A refined Kapalua presents different test to start new year

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Lush green grass, Pacific blue horizon.

That much about the Plantation Course at Kapalua hasn’t changed for the 34 winners on the PGA Tour last year who have assembled for the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Fifteen players are competing for the first time and won’t notice the USD12.5 million refinement project by designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw.

Dustin Johnson did.

“It’s definitely a little harder,” said Johnson, who has been playing every morning as the sun climbs over the horizon and is done with 18 holes before the breakfast buffet has been cleared. “The greens are firmer because they’re new. The greens are firm and the fairways are soft. I think it will play more difficult.”

What really got his attention was the third hole, which for 10 years has been a driver and a wedge. With a new tee some 30 yards farther back, and facing a stiff trade win, Johnson blasted driver and reached for a 6-iron.

“I knew it was longer and that I’d have longer in,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think I’d have that far. It’s a difficult green with wedge to get it close. With a 6-iron, it’s not that much fun.”

This refinement was not all about length.

The Plantation Course had grown old enough that it lost its speed from so much thatch in the grass. The idea was for this course to play fast. That would make it more difficult for elite players to control their shots, and make it easier for resort guests who found the course too long because the ball wasn’t rolling as far as it once did.

The entire course was grassed with a new strain called ‘Celebration Bermuda’. The greens were redone with TifEagle Bermuda, with some ridges and plateaus added to create more hole locations and restore some shot-making value. Missing on the wrong spot of certain greens becomes more penal.

File photo shows Dustin Johnson at the fourth fairway during the third round of the Tournament of Champions golf event at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii on January 7, 2017. The course has gone through a refinement to prepare for the winners-only event on the PGA Tour that starts today. PHOTO: AP

“Instead of having one gradual slope, now it’s kind of turned into shelf,” Justin Thomas said. “And you have to maybe focus a little bit more on being on the correct side of the shelf, or the correct side of the hole.”

The course re-opened two months ago. The first big test is the Tournament of Champions.

Because the grass is new, and with ample rain over the last month, the fairways remain relatively soft. That should change over time, but there have been enough examples during practice to let players know what to expect.

“If it firms up, it’s going to be awesome,” said Kevin Kisner, who needs some roll to play a 7,596-yard course at par 73.

All the bunkers were rebuilt with drainage. Some were moved to tighten the landing area, such as on the 16th and most noticeably on the par-5 fifth.

It appears to be in the middle of the fairway, but it narrows the landing area.

For now, that might not be an issue because the fairway is soft enough it’s hard for anyone to reach it. The biggest change, at least for the players who have previously played this winners-only event, are the sharpened slopes on some of the greens and the length, mainly on number three, four, nine and 10.

“Another one they renovated they didn’t make shorter. I’ve yet to see that,” Kisner said with a grin.

Either way, it’s the hardest event on the PGA Tour to play — winning is the only criteria. It’s on the west end of Maui with endless views of the Pacific and the occasional splash of a humpback whale. There’s no cut. Last place gets USD64,000.

“You never complain about being in Kapalua,” Kisner said.