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Kauai Golf: Out of the jungle

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PRINCEVILLE, Hawaii -- Hawaii visitors usually choose Kauai for its peaceful and friendly vibe. But over the last decade, the island's golf scene has resembled an arms race. One after another, the best courses all closed to upgrade their layouts.

In certain cases, such as Poipu Bay and nearby Kiahuna Golf Club, the project was as simple as reseeding greens to paspalum. In the case of Makai Golf Club, Kauai Lagoons Golf Club and, most recently, the Prince Golf Course, the changes were drastic.

The island even revealed a brand new golf course, the Tom Weiskopf-designed Kukui'ula, a private golf course and community located on the south shore.

But when the Prince Course reopened on March 1 after a yearlong renovation, at long last, it marked the closing of the island's renovation era, and Kauai is finally ready to show off its A-game once again.

A new era for Kauai golf

There are just 10 golf courses on Kauai, fourth most among the Hawaiian Islands, but as many as six of them are fixtures in Hawaii's Top 20.

The golf scene can make a case as the best pound-for-pound golf island in Hawaii, but in recent years, golfers planning a Hawaii golf trip never quite knew what was exactly the current status of Kauai's courses. Uncertainty here meant some golfers probably steered towards Maui, Big Island or Oahu, where the product was more predictable.

Courses particularly felt the impact in 2011, when arguably the most high-profile of Kauai's courses, the Prince Course, closed for most of the year to undergo major renovations. The reopen date was pushed back several times as ownership decided to shift the project from what was initially conceived as a simple bunker rebuilding project into a major transformation.

During a visit in the fall just before the holiday peak season, it was evident that the rest of the golf courses on Kauai were eager for the Prince to reopen its doors.

'A healthy Prince is great for all of us on the island,' said Scott Ashworth, director of golf at Kauai Lagoons Golf Club. 'It helps bring more golfers back to the island.'

Economic downturn brings an opportunity to renovate

Makai Golf Club at St. Regis

Makai Golf Club at St. Regis Princeville

While traffic to the island was light in 2008-2010 as a result of the economic downturn, accompanying hotels upgraded their product along with the golf courses.

The Marriott Kauai Lagoons upgraded all their guest rooms with new bedding and electronics, as did the Grand Hyatt beside Poipu Bay. Of all the hotels on Kauai, the Princeville Resort underwent the most dramatic upgrade. The exiting resort was transformed into a St. Regis brand, the highest-end brand of the Starwood Hotels group.

Today, it's unmistakably the island's most luxurious stay-and-play. The property recently had the chance to show off its fresh, new guest rooms, pool area and marvelous beach in the Oscar award-winning film 'The Descendants,' starring George Clooney.

While these properties all closed during the economic downturn to reinvest, the Prince Course, which debuted in 1990 as one of the most ambitious golf developments in Hawaii's modern era, was beginning to show its age. Next door, Makai Golf Club -- now sporting firm, fast playing conditions, sparkling white sand bunkers and the addition of luxury management company Troon Golf -- revealed just how much the Prince was overdue for a facelift.

Finally opened on March 1, 2012, the Prince now sports a brand-new clubhouse, wider playing corridors, larger, rebuilt and reseeded greens, and, in all likelihood, happier golfers on the North Shore.

Kauai's final piece 

Kauai Lagoons

Kauai Lagoons Golf Club's Kiele Mauka (toward the mountain) nine. 

Makai Golf Club and Poipu Bay have their oceanfront holes (so does Wailua, the island's municipal course in Lihue). But the longest continuous stretch of ocean holes in all of Hawaii belongs to Kauai Lagoons Golf Club.

The golf club and resort's status has been anything but clear recently. For several years, the course was a victim of the tumultuous real estate market in Kauai and led to the closure and reopening of particular nines that had the once 36-hole club in a perpetual state of flux.

The picture is clearer now. In 2010, Kauai Lagoons finally reopened the oceanfront back nine holes in its entirety, which included some brand new holes designed by the original designer, Jack Nicklaus, plus new TifEagle bermuda greens.

Though the return of the now-named 'Kiele Moana' nine is welcomed, there is one little spot missing its new lipstick. The front nine will eventually close in order to upgrade to the new turf and sand consistent with the Kiele Moana nine. At that point, the third nine will substitute for the front side.

But now, for the first time in about seven years, Kauai's finest golf experiences are all back and better than ever. Most importantly, they're here to stay.

'Now, with all of the refurbishments that have been completed at our courses and resorts over the last couple years,' said TJ Baggett, the new general manager at the Prince Course, 'visitors have the opportunity to come back and see the 'new' Kauai.

'We're confident they will be blown away by the enhancements that have been made.'