I visited the Big Island of Hawaii from December 6-12 on a press trip, where I played five courses along the Kona Coast. It was a phenomenal experience, highlighted by the awesome company, which included Ross Birch, the head of Big Island Visitor’s Bureau, Nathan Kam, the President of Anthology PR Group, Randy Sportak, sportswriter for the Calgary Sun, and Jason Deegan, senior writer for GolfChannel.com. You’ll be hearing about all the courses where we teed it up, but I thought I start with the culmination of our week, which was playing in the Hawaii State Open Pro-Am.
When I arrived at Mauna Lani Resort for the Hawaii State Open Pro-Am last Friday and found out I had been put in the same golf cart as our pro, Parker McLachlin, I knew it was going to be a memorable day. After all, I had never played in a pro-am before (and I’ve always secretly wanted to be invited to partake in one on the PGA Tour because I think it’d be interesting and entertaining to write about). And it was everything I imagined and hoped it to be and more — mostly thanks to the fact we were paired with Parker.
But, it was really when we got to our first hole, the 8th at Mauna Lani’s South Course, in the shotgun start that I knew it would truly be a fun experience. You see, one of the guys in our group, Randy Sportak, a sportswriter from Calgary, brought a bottle of Canadian whiskey with him to make things more festive and poured shots to kick off the round for our six-some, which besides myself and Parker, also included Ross Birch, the head of the Big Island Tourism Bureau, Nathan Kam, the President of Anthology PR, and Jason Deegan, travel writer for GolfChannel.com.
We toasted to a great day on the course, and as Parker quipped, “You know it’s going to be a fun group when they break out shots on the first hole.”
Parker, a native of Honolulu who won the PGA Tour’s Legends Reno Open in 2008, was an ideal cart partner and guy to play with in a pro-am. He’s a consummate pro, funny, candid and just an all-around cool, good guy. We’d been following each other on Twitter for a couple of years, but I think this was the first time we’d met in real life. But, as you may know, after you’ve been online pals with someone for a while, you feel like you already know them.
The format of the pro-am competition was the two best balls (net) of the six. I was a little skeptical that we were playing in a six-some because I immediately thought that would equate to a very long and painful six-hour round, but we never really saw another group on the course and we finished in under five hours, which was a pleasant surprise. Now, of course the format also helped the cause — pick up if you’re out of the hole — not to mention there was a maximum two-putt on the greens.
In the days leading up to the pro-am, the guys on my trip were putting all sorts of pressure on me to lead the way for the group (half-jokingly). Initially, one of the organizers of the trip thought the format was going to be a shamble — where everyone hits a drive and you take the best one and all play your ball in from there. So, since I would be hitting from the ladies’ tees and I can get it out there pretty well, they were telling me that I was going to have to step up for the team. Well, when we found out that wasn’t the case, they still gave me a hard time — all in good fun, of course. (And hey, turned out I contributed quite a bit!)
We got off to a decent start as a group. As I mentioned, I was *forced* to play from the forward ladies’ tees, so that was a nice advantage. But, to be honest, it had taken me a few days to get used to playing from significantly shorter yardages because they’re not where I typically play from and it messes with your head seeing the course from a different vantage, especially off the tee, when it brings in hazards that normally wouldn’t come into play — or it causes you to hit it past the landing areas.
I felt a bit better about my struggles to adjust earlier in the week when Parker was having the same problem. He was playing from tees that were also more forward than usual and he normally plays the course from the tips. He initially kept having trouble deciding between driver and 3-wood and it seemed to mess with his head. After a couple of holes, he moved back to the tips and started to play much better.
You may recognize the lava-rock lined fairways and the coastline holes with the jaw-dropping ocean views from the decade (1990-2000) when Mauna Lani’s South Course was home to the Senior Skins Game, which featured golf legends such as Raymond Floyd, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriquez, Gary Player, Hale Irwin, and Jim Colbert.
If anything, you may recall the signature par-3 15th, a gorgeous hole carved out along the coastline with the waves crashing against the lava rocks. The tips are perched on its own little lava rock island and play 196 yards — and you have to carry just about all of it over the somewhat intimidating water. Even if you’re not playing from the back tees, it’s worth the walk to check it out — if anything, for the gorgeous view.
Here’s the vista to the left of the hole…
It was rather windy when we played, so it was tough to judge the distance, which obviously made the hole more challenging. Once you’re on the green, you have to negotiate the double tier, and you want to make sure you’re on the correct section — otherwise you’re in for a long and difficult putt. For instance, if you hit through the wind and go long, ending up on the second tier, you’re faced with a downhill slider.
I had 136 yards from my tees with a stiff breeze into my face and I was debating between two clubs and went with the longer one — which I almost always do, as I prefer to choke down and take a little off of it, rather than go after a shorter club with all my might.
Here’s the shot — and my reaction (careful: NSFW).
It was a perfect strike headed right at the flag — but it was almost too good as it just went straight through the wind and landed 40-50 feet away from the front pin on the back tier. As you can see in the video above, I wasn’t too thrilled. I still made par, thanks to the “automatic two-putt rule” in play that day.
Before you reach the 15th, you play another beautiful, scenic hole along the coastline of the ocean — the short, par-4 13th. Since you’re approaching the ocean, you expect the par-3 to come up next or forget for a moment that you have to play the 14th first. At least Parker did and we were confused for a moment, but if you saw it, you’d easily understand why that’d happen.
After those couple of holes, the views of the course becomes less breathtaking, but it’s still a fun layout. Overall, I found Mauna Lani’s South Course very playable even in the breezy conditions, and it was quite an enjoyable experience. There’s a good mix of challenging holes and then others that are gettable and birdie holes. The lava-lined fairways are a trademark of playing on the Kohala coast of the Big Island, and you obviously want to avoid hitting in those areas — but you probably want to bring extra balls if you’re a higher handicapper.
“It’s just a fun golf course to play,” said McLachlin. “It’s playable, conditions are fantastic, it’s just an enjoyable round. You never find yourself complaining about being out there. There are a lot of courses where you can find fault here or there.
“But Mauna Lani is one of those courses where at the end of the day, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, this was really enjoyable to play.’ Then you have a couple of ocean holes that make it that much better.”
Our last hole of the day was the 214-yard (from the tips) par-3 7th, which once again brings you along the coastline. It’s also a gorgeous, picturesque hole that’s slightly downhill with the breeze coming off the ocean.
When it was my turn to tee it up, Ross said to me, “Knock it in the hole.”
I responded, “Okay, sure, no problem.”
I hit a 9-iron from 111 yards and it sure looked good in the air. I yelled, “Cut!” It was just a little left and stopped about 8-10 feet from the cup.
I turned to Ross and said, shrugging, “I tried my best.”
Naturally, I missed the birdie putt and we could’ve used it, but in the end it didn’t matter. Turned out we shot 211 as a team. Here’s our scorecard…
We missed out of third place by three strokes, but we totally should’ve tied for second. Why? Well, one of our team members is a former PGA pro, but doesn’t play that often anymore. He’s actually probably a 4- or 5-handicapper, but he put down scratch because he didn’t want to catch crap from the tournament organizers. Those four or five strokes would have made the difference and we would’ve placed or perhaps won! I’m clearly not a sore loser or anything. Oh well, shoulda, woulda, coulda.
Even though we didn’t win, it was still a super fun and awesome day and experience, especially thanks to the great company.
I’ll end the post with this video, which Parker showed me during the round. I wasn’t hitting my driver very well and that’s usually the strength of my game, so I kept saying, “EW!” after a shot.
Here’s a gallery of pictures from the day…