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Play Away: Hawaii's Finished Symphonies

As tragedies go, the unfinished symphony is right up there. And far too common. Just ask Robin Nelson, whose name was seemingly being called by the Big Starter in the Sky to join the unfortunate foursome of Beethoven, Mahler, Schubert and Mendelssohn—each of whom left behind tantalizing but incomplete works.

Because when Nelson, who has created forty-nine courses worldwide, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, two of his Hawaii creations remained unfinished business. By1992, he'd completed ten holes at Puakea Golf Course on the island of Kauai when Grove Farm, a onetime sugar-plantation company that owned the course, ran out of money to finish it. And though all eighteen holes had been completed eight years ago at Royal Kunia Country Club on Oahu, the Honolulu city council held up the opening when the Japanese developer went bankrupt and came up short on a promised $25 million "impact fee."

But then, a decade later, Nelson got a mulligan. Three, in fact. First, he beat the cancer, getting a clean bill of health. Then in April 2003, after nearly ten years of waiting and with new city-council membership in place, Royal Kunia opened. Finally, this past July, two and a half years after AOL founder Steve Case bought Grove Farm and infused it with fresh capital, Nelson unveiled Puakea's full eighteen.

Both courses do indeed play like symphonies, artistic blends of adagio, intermezzo and crescendo with, to mix the musical metaphor, grand operatic stage design. Puakea, adjacent to the Jurassic Park movie set at the foot of Mount Ha'upu, is mostly flat but takes fine advantage of natural streams and ravines. Royal Kunia plays across rolling hills, and every hole offers fabulous views from Diamond Head to Pearl Harbor to the nearby Waianae Range. At one time the PGA Tour considered hosting the Sony Open at Royal Kunia and making it part of a new thirty-six-hole TPC complex. It's that good. Puakea is even better.

"It was tough because I felt that we had produced the best public golf facilities on both islands," says Nelson, who has relocated his office from Honolulu to the San Francisco area. "In the case of Royal Kunia it was especially tough, because neither the public nor the media was allowed to play. It just sat there. At Puakea, the sentiment was always, 'When this course is finished, it will be something special.' Now that we're completed, I defy anyone to find a better or more playable course in Hawaii." Bravo, maestro, bravo.

Puakea Golf Course, Greens Fees: $95-$125. Tee Times: 866-773-5554 or visit puakeagolf.com. Royal Kunia Country Club, Greens Fees: $125-$135. Tee Times: 808-688-9222.

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