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Hawaii: A Rainbow of Golf

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

Published January/February 1999

Fairways in the Mist Hawaii's Sublime Blend of Ocean, Cliffs, Desert and Lava Flows Offers a Pot of Golf at the End of the Rainbow

By Jeff Williams

Driving up the northwest coast of Maui, the sky is often fraught with rainbows. Tropical air sweeping in from the east is lifted rapidly by the West Maui Mountains, cooling it and forcing it to shed its moist bounty. As the last of the rain--a Maui mist--spills over the mountains, rainbows appear, one, two, ten.

Gold is an unlikely prospect at the end of these rainbows. Much more likely, it will be golf. The rainbows at the tip of Maui arch gracefully over the three courses at the Kapalua Resort, one of the epicenters of golf in the island state of Hawaii. While rainbows don't always lead to golf in Hawaii, virtually every road on Maui, the Big Island of Hawaii and Oahu does, as well as the hillside lanes on the islands of Kauai and Lanai. Hillside golf, seaside golf, cliffside golf, lava flow golf, tropical golf, desert golf (yes, desert)--Hawaii has an abundance of courses and a diversity of styles that may surprise the casual golfer and energize the adventurous.

Make no mistake about the quality and challenge of these courses. While it's still possible to play some fairly benign resort and municipal tracts in Hawaii, the overall standard of design is of a very high order. As easy as the Hawaiian personality is on the soul, Hawaiian golf courses can be downright difficult on the psyche. Try staring down a 485-yard par 4 on the Plantation Course at Kapalua or a 225-yard par 3 over the Pacific on the famed course at Mauna Kea on the Big Island or a 589-yard cliffside par 5 at Manele Bay on Lanai with the wind blowing 30 miles an hour. With your heart in your throat and your ego somewhere below your left knee, the challenges of Hawaiian golf are many and menacing.

But those challenges come with spectacular beauty and local charm. Some of the best views in the game are to be found in Hawaii, from the tops of hillside courses to the tees by the sea. And the courses come tended by caring and competent staff, from the cart boys to the head pros.

Just be careful about the guys from Hilo. "Those guys, they want too many strokes," says Don Snyder, a Big Island beverage distributor, as he stands on the fifth tee of the Hapuna Beach Prince Golf Club, which sits next door to and a world apart from Mauna Kea on the Big Island. "These guys, they play the municipal course over there and they say they don't have a slope rating. Then they take a big handicap and all of the sudden they are shooting the lights out. They will tell you, 'Oh, that's the best round of golf I ever played.' Next week, they will tell you the same thing."

Take it from the Hawaiians, as tough as the courses are, golf is meant to be fun. "We play pretty hard and we party pretty hard over here," says Steve Falcinella, a Big Island restaurateur. "Just watch out for those guys from Hilo."

The courses at Mauna Kea and Hapuna are perfect examples of the old and new in Hawaiian golf. The clubhouses are not five minutes apart, yet the courses couldn't be more different. The Mauna Kea course was designed by the prolific Robert Trent Jones Sr. to complement the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, an original RockResort, conceived by Laurence Rockefeller, while the Hapuna course suits the newer Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel.

Mauna Kea is classical tropical seaside golf that is given added dimension by hills and valleys and cliffs along the ocean. The par-3 third, at 225 yards from the back tee, is the very symbol of Hawaiian golf, as it plays over a wide chasm with the Pacific Ocean churning below. There are many imitations of this hole throughout Hawaii, though none that churns the stomach quite as much. While not quite as spectacular, the three other par 3s at Mauna Kea are daunting, daredevil affairs that require precise shots and drastically penalizing the errant ball.

Hapuna Beach Prince Golf Course is built on the desert-like flare at the base of the Kohala mountain range. Here the land is decidedly arid (it would be at Mauna Kea, too, if the property weren't so heavily irrigated). Hapuna, designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, would be right at home in Scottsdale or Phoenix or Palm Springs. The playing corridors at Hapuna, which are narrow and twisty, are bordered by a mixture of tall grasses, thorny trees and barren, rocky landscape. It doesn't rain much here, and Hapuna is designed to be environmentally friendly. If the tees are back and the wind is up, you won't think this a terribly friendly course. Position off the tee is everything at Hapuna, and the first rule of position is to get the ball in the fairway. The fairways are small, often with blind landing areas. The rough isn't very wide. The margin for error is minimal.

In broad contrast to the wickedly cramped Hapuna is the Jack Nicklaus-designed Hualalai Golf Club at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Nicklaus tends to build wide golf courses, and this Big Island design is no exception. Vast carpets of fairways have been unfurled over the 1801 lava flow from Mt. Hualalai, which sits at the back of the resort. In keeping with the casual grace and elegance of this two-year-old resort, Nicklaus designed a very friendly course from the forward tees, a very interesting one from the back. The Senior PGA Tour's MasterCard Championship is held here.

The fairways seem twice the width of Hapuna's. Yet outside of these playing corridors is foreboding lava, brown-black and ominous. If Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, is on your side, a ball hit into the lava may be tossed out. If Pele is not so generous, consider your ball a gift to the goddess and play another. Walking through the lava fields in anything other than stiff hiking boots is not recommended, and can be downright foolhardy. A $3 golf ball isn't worth a six-inch cut. Plenty of golf balls are in plain sight on the lava, and may remain there until the next flow buries the place.

Hualalai may be Hawaii's best conditioned course, owing largely to the fact that there is relatively little play. The course is restricted to guests of the resort, resort home owners and their guests. In the off-season, Hualalai might have fewer than 20 rounds of golf in a day. It can be very hard to find a divot or a punch mark around Hualalai, just the sort of conditions that make Jack Nicklaus smile and the average player swoon.

Between Hualalai and Mauna Kea are four courses of merit, two each at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and at the Waikoloa Beach Resort. Lava and the Pacific are the backdrops to many holes here, though the Kings' Course at Waikoloa stands out for having a decidedly linksy feel. Architects Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish put in some deep, links-like bunkers to go along with strategically placed lava rock. This is one course in Hawaii where the sand can be a real hazard, not to mention the fountain grass that grows along the edges of some of the bunkers and fairways.

Climbing toward the Kohala Mountains from Mauna Kea you come to the quaint town of Waimea, home of the famous Parker Ranch. Waimea is also home to an unpretentious little golf course, the Waimea Country Club, which gives the traveling golfer a taste of another Hawaiian climate and style of golf. The course is hewn through stands of eucalyptus trees and around a marshy meadow where an old white horse can often be seen dining on the soft grasses. Waimea is nearly 2,500 feet above sea level, and can be very rainy in the summertime. In the winter, just in time for the snowbirds, it dries up a bit. Temperatures can be 10 to 15 degrees cooler than at sea level. If you tire of resort golf, this is a perfectly swell place to spend an afternoon. Just bring a sweater and long pants in case the fog starts to roll down the mountains.

Near Kona are the perfectly acceptable and predictable courses of the Kona Country Club, which also owns the Waimea Course. But up the mountain from Kona is the totally unpredictable and daunting Makalei Country Club. From the first tee, at 1,950 feet above sea level, to the 10th tee, at 2,850 feet, there is a 900-foot elevation change. There are days when there are clouds at the clubhouse and clear skies at the 10th. Other days you can ascend straight into the clouds and launch balls into a misty oblivion. This is one tough course, with a slope rating of 143, and some decidedly nasty grades with which to contend. The 10th hole dives and swoops for 610 yards along the highest spot on the course. The par-3 12th plays between two big hills to a green the size of the average Foot-Joy. The par-5 13th plays to only 514 yards on the card, but it goes right back uphill and seems longer than the 10th. This is one of several of Hawaii's gut-check courses, where egos are bruised as badly as balls banging off the lava.

One of the neat things about Hawaii is how quickly you can get from island to island and how often. Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines run shuttle flights through Honolulu and offer direct service between the islands as well. It's quite possible to base yourself on one island and fly over for the day to play on another. It's just a 30-minute hop from the Kona airport on the Big Island to Maui, an island filled with some of Hawaii's best courses, and best rainbows.

For years the Kapalua Resort at the northwestern tip of Maui has been Hawaii's window to golf on the mainland. The Lincoln-Mercury Kapalua Invitational was held on the Bay Course and then the Plantation Course at Kapalua, and this year the season-opening Mercedes Championships will be played at the Plantation. To many, the Plantation Course is a love-it-or-hate-it tract. Stiff winds often rake the courses at Kapalua as they sweep through the Molokai straits, and the Plantation Course is the most exposed of the three courses within the resort. Take a 30-mile-an-hour wind, combine it with a long course that pitches and rolls for more than 7,200 yards (some say it can play more like 72,000) and has a slope rating of 142 and you have one boiling pot of golf at the end of a rainbow. To their credit, designers Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore made the short holes play uphill into the wind and the long holes downhill with the wind, though that wind tends to come sideways from the right nearly all the time. The playing corridors are exceptionally wide and accessible as long as players account for the crosswind on virtually every shot. The 473-yard first hole sets the stage, looking more like a slope for downhill ski racing than a golf hole. The final two holes are downhill bruisers, a 486-yard par 4 followed by a 663-yard par 5. If it snowed like it does at the pinnacle of Mauna Kea Mountain, this would be an easier tract for Jean-Claude Killy than for Tiger Woods.

Kapalua's Bay Course is an abiding Palmer-Francis Duane design that plays through houses and condos, though it doesn't seem claustrophobic. Hale Irwin, who has been associated with the resort for more than 20 years, helped redesign the par-4 16th hole that turned it from possibly the worst hole on the course to the best and certainly one of the most difficult. The fourth and fifth holes take players down to the ocean, where they are abruptly sent scurrying back up the hill for the sixth tee. The third hole plays along a wing of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where balcony dwellers light up cigars and predict the fortunes of the linksmen at their feet. Longtime visitors to Kapalua stay in the Kapalua Bay Hotel with its butterfly pool, or one of the villas that overlook both the Bay Course and the ocean.

The most popular place to play at Kapalua may well be the Village Course. The Village, also by Palmer and Seay, plays up the side of the hills in somewhat the same fashion as the Plantation, but stands of Cook and Norfolk pines enclose nearly every hole, giving the layout the flavor of a northern country-club course on the mainland. At 800 feet above sea level, the tee of the par-4 sixth is the highest spot on the course, surrounded by pineapple fields and well above the narrow fairway where impressive stands of Cook pines stand sentry. The green sits behind a lake. When the wind gathers from behind the tee, big hitters get tempted to go for the green, an imprudent act that is nonetheless impressive when successful.

South of Kapalua in a notch on the southeast coast are the resort communities of Wailea and Makena. Five courses here are within a five-minute drive of each other, and two of them, the Gold Course at Wailea and the South Course at Makena, are exceptional layouts that are worth a visit. Each of these courses, as well as the Wailea's Emerald and Blue Courses and Makena's North Course, are the work of Robert Trent Jones Jr., who followed his father to Hawaii and has left bigger footprints in the lava.

The Gold Course is an eminently fair test and one that can be played by golfers of all abilities, though the course may require more forceful carries off the tees than almost any resort course in the islands. It is a course that flows easily over the lava flows from the distant and dormant Haleakala volcano. Small gullies in the lava flow traverse the course, as do old farming walls made from lava rock. In the NBA's off-season, Michael Jordan, a player of note, can be found at Wailea, often in the company of the course's head pro, Rick Castillo.

The South Course at Makena contains two exceptional examples of Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s work. The 15th is a downhill 188-yard par 3 that carries players toward the ocean. It is a small version of his father's 11th hole at Mauna Kea, a long par 3, with the Pacific as the backdrop. After negotiating the 15th at Makena, players are treated, and tested, by the par-4 16th, which runs along a short cliff above the ocean. It is a hole apart from the others, providing a sense of serenity and exclusivity. It's also a tough hole to par. Wailea and Makena are served by some snazzy upscale hotels. Notable are the Four Seasons Resort Wailea Maui and the Grand Wailea Resort as well as the Makena Prince Hotel.

Just a 50-minute ferry ride from Lahaina on Maui is the small island of Lanai. Lanai was once owned by James Dole's Hawaiian Pineapple Co. and at its peak in the 1950s, was covered with 19,000 acres of pineapples. The company was eventually absorbed by the Castle and Cook Development Co. of Honolulu. Pineapple growing has long been abandoned, but two golf courses have grown up in recent years at Castle and Cook's two luxury resorts, the Lodge at Koele and the Manele Bay Hotel.

The Lodge's course, called the Experience at Koele, is a bit of a quirky Ted Robinson-Greg Norman collaboration that weaves its way through the hills. Its eighth hole, a par 4 with a 250-foot vertical drop off the tee, is oft photographed and seldom parred. Director of golf Gary Campbell advises playing your tee shot as close to the cart path on the left as you can, because the swirling wind down in the canyon is likely to carry your ball back into the middle of the fairway.

The course at Manele Bay, known as the Challenge at Manele, is a downright nifty Jack Nicklaus effort. The course, which plays along the cliffs near the elegant hotel, boasts several memorable holes, the most spectacular being the par-3 12th, which plays over a deep chasm. (Hawaii has plenty of such holes, which no doubt take their cue from the most famous Pacific chasm hole, the 16th at Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula of California.)

All the holes at Manele have a look at the Pacific, though the holes that hug the rim--the 12th, 13th and 17th--provide the most intimate contact, which is especially thrilling when migrating humpback whales breach in the middle of your backswing. Nicklaus has done a masterful job of carving a course from a barren though beautiful landscape, keeping in mind that mere mortals play here but that occasionally really good players will pass through looking for a really good test.

Jones Jr.'s march through Hawaii continues to the westward island of Kauai, where he has rendered tough, scenic courses at Sheraton Princeville Hotel and Poipu Bay Resort. Nicklaus has made the march as well, with two courses at the Kauai Lagoons Golf Club.

Golf is even starting to compete heavily with the beach at Waikiki on Oahu, with 10 new courses built on the island since 1990. One of them, Golf Koolau , is the toughest course in the United States, with a slope rating of 155, the highest that the United States Golf Association can register. The course is 25 minutes from Waikiki on the windward side of the Koolau Range Mountains. You should bring as many balls as you have handicap strokes, just to assure that you will have enough to make it through an 18-hole round, but don't count on it. The Links at Kuilima, yet another Palmer-Seay collaboration, is nearly as tough as Koolau.

And you thought Hawaii was all about hang-loose days and hula nights.

Though Hawaii is more than 7,000 miles from the cradle of golf in the British Isles, the game that is played there is similar to that played on the great courses of Scotland, Ireland or England. Wind is a constant companion on Hawaiian golf courses, as it is on the British links, and like the Scots are wont to say, "Nae wind, nae golf."

Jeff Williams writes about golf for Newsday.

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