The view from the 18th fairway of the Plantation Course at Kapalua.
After a week of fun in the sun, celebrating New Year’s in the Aloha State and competing in a 30-man, no-cut, $5.7 million tournament for four days, why wouldn’t the week in paradise end with one of the most exciting, and yes, one of the best holes on the PGA Tour.
The 18th hole at the Plantation Course at Kapalua will not ever make its way onto a list of classic finishing holes, but there’s plenty of thrills and spills to be had on this 663-yard, par five.
Imagine standing on the top of a mountain, looking down a ski slope to a fairway that appears to be a mile wide. Well off in the distance, you can almost make out the shape of a green that’s only reachable with a pair of really good shots.
It’s not a classic finishing hole in the mold of the18th at the Stadium Course at the TPC at Sawgrass or the 18th at Augusta National or Pebble Beach. More than any of those holes, the 18th at Kapalua depends a lot on weather and conditions to make it difficult.
With winds that are normally helpful, the guy with the big stick in his hand has the ability to hammer away and get the ball well down toward the bottom of the hill. How far down the hill? Well, here’s a stat for you: Since 2003, this hole has produced 92 tee shots of 400 yards or more.
You won’t find many of the great finishing holes on which conditions allow players to create that kind of distance. But that’s what makes it a perfect fit here. The tournament is a celebration of the return of golf, a kickoff to the new season, in a place where fun times are had, sometimes even beyond the realm of belief.
Enter Bubba Watson.
In 2010, his first appearance in the event, Watson launched a drive of 350 yards down the hill in the first round.
He did so even though the winds were down during the first two days that year. Watson followed that up pulling driver again, and facing 305 yards to the green, ripped a shot that sliced from right to left, landing just short of the green and rolling to just about 10 feet of the cup. He made an eagle on that hole.
Watson was asked after that round about the unusual choice of hitting driver off the fairway.
"I've hit it successful a lot of times. I'm used to it. Just like any other club, I'm used to it," said Watson, who birdied the hole with another driver-driver combo the next day. "That didn't scare me. That's not the part that scares me because I've done it so many times, I'm used to it. Having to make putts, that's the hard part about golf." (via Matthew Carroll of The Maui News)
For mere mortals, guys who don’t routinely hit drivers 305 yards off the fairway, most times getting the ball into the fairway means the second shot is hit off a downhill lie. The option is there to take dead aim at the green, requiring a long carry over a wild-looking gorge.
Most take advantage of the sweeping slope that works right-to-left toward the green, allowing the shot to bounce toward the green. The wind comes into play most times as well, providing a big boost to approach shots.
With the weather issues that have plagued the opening of the PGA Tour this week, whatever golf played will definitely be affected on the closing hole. In the same 2010 event that Watson hit the green in two, another player making his Tournament of Champions debut was dismayed by how conditions had changed how the 18th was playing.
"People told me if you hit it down the right you get, like, an extra 30 to 40 yards. I hit four great tee shots down the right and they don't seem to be going anywhere," he said. Rains slowed down the slopes, and the winds weren’t helping, either.
But that’s part of the appeal of the hole. It’s an unconventional hole, far from classic, but the unconventional nature of it is why it belongs on that short list of the best courses on the PGA Tour.
“My favorite hole (on the Plantation Course) is the 663-yard, par-five 18th, which is one of the best finishing holes on Tour,” says Mark Rolfing, NBC golf commentator and spokesman for Golf Hawaii.