While August's tragic wildfires tested the island's resiliency, the PGA Tour's 2024 season-opening course will shine the spotlight on the Hawaiian island's recovery
Early August offered Max Novena quite a perspective on balancing excitement and turmoil in a tense 48-hour window in Lahaina, located on the Maui, Hawaii, island.
The second-year executive director for The Sentry awoke on Monday, Aug. 7 to the PGA Tour news that his tournament, to be held at Kapalua Golf and Tennis' Plantation Course, Jan. 4-7, would open the newly reconfigured calendar-year schedule for 2024. He was also bolstered by the fact that the tournament would feature an expanded field — winners from the previous calendar year and the top 50 from the 2022-23 FedEx Cup standings — as a signature event. It is also the first calendar-year schedule on Tour since 2012.
“An incredible day for the PGA Tour and we were very excited to get things rolling,” Novena says.
As daybreak came on Tuesday, Aug. 8, though, Novena had little indication that things were going awry. The power was out, so no WiFi and questionable cellular service. Novena’s 9-year-old son Roark had soccer practice about an hour away near Wailuku in the afternoon, and the drive lasted a long two hours. The wind was howling, power lines were down in places and pedestrians were milling about.
“We get done with the soccer practice and are trying to get back to West Maui,” Novena recalls. “The road was closed, so we tried to go the back way, but no luck. Updates on fires started to trickle in. Hundreds of cars were cued up waiting on the road, so we just slept in our car.”
Unable to reach his wife Nicole, the Novena men kept close tabs on what they could hear through word of mouth as cell service was fading quickly. By Wednesday night, they were able to find a back road home to reconnect with Nicole and learn of the devastating wildfire that had torched Lahaina, the cultural epicenter of Maui. The fire eventually killed at least 97 residents, destroyed approximately 2,200 buildings and caused an estimated $6 billion in damage — a mere 10 miles from the Novena’s West Maui home.
Michael Castillo, Kapalua’s head golf professional, said “109 restaurants here are dust and numerous hotels that survived aren’t operating as hotels right now.” The disaster drew international attention to an area highly touted for its beauty and Hawaiian spirit.
“We were very, very lucky and very sad at the same time,” Novena says. “Most of my colleagues woke up on Wednesday and they didn’t know what happened. They woke up thinking it was the first day of school. It seemed like the rest of the world knew what was going on with the fires, but the people in West Maui had little information. We were disconnected.”
The destruction became real when a member of the four-person tournament staff lost her home, and friends and relatives sought shelter with each other. Kapalua Resort, a publicly accessible 36-hole resort course managed by Troon, reported that one-third of its 149 employees lost their homes or belongings in the fire. Neither the Plantation or Bay courses were damaged in an area 16 miles from Lahaina and all employees were back on the job by September.
Both courses closed to support the recovery efforts, with the Bay Course reopening Sept. 20 and the Plantation Course resuming play on Oct. 18. A discounted green fee rate was offered during October for those locals affected — and with better than expected participation. A recent Lahaina junior golf event at Kapalua restored some competitive juices for the young golfers and families. The thinking is that a return to normalcy with golf will be therapeutic for residents, along with a trickling of tourists, just more than 11 weeks since the fire. On Nov. 1, the majority of West Maui will reopen to tourism.
“As we continue the recovery process, we are reopening our two golf courses for Kamaʻaina (local residents) on island and for those planning their return to Maui,” said Alex Nakajima, Kapalua Golf & Tennis general manager, in a Sept. 19 press release. “As millions discovered during the pandemic, a round of golf can be good medicine for the mind, body and soul.”
Kapalua quickly found vacant rooms throughout the resort to accommodate those who had lost homes as a part of the recovery transition, also using other hotel and condo availability and temporary housing to take in those in need. Showers, food service, food drives and access to power were provided to community members affected by the fires with the bulk of rebuilding infrastructure — for residents and workers who need accommodations for construction work — still uncertain. Removing toxic waste is also still a huge issue.
PGA Tour players with Hawaiian ties stepped in immediately. Collin Morikawa, whose paternal grandparents were born and raised in Maui, donated $1,000 for every birdie he made during the 2023 FedEx Cup Playoffs to Maui United Way and World Central Kitchen. FedEx is among the corporations and individuals who have pledged to match Morikawa’s total donation. Xander Schauffele announced that his foundation, the Xander Schauffele Family Foundation, along with Hawaiian Host Group, would match donation dollars up to a total of $400,000.
Sentry made a $250,000 donation for immediate support efforts, which the PGA Tour matched. The Troon Cares Associate Relief Fund remains a source to aid all Troon associates facing significant financial hardship, including from the Maui fires and those affected by other catastrophic events or hardships.
Hawaii-based Tour partners Sony, Mitsubishi Electric and Hawaii Tourism Authority have added “significant support,” according to a PGA Tour spokesperson.
“There’s still the biggest part — the uncertainty and no quick solution,” says Castillo, the head professional since 2019. “Thousands of residents still have to pay their mortgage for homes they may have lost, pay for a rental, all with no job. From a spiritual standpoint, many people have to figure out if they want to move back to a place where this tragedy took place. We are experiencing baby steps of trying to get what happened as far behind us as we can.”
That puts the golf tournament even more in the spotlight and live coverage on Golf Channel and NBC will give the Maui recovery push maximum exposure.
NBC broadcaster Mark Rolfing, a longtime Maui resident, told Golf Channel that the tournament “will be something like you’ve never seen before. It creates the single biggest platform we have going forward.”
“We recognize the moment and responsibilities we have,” Novena says. “We have thought a lot about the look of the tournament and want to make sure we honor Maui and Lahaina and the first responders. It’s a new beginning for many, both in golf and here in Maui.”