The Plantation Course at Kapalua on the Hawaiian Island of Maui will be a far different golf course when it hosts the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions this week.
Not that most people will notice.
“Unless you’re a Kapalua nerd, you won’t notice much change on a TV screen” says Bill Coore, who laid out and built the course with design partner Ben Crenshaw back in the early 1990s. “Tour players are another matter. If they’ve played it before, they’ll notice some differences.”
Coore and Crenshaw led the reconstruction of the course in May through November of 2019 to recapture playing qualities that had been eroded over the decades. Coore calls it a “rejuvenation…a more polished version of what’s been there.”
Also involved in the process were officials from Troon Golf, which manages the resort, PGA Tour officials, golf architect Steve Wenzloff, representing PGA Tour Design Services, and Mark Rolfing, golf professional and television commentator who’s been a Kapalua since its beginning and is credited for persuading the PGA Tour to first come to Kapalua.
One major concern of all involved was the fairway turf, which had lost its spring long ago.
“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,” says Coore. “The course had gotten so soft that it was easy pickin’s for Tour players and really long for resort players.”
The culprit was the popularity of the resort course. It was open and busy year-round, some years doing over 50,000 rounds. Management found it difficult to shut the course down to verticut, aerify or topdress the fairways. Thatch buildup was extensive in the 328 Bermuda fairways, acting as a sponge for golf balls.
So last summer the 100 acres of fairway at Kapalua Plantation were stripped and regrassed, this time with Celebration Bermudagrass, which has dense growth and can be mowed a bit tighter.
“We think this turf will recapture the original design intent,” Coore says. “The idea at Kapalua always was to land a shot 60 yards short of a green and let it roll on. In recent years, a ball landing 20 yards short of a green would just stop. It will play differently this year. Players will be able to use sideslopes to feed shots to a flag. And drives will roll out farther, sometimes closer to trouble.”
The Plantation’s greens were also a concern. They had shrunk over the last 29 years, and as green speeds increased, certain hole locations became unusable. “There’s no question our greens needed a little more calming to offer some more pin positions,” Crenshaw says.
So the Coore-Crenshaw team, which included associates Dave Axland and Jimbo Wright, reconstructed every green, expanding them back to their original square footage, using old irrigation heads and subsurface greens mix as guides. The expansions reclaimed some original hole locations close to the edges, meant for tournament play, as well as some friendly spots for resort golfers, such as the front right portion on 18. The slopes in ten greens were softened, the sixth, 10th, 13th and 18th in particular, to recapture previously unusable pin placements. A championship pin position on a front right plateau of the seventh green, for example, will be used for tournament play for the first time in 20 years.
The putting surfaces were then sprigged with TifEagle Bermuda, the same strain of grass that had been on them for the past 10 years. Kapalua’s management felt the turfgrass itself was reliable and saw no need to change it.
New back tees were installed on the third, seventh, ninth and tenth holes, so the course will likely measure 50 or 60 yards longer than the 7,518 yards par 73 listed on the Sentry TOC scorecard.
Most of the Plantation’s bunkers had lost their individual character after years of hand-edging, so jagged lines originally installed by Coore and Crenshaw had become curves and crescents. All 93 bunkers were rebuilt from the floor up, using the Capillary Concrete brand of bunker liner, which incorporates a layer of gravel coated with a polymer for drainage. Jeff Bradley, Coore and Crenshaw’s longtime bunker expert, then shaped the edges to give them random movement. To complete the look, patches of guinea grass were planted along the top and outer edges of many traps.
In the process, a few bunkers were relocated, including one on the par-5 15th and one on the par-4 16th (at the far end of the diagonal string of bunkers that divides the fairway in two). The most controversial change will likely be the new bunker on the fifth, a fishhook-shaped reachable par 5 with a deep ravine along its right. With an enormously wide landing area that kicks left to right, tour players routinely aimed for the left edge, knowing their drives would end up in the middle of the fairway. From there, it was a 5-iron over a corner of the canyon into the green. In 2019, no player eagled the hole, but 59 per cent of the field birdied it over the four rounds.
Coore was in the gallery during the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions, standing along the fifth fairway for a considerable amount of time.
“Everybody hit it up the left side,” Coore said. “Nobody challenged the ravine on the right side off the tee. After the tournament, I walked out to the fairway and found almost all the divots were in one big area on the left center of the fairway.”
He marked the spot and the next morning, he went out with Ben, who agreed the tee shot on five had become “mindless.” They discussed placing a bunker in the center of the patch of divots, to force players to position their drives. Crenshaw suggested that some may choose to aim at the bunker and fade it into the right side of the fairway, which would still be some 40 yards wide, but edged by that ravine. They flagged out the proposed bunker.
Soon, Rolfing, Wenzloff and tour officials inspected it. Tour players don’t like bunkers in the center of a fairway, they said. Especially a bunker so deep that they can only pitch out sideways.
So Coore and Crenshaw agreed to make it a shallow bunker, knee deep at its deepest, so players would still have a chance to escape with a five iron and reach the green.
The bunker was built, with a face of sand just high enough to be seen from the tee. It will be a noticeable change to the 2020 Sentry. Afterwards, Coore and Crenshaw plan to meet with the others to access its value and decide whether to keep it or fill it in.