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Bigger is Better

Why the Big Island has the best golfing in Hawaii

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The Big Island of Hawaii measures just over 4,000 square miles, more than twice the size of the other major Hawaiian Islands combined. Until now it's been a big disappointment to me from the standpoint of golf. I've always preferred the verdancy of Lanai and Kauai to the black lava-rock moonscape that is the Kohala Coast, site of the major golf resorts on the Big Island. Moreover, I wasn't taken by the coast's most famous course—the South Course at Mauna Lani, site of the annual Senior Skins Game—when I played it on my first visit to the Big Island. My view might have been moderated had I had a chance to play the famed Robert Trent Jones course at Mauna Kea—the Pine Valley of the Pacific some call it—but both the hotel and course closed for an 18-month renovation on the very day I arrived in July of 1994.

Two things made me return to the Big Island five years later—the Nicklaus course at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai (opened in 1996) and a golf pal's rave review of the Big Island as a family golf destination. (The most frequent question I've been asked by readers of this column in the past six years is where to take their children for a memorable golf holiday.) My friends cooed about the variety of golf experiences—four new courses had opened since I'd been there, and half a dozen more are in the planning stages—while singing the praises of the island's natural beauty. When my son Jack, nine, heard that the Big Island is home to an active volcano, Kilauea, and my daughter Maggie, 10, found out that she could possibly swim with a dolphin at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, our summer vacation plans were as fixed as those petroglyphs you find all over the Kohala Coast etched into lava rock. (See How the Kids Fared for my report on how kid-friendly the various resorts I visited were.)

Mauna Kea

When Mauna Kea Golf Course opened in 1964 it was a first. No one had ever built a course on 5,000-year-old lava rock. By pulverizing the existing lava base and covering it with several feet of crushed coral, sand, and topsoil taken from nearby mountain slopes, Jones was able to route the course to take brilliant advantage of the ever-shifting island winds. Mauna Kea was hailed a masterpiece almost from the day it opened. Jones himself describes it as being among his three best designs.

From the black tees, Mauna Kea plays 7,114 yards; it has a slope rating of 143, which puts it among the toughest courses in the world in this regard. The basis of Jones' design philosophies—"risk-reward" and "hard par, easy bogey"—perhaps had its fullest tropical flowering at Mauna Kea, as I was reminded somewhat painfully on the 383-yard par-four first hole—supposedly the easiest—when I drilled my ball through the embarrassingly generous dogleg fairway into a down-slope of thick Bermuda rough. That left me with a difficult sidehill lie and a 160-yard uphill approach shot dead into the frisky trade wind to an elevated green protected left and right by large bristling white bunkers. Aloha, bogey, the hole might as well have been whispering. But somehow I clipped a decent six-iron out of the wiry rough, landed my ball on the front of the green, and coaxed a 20-footer home in two for par. When I lifted my ball out of the cup I noticed a maintenance worker sitting on his mowing rig, grinning at me. "You were very fortunate to make par from where you were, my friend," he said. I agreed and asked if he had any advice for a first-timer at Mauna Kea. "Play an extra club, and always hit from the short grass." He laughed like an amused Methune, Polynesia's equivalent of an Irish leprechaun.

The second hole summarizes almost every aspect of Jones' design philosophy. It plays just 394 yards, but steeply downhill with a dogleg to the left before it angles sharply back uphill to the elevated, strongly bunkered putting surface. It's a brilliant, brutal, psychological hole because all of the potential dangers are visible—among them, a large tree and directional bunker on the left, 230 yards out. The temptation is to go for the throat of grass just below the green, but remembering my narrow escape on number one, I realized that was exactly what Jones knew I would consider doing. Instead, I hit a three-iron to the very heart of the dogleg. From there I wedged my ball to the putting surface and was about to putt when a cart rolled up and John Hoffee, a club member and my partner for the day, joined me. Mauna Kea is Hoffee's favorite golf course in all the world, and he proved it with his detailed comments.

"One thing you really must do, due to the maturity of the Bermuda greens here," he pointed out to me, "is always read the grain, which is a very prominent factor at Mauna Kea. Going against the grain can be very difficult. Going with it can often be even more difficult—putts are sometimes twice as fast. I've played all over the place and never seen a place where the grain means more to a putt."

I promptly learned this, rapping a putt against the grain that checked up four feet shy of the cup. My par attempt leaked by, leaving a tap-in for a disappointing bogey.

"And now you're ready for some fun," Hoffee quipped, "for these holes were just the warmup."

The par-three third at Mauna Kea is probably the most photographed signature hole this side of Pebble Beach. It plays 210 yards over a churning ocean inlet and lava shore to a reassuringly large green. Twenty yards behind the black tee, almost obscured by the tropical bush, is another tee, the one Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player posed on when they filmed Big Three Golf here shortly after the course opened. The story goes that when it came time to hit balls on camera, Player balked, fearing he couldn't carry the inlet.

Back on the black tees, I suddenly knew why. Hoffee and I had 207 yards to the front edge of the putting surface, all carry, against a stiff trade wind. I pulled out a three-iron, and then put it back for a three-wood. Hoffee pulled out a one-iron and motioned for me to follow him. We walked to the edge of the tee, and he pointed into the gorgeous aquamarine water churning below, where a large, magnificent sea turtle lolled in the currents.

"He comes here just about every day to feed," Hoffee mused. "What a life, eh?" Hoffee, an Ohio native who made a fortune in the pharmaceutical business before venturing into golf, explained that's exactly what he'd found at Mauna Kea—peace, rare beauty, and a golf course that was never the same when he played it. "Mauna Kea," as he put it, "is a true connoisseur's golf course."

I wish I'd had the turtle's calm, but this hole simply unnerved me. With a pinched swing I cut my three-wood safely over the water, landing just shy of the huge directional bunker on the right, then chipped up for bogey. Turning directly into the trade wind, I followed with a pair of double bogeys at four and five. By the sixth tee I'd spent my entire USGA handicap. Feeling my pain, Hoffee assured me Mauna Kea almost always reduces first-timers to psychological rubble—at which point I relaxed and finally parred a hole.

It's frequently said that Mauna Kea is home to the strongest set of par-threes in golf—numbers seven (204 yards) and 11 (247 yards). Thanks to a good recovery pitch I parred the former, and after doing the same at the long and difficult 10th, we arrived at the hilltop tee of the magnificent 11th, looking straight down the hill at the green.

Hoffee and I had been joined for the home nine by Jeremy Sosner, the resort's director of marketing, who pointed out that the wind had switched around almost 180 degrees from a trade wind to what locals call a Kona wind, a stiff breeze that blows off the water. Hoffee calculated it would take a drive of at least 250 yards to reach the putting surface, and right on cue Sosner pointed out that just that week the hole had been selected as one of the "the toughest holes in the world" by The Golfer. Severe slopes right and left meant shots that were too long were instant disaster. Short was the only option.

For the first time in my life I intentionally played a par-three short, trusting that my wedge game would save me. Sosner slashed his teeball into the jungle right; Hoffee just missed the green to the left. I used a sand wedge, miraculously chipped within three inches of the cup, and tapped in for a blessed par. I was two for two on one of golf's greatest challenges.

I parred four of the five holes going home, including the supposedly easy par-three 15th—with its narrow green opening pincered between figure-eight bunkers—and the equally difficult 18th, a long, downhill, par-four that doglegs toward a steeply contoured green. And though that wasn't enough to give me a respectable score (83), it did give me a shred of dignity to take away from such an extraordinarily demanding golf course. Later that evening, replaying the course in my head over a cocktail in the lovely open-air lobby of the neighboring and sister Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, I realized that I had played only one other course where every shot held such strategic value: Pine Valley.

Hapuna Golf Course

"Hapuna" means "springs of life" in Hawaiian, and from the first hole this course, an Ed Seay/Arnold Palmer design, is refreshingly different than most Big Island tracks. It has an unmistakably linksy feel as it wanders up the volcanic slopes through acres of red and black lava outcrops, scrub bush, and waving fountain grass. Moreover, the greens are much easier to play than those at Mauna Kea because they lack grain as they're planted with a newer, smoother variety of Bermuda grass.

I played this beautifully conditioned course early in the morning with a club member, Jim Dollens, when neither the trade nor Kona winds had yet begun to blow, parring four of the first five holes. I remembered what Ed Seay had told me recently about his work at Hapuna—that like a true linksland in Scotland or Ireland the course was vulnerable only when the winds were slack. "It can play sweet as a Georgia peach one minute and take a bite outta your butt the next when the wind howls," Ed drawled. (Dollens suggested judging the velocity and direction of the wind by the tops of the coconut palms.)

That works fine for the first few holes, but as you reach the upland holes near the turn there are few palms visible, only those spindly, thorny Kiavi trees. It was about this point that a Kona wind began blowing wildly and my game unraveled.

Hapuna's 372-yard 10th is a sharp dogleg left. You must keep the ball well right of a bunker and cluster of Kiavi trees in order to have a clear shot at the deep, elevated, elongated putting surface. In some ways, this hole reminded me of Mauna Kea's short, diabolically difficult number two hole, but in this case you are going uphill with the prevailing wind instead of down and against it. I struck a good approach iron, and I was rewarded with my first birdie of the day. The same breeze that helped me at 10 nearly wiped out a promising round at the long, beautiful par-five 11th, Arnold Palmer's personal favorite. The wind caught my attempt at a "big mamoo" (Arnie's name for a killer drive) and sent it to perdition in the dense bushes and lava scrublands right. Dollens, a former Boeing executive and expert on plane crashes, simply shook his head. I finished the hole with a double-bogey seven.

After another two bogeys I was intent on getting something back at 14—a fabulous par-five that plays up the volcano slopes and sharply right across a small barranca to a generous, elevated green. Dollens pointed out that, thanks to the winds, the green was well within my range in two shots. That's all I needed to hear—I promptly topped my drive and was forced to lay up short of the barranca, then scuffed a wedge into the bunker below the green for another double bogey. I could almost hear Ed Seay laughing like an old gator somewhere.

After that I quit keeping score and just enjoyed the course as it meandered back down the slopes to the clubhouse. What you notice at Hapuna is the natural flow of the routing, as if the fairways were simply part of the lava track that found its way to the sea 4,000 years ago. I finished with an incomplete 59, even though I may have even parred a few of the final four holes.

Hualalai Golf Club

The scuttlebutt on the Jack Nicklaus golf course at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai is that management leaned heavily on the Golden Bear to make the track through the jet-black lava a bit more resort-player-friendly than some of his other creations. Supposedly, Jack wasn't happy about that—but you may be. That's not to say Hualalai is easy. Playing 7,117 yards from the Mahope (or professional) tees, the course has enough water, sand, and lava hazards to require respectable, if not superior, shotmaking.

Hualalai resembles the South Course at Mauna Lani, but has far more playability and charm. The 12th hole lingers in my mind for its stark beauty and clever routing. This short par-three plays downhill to a vast green with a deep pot bunker in the center. I watched the Honolulu-based airline executive I was playing with fly his tee shot right into the bunker, then take four swats to get out—the lesson being that this little hole looks easy but can murder your score. The same is true of the sixth, a short par-four (359 yards) with a green, neatly tucked into a corner of the lava flow, that is smaller than it looks. At the other extreme is hole seven, a long par-five which requires you to thread your second shot through (or over) a lava-stone fissure to a bunkered green also well-guarded by lava.

Big Island golf brochures rave about Mauna Lani's much-photographed 17th, which plays over an inlet, but I much prefer Hualalai's more subtle, oceanside 17th. This 164-yard, par-three plays over sand and ancient lava beds to a heart-shaped, steeply contoured green that's very tricky to reach if there's even a moderate wind. The hole recalled Pebble Beach's wonderful seventh, the wee seaside gem that can either be a wedge or a three-iron shot from the tee depending on the wind.

The finisher at Hualalai is a sweeping par-four that turns gracefully inland toward the beautiful clubhouse, demanding a solid drive over a small wetland to a wide fairway bordered by swaying palms and a sea of steep-walled bunkers. The green is open-fronted, large, and relatively flat, an excellent birdie opportunity to cap off a memorable but largely untaxing round—and I mean that as a compliment.


Opened by Hyatt 11 years ago at the then astonishing cost of $360 million, Waikoloa was and is a sprawling resort (1,240 rooms) with a couple of press-getting gimmicks, chief among them the tram and ferries that take guests to the elevators and the chance to swim with dolphins in the man-made lagoon. A prime example of late-eighties extravagance, it fared badly in the early nineties. In 1993, Hilton took it over at a fire-sale price.

The dolphins and trams are still the resort's calling cards, and they overshadow the island's best golf complex, which includes two separately owned courses: the Beach Course and the 7,000-yard Kings' Course. Designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, the Kings' ranks among Golf Digest's Top 25. All of the touring pros I know praise it—and for good reason.

Like all the Weiskopf/Morrish collaborations, the Kings' wanders naturally over the landscape, in this case the lava fields, playing up or down the prevailing winds. (Weiskopf feels that forcing players to shoot into a crosswind is unfair.) Other signature elements include brilliant strategic bunkering, generous landing areas, and an emphasis on intelligent approach shotmaking. One subtle touch I liked—and didn't find at the other Kohala Coast resorts—was the large rough the designers left between lava and fairway. It's a "safety" fringe meant to keep balls (and thus players) on course and moving steadily.

The opening four holes were outstanding in their variety, but the short par-four fifth (327 yards from the back pegs) stole my heart. With a stout Kona wind at your back and new Ti driver in your hand, it's awfully tempting to drive the dogleg and reach the green in one. The danger lies in the two huge lava mounds that rise up like palace guards from the elongated sand area on the left, about 260 yards out. If your ball strikes one of these babies, you lose everything. As I was playing with Dennis Rose, golf director at Waikoloa, against two of his pros, I made the prudent decision to lay up with a three-iron and was rewarded with my only birdie of the day.

Weiskopf and Morrish present an almost identical hole on the back nine, this time heading straight into the teeth of the wind, the par-four 13th. It's also short (332 yards from the back pegs) and has a water hazard left and a large sand bunker right, which in the prevailing breeze gathers in even slightly wayward tee shots. This time I went for it and double-bogeyed the hole, proving, as one of the Buddhist statues in the hotel lobby might counsel, that less is more on Hawaii's wind-blown courses. In the end I thoroughly enjoyed the variety of shotmaking the Kings' Course imposes. It wasn't as tough to play as Mauna Kea, nor as tranquil as Hualalai, but somewhere nicely between the two.

How The Kids Fared

I took my nine- and 10-year-old children to Hawaii's Big Island to get them fired up about golf. However, once they'd found out about the children's programs at our three hotels, golf became irrelevant. "Dad, we can always play golf back home," my daughter, Maggie, admonished me. "But we can't see a beach like this in Maine!"

True enough. The first major attraction was the crescent-moon beach of the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, a half-mile picture postcard strand of crystal-white sand. The resort's large but elegantly simple swimming pool was also a major attraction, especially under a full Hawaiian moon. The rather low-key children's program, which was run by a most appealing native Hawaiian lady named Alvera Camara, was the one my kids enjoyed most. They went on a nature walk, made festive shell jewelry and petroglyph-painted-gourd drinking cups, swam with other golf orphans, and generally had a whale of a time. The hotel staff couldn't have been warmer, calling them by name from the start. The luau we attended at sister hotel Mauna Kea on Tuesday, said to be the island's most authentic, delighted them immensely—save for the native poi.At the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, the Kids For All Seasons children's program was a more formal affair, conducted in a separate small building. The counselors were young, cheerful, mostly Anglo college-aged females. Maggie and Jack watched a video and played board games, which left them dying to explore the rest of the property when I picked them up après golf around two o'clock. Our subsequent snorkel trip through the resort's fabulous freshwater/saltwater King's Pond, a natural aquarium, and their chance to hand-feed live spotted eagle rays, however, had them buzzing excitedly through dinner at the hotel's beautiful Beach Tree Bar & Grill. Our suite here was the best of the trip. The housekeeping staff thoughtfully placed stuffed dolphins on the kids' pillows and spelled out their names in sponges in the sprawling bathroom. The outdoor shower here was also a big hit.

I thought for sure that the Hilton Waikoloa Village, with its vast Polynesian theme park atmosphere of electric trams, waterslide pools, and African Queen-style boats ferrying guests through the hotel lobby, would be the trip's pièce de résistance. The hotel also has an award-winning Dolphin Quest program that allows guests to swim with dolphins. However, I learned that it's necessary to phone one month in advance in order to reserve a spot for children (adults must participate in a lottery program after arriving at the hotel), and so, alas, my charges wound up distant names on a Will Call list—a major disappointment.

The Hilton's Camp Menehune kids' program wasn't the big hit I'd hoped it would be. The morning Maggie and Jack attended—with six Japanese children and one shy English toddler—the staff seemed a bit harried. The highlight was an unexpected cultural exchange—teaching three Japanese brothers to play Marco Polo in the swimming pool by sign language—and a splendid ocean snorkeling cruise with Red Sail Sports. I loved the easy family atmosphere of the Hilton, but both my children commented "it was a bit too busy,"proving kids really do grow up faster than you think.

On our last full day in Hawaii we rose early, checked out, and drove 15 miles up the side of Mauna Kea to tiny Waimea, home of Parker Ranch, one of the largest beef cattle ranches in the world. Along the way the sere black and brown lavascape of the island's western flank (average annual rainfall, less than six inches) changed to lush-green grazing fields and, ultimately, tropical rainforests. We stopped briefly at the lovely Waimea Country Club, a verdant, mountain-style golf course that I'd dearly love to come back and play, before pushing on to view Akaka Falls, the highest cataract in Hawaii. Two hours later, on the "wet" side of the island where average rainfall is 106 inches a year, we were standing above the rim of Kilauea Volcano. And before turning up at Keahole-Kona International Airport, we got in a swim at Punalu'u, a jet-black lava sand beach.

Room Rates And Greens Fees

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
100 Kaupulehu Drive, Kaupulehu-Kona; 888-340-5662. Doubles: $450-$650. Greens fee (for guests only): $155.

Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel
62-100 Kauna'oa Drive, Kamuela; 800-882-6060. Doubles: $345-$520. Greens fees: $105 (guests); $185 (visitors).

Hilton Waikoloa Village
425 Waikoloa Beach Drive, Waikoloa; 800-445-8667. Doubles: $450-$650. Kings' Course and Beach Course greens fees: $95 (guests); $185 (visitors).

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Kamuela; 800-882-6060. Doubles: $345-$575. Greens fees: $105 (guests); $185 (visitors).

Note: Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel and Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, as well as their golf courses, are part of the Mauna Kea Resort. All room rates are valid year-round.

The Short Course: New &Amp; Noteworthy, Picks &Amp; Pans

Teardrop Putters Chicago businessman Rudy Slucker, who bought TearDrop Golf in late 1996 and RAM Golf in early 1997, has completely overhauled both companies' putters. Most notable is the new, sleek line of precision-milled putters, available in 20 models, including five versions of RAM's Zebra putter (left). The proprietary Roll-Face technology of the TearDrop TD45 model puts the best roll on the ball of any putter I've ever tested. TearDrop putters ($233); Zebra ($150). 800-723-4653.

Wilson Fat Shaft Staff Rm Tour Irons Famed Wilson craftsman Bob Mendralla is getting rave reviews for these traditionally styled forged-head irons. They have thinner toplines, which better players prefer for their enhanced feel and shotmaking, but offer perimeter weighting and Fat Shaft technology, which purportedly reduces club head twisting at impact. The scratch junior player I asked to field-test a set has yet to return them. Available in steel ($799). 800-469-4576.

Tight Lies Tour Woods Low handicappers who have been waiting for Barney Adams to do something for them will be quite pleased with this sophisticated sibling to the original Tight Lies fairway wood. It has an 18-percent deeper clubface, less offset, and a slightly higher center of gravity for a more professional trajectory. My three testers raved about the shot-shaping qualities of the club, which is available in four lofts (13, 15, 17, and 19 degrees) and two shafts (True Temper EI-70 and Grafalloy Prolite graphite). $270. 800-622-0609.

Panoramic Cruise InterGolf is offering a golfing cruise along the Iberian Peninsula, September 30-October 11, 2000, aboard the luxuriously appointed yacht Panorama, which has just 21 cabins. The itinerary includes stops at Penha Longa Golf Club, site of the Portuguese Open Championship; Seve Ballesteros' Novo Sancti Petri Golf Club; Sotogrande Old; and El Saler Golf Club, former home of the Spanish Open. Tour includes twin outside stateroom, all meals, nightly entertainment, greens fees and starting times for seven rounds of golf, baggage handling, and shipboard gratuities. Price per person (double occupancy): $6,800 St. Maarten Deck cabin, $7,400 Santorini Deck cabin. 800-344-5257.

James Dodson is Departures' contributing editor for golf.


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