, bringing the par-73 course to 7,596 yards.

At the third hole, Johnson, who has won twice at Kapalua, in 2013 and 2018, was used to hitting wedge into the green. A tee 40 yards farther back establishes a landing area that is slightly uphill. As a result, Johnson needed a 6-iron to reach the putting surface, and that was in the face of a mere half-club wind. Thirty yards added to the short, uphill par-4 10th should yield a similar effect.

New landforms in several other landing areas will yield similar results. New fairways bunkers at Nos. 5 and 16 and the movement of other bunkers closer to the preferred lines of play also present additional challenge off the tee. The process of bringing back a more natural, or ragged, look to a number of other bunkers was begun but remains ongoing.

“I think the course will play largely the same, but with a few nuances to make it quite a bit more interesting,” said Crenshaw, who arrives in Maui on Thursday to watch the proceedings in person. “It’s a challenge taking your own design and modifying it, but we’re proud of the changes.”

An entire inventory of the alterations to each hole takes up two typewritten pages. In many subtle ways it’s a new course introduced along a familiar tract of land atop the west Maui mountains. In other ways, its original soul was restored. For instance, the introduction of the new grass will ensure a faster playing surface that will bring back movement of the ball along the ground, a feature that will surely help the resort player while adding yet more strategy and options for tournament golfers.

“I think the course has gotten its life back, gotten its energy back,” Rolfing said. “We’ve created a number of new shot values. I think we’re still going to have some great scoring out there, but they’re going to have to work harder to get it. I think it’s a better golf course. The work done was really spectacular.”

Xander Schauffele shot an 11-under 62 in the final round to win the 2019 Tournament of Champions. If someone can equal that course record this time around, they’ll have earned it.