The island of Lanai, nestled in a blue crescent of the Pacific formed by the arc of Molokai, Maui, and Kahoolawe, is a paradise for golfers and honeymooners. Thus, it was with great anticipation that my wife and I boarded a twin-prop flight in Honolulu yesterday morning on a journey to celebrate our wedding anniversary . . . and to pay homage to the 119th anniversary of a seminal event in U.S. golfing history-- the opening of the first American golf course in 1889, by John T. Reid in Yonkers, New York.
Our 20 minute puddle jump was uneventful, save for the jarring landing that reminded us of the old pilot's axiom: a good landing is simply one you can walk away from. We alighted from the aircraft and were immersed in the cool, morning air, chilled by the altitude that surprises so many visitors who forget that Hawaii is both tropical and mountainous. With each step the stress of our hectic lives evaporated in the breeze, slowing our rhythm into harmony with the environment.
Lanai (pronounced Lah-nigh-ee) has no traffic lights. It's all of 18 by 13 miles in size, has more pine trees than palms, and boasts a population of only 3,000. Ancient Hawaiian legend held that Lanai was once an evil place, overrun with demons. By the middle of the 20th century, however, it was overrun with pineapples, generating 75% of the world's crop at the high point of production. But the industry soured in the late 1980's, leaving the local economy with little choice but to reinvent itself.
Out went the fruit and in came the dough, in the form of luxurious sister resorts-- the prototypically tropical Manele Bay Hotel and the upcountry Lodge at Koele, replete with expansive gardens, manicured croquet lawns, a great room with fireplace, horses, pool room, and a polished wood library boasting a million dollar view that you gaze onto from overstuffed chairs so soft that you're cradled as if in a cocoon.
The island's golf courses are no less sublime.
The Challenge at Manele Bay is a Jack Nicklaus designed links course that uses the Pacific Ocean as a water hazard on three of its holes. Be prepared to lose your balls here, but should that be your fate you'll be more than compensated with views of spinner dolphins leaping and twirling for your entertainment in Hulopo'e Bay, far below the sea cliffs from which you launched your errant shots.
In exquisite contrast, The Experience at Koele is a Greg Norman designed course that begins at an elevation of 2,000 feet. Here you enter a realm of lush mountain foliage, wooded slopes, and sweeping ocean views of Maui and Molokai. It's heaven on earth, as is The Challenge, and I'd played them both before this visit.
But a golfing pilgrimage of the magnitude my wife and I were undertaking calls for something truly special. So we eschewed the merely extraordinary and opted for the ultimate, supreme, and unique test of skill and nerve-- the Executive Putting Course at Koele.
Laid out over a monstrous par-51, 18-hole course measuring 1,671 feet in length, The Conundrum, as we dubbed it, undulates like a belly dancer, taunting all comers with wicked dog legs, impossible par-2's, water hazards, sand traps, and roaming wild turkeys, none of whom were visible the day we played, perhaps victims of Mike Tyson's latest visit.
My wife is not a golfer, but is, as she likes to say, "of golf," having been raised in a home on Golf House Road, right across the street from the fabled Merion Golf Club in Haverford, PA. I, on the other hand, am a hack-with-the-yips who hadn't picked up a club in six years. We were both sorely in need of guidance before taking on The Conundrum.
There was only one solution: call the Gator.
The Gator, shorthand for his more formal handle, RU Gator, is a caddy to the stars in western New Jersey and a prolific, heavily read blogger on the CNN/SI website, FanNation (http://www.fannation.com/). The Gator never publicizes his fees because if you've got to ask, you can't afford him. We were fortunate enough to have placed him on retainer, so when we called for putting advice, he turned on the meter and held forth.
"Rule #1," he belted out in his delightful Joisey accent. "Speed is more important than line."
"Rule #2. If the ball doesn't make it to the hole, it doesn't go in."
"Rule #3. Never miss short. No decent pro putter ever misses short."
"Aren't those essentially all the same tips, Gator?" I asked timidly.
"Hey, you're in Hawaii and I just finished picking up dog s**t here in 37 degree weather. How's that for juxtaposition?" he replied, employing the Socratic method that has made him legendary up and down the eastern seaboard.
"I understand, sensei," I said. "But we're both left-handed. Any special instructions for southpaws?"
"Oh, God. Yeah, left-handers are like people who eat organic food all the time and live in Denver. There are no answers. It's all bulls**t. Have a good time."
As always with the Gator, the lessons were deep and hard-earned.
"And what about drinking? What's the winning etiquette?" I queried, mindful that the meter was running and our tee time was rapidly approaching.
"No moderation whatsoever," he roared, relieving our guilt for the bottle of wine we'd consumed the night before at dinner.
Imbued with the Gator's juju we took on The Conundrum, a few sheets to the wind, free of any need to seek answers, mindful of only our pace. And lo if this magic wasn't heaven sent, as I watched my wife drain a trecherous, curling putt for a birdie on the ignominious 141 foot par-4 7th hole, her stroke as smooth as silk. And as the round progressed, the Gator's mantra whispered in the breeze, quelling my yips and setting my stroke free. I turned Mulligan Corner, bent an ear to the east, and parred six of the nine holes on the back side.
We walked off the 18th green arm in arm, one with each other and the rhythm of the course we'd both taken and played, luxuriating in the knowledge that when you play to win you never come up short.