New Year’s Notes From Kapalua: This Place Is Heavenly
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

View of the 11th green at The Plantation Course

As you know — especially if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook — I haven’t been shy about being in Kapalua to cover the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. With all the boastful updates I’ve posted, I’m sure many of you want to punch me in the face. Don’t blame ya, I would, too.

Thing is, fishing trips, whale watching and mingling over drinks at the lobby bar are part of the event’s culture. At least that’s what I’ve been told, and you know, I’m just trying to fit in and give you a glimpse of the experience.

I kicked off 2011 with a nasty hangover a round at The Plantation Course in tournament-like conditions. I pretty much had the course to myself. Steve Stricker had finished a practice round shortly before I teed off. Anthony Kim and some members of his entourage popped by the putting green to hit putts for like 15 minutes.

I ran into Miguel Rivera, who loops for Charley Hoffman, on the 6th hole. He was detailing the dimensions, slopes, breaks, every piece of grass, etc., on the super-grainy Bermuda greens. (They’re a pain if you don’t know them, but the grain runs toward the ocean.) I asked to look at his diagram/notes on the 7th, and if you weren’t already aware, you must have meticulous handwriting and architecture-like drawing skills to be a tour caddie. I realize this isn’t breaking news, but it was cool to ask him about the process. Miguel said he had some old pin sheets from previous years and there are usually four or five possible pin placements on the greens, so he rolls a few balls to each of them from various spots to check the lines. He’ll make notes if it’s faster or slower or more break (I wish I would have taken a picture).

I’ve played about seven rounds at Plantation and not that I play much anymore (more than 1/3 of rounds from the year were here), but by the second hole, I easily realized they were the grainiest greens I’d ever putted on, but that’s not saying much. So I wondered if they were the grainiest of any Tour stop. I texted a caddie to confirm my suspicions. The response? “By a mile. You’ll see more guys hit 30-foot putts 8 feet short or 10 feet long that week than the rest of the year.”

Oh, so it’s not much different than the rest of us! You may see a four-putt or two this week, along with peeved pros stomping off the greens in disbelief. I’m sure they’ll be spending extra time getting the roll and break down in the practice rounds.

Anyway, the course is in fantastic shape. Compared to when I played in October, it was playing firmer. Obviously, it’s been primed for the pros. The greens are rolling about a foot faster and the fairways were practically flawless (carts have been restricted to paths-only for a few weeks). There were PGA Tour officials setting up the course and marking the hazard lines (stay tuned for a Q&A with John Brendle from the Tour — he’s a legend!).

Here’s my “this place is awful” face from the 14th tee:

I mean, the weather is perfect and the course is in fantastic condition, but the view could use some work.

Seriously, though, it’s a really fun track. For instance, it’s very possible to drive the par-4 No. 12, but then come back facing the wind on the par-4 No. 13 and have a long iron into perhaps the toughest green on the course. On Saturday, when I was on No. 12, Gary Planos drove by and said, “I bet you can’t two-putt No. 13.” I didn’t. I hit too much club, and if you’re above the hole, forget about it.

Expect lots of drama on the two finishing holes — they’re both downhill and usually play downwind. If it’s blowing just right, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dustin Johnson reaches the par-5 18th in two with driver, wedge. It will be exciting on Sunday coming down the stretch if things are close. Remember Ernie-Tiger in 2000?

Off the course, the players venture on fishing trips and whale watching excursions, thanks to Walter, the genius behind Maui Jim. I had to check out both for, you know, the experience and to provide you all with the best coverage. On Sunday I went fishing. When we left the dock around 6am, it was pitch black, and we were all thinking, “God, this is early. It sounded like such a good idea at the time.” Well, five minutes into it, you realize it was indeed a fantastic decision. Watching the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean with the islands in the backdrop? Not bad.

We didn’t catch any fish, just a buzz. Maybe one of the players will have better luck. It was well worth the early wake-up call for the experience. After all, how often can you practically reach out and touch a whale? I took this from my phone on Sunday:

What else? Every player except one has arrived. Stuart Appleby, a three-time champion of this event, is scheduled to grace us with his presence sometime today. Francesco Molinari traversed half the world to get to Maui. Flying from Turin, Italy, he notched the most frequent flier miles of all the players. Which makes total sense why he looked half-asleep when he checked in on Sunday night. Just minutes later, Graeme McDowell followed, but appeared less bleary. He didn’t get his Irish on at the bar, though.

Basically, life really sucks here, and by sucks, I mean just the opposite. I’ve got a(nother) cool hole-in-one story to share coming up next.

In the meantime, stay warm, folks. I heard it snowed recently in Vegas and Phoenix. Honestly, weather?

View from No. 1 tee at Kapalua's Plantation Course

Happy 2011! It’s going to be a great year.