I visited the Big Island of Hawaii from December 6-12 on a press trip, where I played five courses along the Kohala 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.
I already wrote about the culmination of our trip, playing in the Hawaii State Open Pro-Am with Parker McLachlin at Mauna Lani’s South Course. Here now, you can read about the rest of our trip…
When you’re in the final descent of your flight headed down toward the Kona airport — and if you’re lucky enough to have a window seat — you’ll be awestruck by the spectacular scenery. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. There’s the crystal clear blue ocean, the green palm trees and other foliage and the white sand all contrasted by the masses of ancient black lava rock that engulfs most of the island.
Then, there are the five-star resorts with golf courses just down the highway along the Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Winner of the PGA Tour’s 2008 Reno Open Parker McLachlin grew up on neighboring island Oahu in Honolulu. He thinks golf on the Big Island is superior to his hometown.
“Golf in the Big Island outweighs golf on Oahu 10/1, I think,” said McLachlin. “I grew up on all those golf courses in Oahu, and first of all, it’s more populated, there’s really more people playing. Second of all, besides a couple of golf courses, it’s not quite as much memorable golf (on the Big Island).
“With the outer islands you have more space to work with, the resort aspect — they want to create a stunning environment, like at a place like this or at Hualalai or Kohanaiki. Whereas on Oahu, most of the courses are muni courses. You have Turtle Bay, which is maybe the one resort golf course.
“On Oahu they’re just creating playability. Whereas on the Big Island, they want to wow you, they want you to come back. That’s what separates the Big Island golf from Oahu golf — that stunning experience. You’re out there taking pictures while you’re playing; you’re not really going to do that on Oahu. You have a few, where my friends are going to be like, wow, that looks like a postcard. That’s what to me makes this place way more visitor-friendly, that’s just my opinion. If you’re going to come and have the Hawaii experience of coming to play golf, I’d go with the (Big Island).
McLachlin even took it a step further, declaring that the Big Island had the best golf of all the Hawaiian islands.
WHERE TO PLAY
We kicked off the week by playing at the Waikoloa Beach Resort’s King’s Course. The organizers kept describing it as a “good warm-up” course. That’s because it is. If you’re rusty and you’ve just flown across the country and halfway across the Pacific Ocean, Waikoloa’s King’s Course is an ideal place to start your trip. Translation: ThisTom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish design is fun and straightforward.
You won’t get any awe-inspiring holes along the ocean. However, it’s an enjoyable round with a couple of intriguing short par-4s, like the signature 5th hole — which features several interesting lava structures. For long hitters, you can reach the green. Heck, for not-so-long hitter, if the wind is helping, you can reach the green and if the wind isn’t helping, you can come pretty darn close. But it can be a frustrating hole with a tricky green, especially if the pin is in the back corner, where it’s easy for your ball to roll just off the green and you’re faced with a tough trip. It’s one of those holes where you can easily walk off with a double-bogey despite having 30 yards into the green. (Not that I’d know anything about that!)
Besides the 5th hole, I didn’t find any others memorable enough to write about.
We certainly needed that warm-up round for the test we were facing next — Mauna Kea Golf Course, the first course built on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island 50 years ago. The resort was celebrating its 50th year anniversary. You see, in the early 1960s, Laurance Rockefeller had a vision, which was realized by Robert Trent Jones Sr., whose innovation pioneered resort golf in the region of Hawaii’s Big Island.
In December of 1964, golf’s big three, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, all gathered together to play a ceremonial opening round at Mauna Kea. That was the start of something special along Kohala Coast. There are all sorts of versions of the story about when the three reached the famed par-3 no. 3 that is carved out of the lava and the ocean coastline, making it one of the most beautiful holes you’ll ever encounter. Who knows which is the correct one, so I won’t bore you with the multiple accounts I heard, but let’s just say, it plays 270 yards from the back tee — which is all carry over water.
RTJ Sr.’s son Rees Jones spruced up the course with a redesign that was completed in 2008. Now, if you know anything about Rees Jones’ courses, then you know one thing’s for sure — they’re brutally hard with even more obnoxiously tough bunkers that seem to pop up at every moment.
Mauna Kea’s track is anything but boring (though with the exception of the par-3s and the bunkers, I didn’t find it the most memorable; probably because I was too busy trying to get out of the sand) — with constant elevation changes and approach shots into well-bunkered raised greens.
I played the par-3 no.3 from a mere 142 yards with a slight breeze into my face. I struck a 6-iron perfectly and the ball landed about 8 feet from the pin. No big deal.
Don’t let the par-3 7th fool you, either. While it looks pretty benign — mostly because it doesn’t have gorgeous ocean and coastal views to distract you — you don’t want to miss the green, which is well-protected by more of Rees Jones’ famous bunkers.
The par-3 11th is another hole that provides a photo-op or two. The downhill hole resembles a postcard with the gorgeous ocean and greenery in the back drop.
The next six holes, nos. 12-17, play back toward the mountains with (more) elevated greens, narrow fairways and more scenic vistas of the hotel and the coastline. The par-4 18th is said to be one of the toughest finishing holes in Hawaii. The slight dogleg right measures 428 yards from the back tees. There are bunkers and shrubs lining both side of the fairway, so the tee shot demands length and accuracy. The green is hidden from the tee box, but comes into view as you turn the bend, which brings you yet another remarkable scene.
Bottom line: This is one super challenging golf course, but it’s a must-play because, well, it’s Mauna Kea.
“I feel like with Mauna Kea it’s very difficult, but if you want to challenge yourself, you should go play it,” said McLachlin. “It’s a pretty iconic golf course.”
We were in for a real treat on the third stop of our Kohala Coast golf tour — Kohanaiki, which opened in May 2014. This Rees Jones-design adds to the already impressive exclusive group of private clubs on this side of the Big Island.
From the moment you arrive, you’re treated to top-notch hospitality. One of my favorite parts was when you’re on the range — there’s an attendant, similar to a caddie, standing behind you while you hit balls (which some of my colleagues felt was slightly awkward) and waiting anxiously to clean your club once you’re done using it. Not surprisingly, the grass on the range was absolutely impeccable.
The perks and treatment at Kohanaiki are so absurd and first-rate that the golf almost takes a back seat. You’re just overly wowed by the hospitality that it becomes the focus for the day. By far, the best part is likely the “comfort stations,” which pop up every four or five holes — I checked out three of them total. These comfort stations aren’t your standard halfway house or restroom. In fact, far from it. They are stocked with just about every delight and goodie you can imagine, including my personal favorite, homemade ice cream bars. Well, it’s actually tough to decide between that and the Margarita machine. Oh, and then there’s the Bloody Mary bar.
Here are a few pictures to give you an idea…
Okay, you get the point. So, how about the golf? Well, it’s actually one of Rees Jones’ more pleasant designs. We caught it on a very breezy day, which made it a lot tougher — but apparently, we were told that it’s *never* that windy on that part of the island.
The fairway landing areas were rather generous, but you certainly want to stay out of the sticky rough, which may not look so tough, but it’ll grab your club and make your next shot rather difficult. In standard Jones fashion, there are quite a few bunkers, but they aren’t quite as severe as they usually are. Like an idiot, I found myself standing on the 16th hole, thinking, “Wow, I haven’t hit it in a bunker yet.” Naturally, I knocked it into the sand on the 17th.
The front nine is the less memorable of the two nines — unless you almost make a hole-in-one on par-3 2nd.
After the par-5 12th, you encounter the spectacular six finishing holes. As Director of Golf Marty Keiter calls it, “The best left turn in golf.” You make the turn and you’re faced with a series of holes either along the ocean or with it as the backdrop. Nos. 13-16 are the most dramatic holes, which play along the beach and demand shots over hazardous pits of lava.
Kohanaiki is part of a sensitive area around the ocean shore, which is seen mostly around these holes and marked by signs describing the history. There are 13 rock shrines/alters called “Ahu” that run parallel to the 200 Anchialine ponds, which were historically used by the native Hawaiians to raise fish and shrimp. The tee shot of the par-5 17th is played over the stony ruins of an ancient donkey corral.
Like I said, it’s a solid, enjoyable course that isn’t too penal — in fact, it has just about the right balance between easy and too difficult. But it’s really about the experience.
How do you become a member? Well, it’s a private club of property owners, who buy-in to the homes or “hales” — which, as expected, are rather luxurious. It’s sort of works like a time share. You pay $500,000 to purchase 40-50 days a year at Kohanaiki and then you owe an additional $20,000 in dues a year. I found this quite reasonable (if I had the spare change) considering the amenities and the first-class service.
“I’m partial to the experience at Kohanaiki because I feel like it’s an all-encompassing feeling — just the way they make you feel when you’re there,” said McLachlin, who is a member. “You experienced it. The second you arrive on property, they make you feel like a million dollars. You’re just like, this is above and beyond, and you just don’t get those type of experiences on a regular basis. I mean, it really is above and beyond. They’ve thought of everything and they do everything to make your day great, so it just makes it a special experience every time you’re on property.
“That was part of the reason was getting the place at Kohanaiki. Not to just go to Oahu, where it’s hustle and bustle. When we come to Hawaii, we want to come and be by the ocean and just have that tranquil Hawaii experience, great golf, unbelievable ocean activities, and an incredible family place — to bring family, to vacation and spend holidays with family there. Everything that you would envision about a Hawaii experience is at Kohanaiki. From the community farm, growing all the local ingredients that they put in lunches and dinners there to the golf course to the ocean activities, with all the water experts that are there.
“The whole thing is the complete Hawaiian experience. That’s what you want when you come to Hawaii. When I go to my parents’ house in Oahu, it’s still the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and downtown Honolulu, traffic and everything, whereas when you go there, they pick you up from the airport, you don’t even have to rent a car. You’re in your spot and you’re ready to go for two days, 10 days, whatever it is. You don’t even have to have a car, you just need your golf cart to drive around — it’s going 30 mph — cruising around the place. To me, it’s just a one-stop shop and fulfills everything you’d want in a Hawaii experience.”
One thing’s for sure — I can’t wait for a return visit to Kohanaiki!
Now, I know I waxed lyrical about Kohanaiki and it didn’t sound like it could get any better, but we spent the next day at the Four Seasons Hualalai Resort, and I almost needed to have security called to physically remove me from the property. Aside from the golf, we had “day use” of rooms.
This place was luxury at its finest. If you can afford to stay here, I highly recommend it — you’d never have to leave the compound because everything you need is there, including a first-rate spa, which I had the privilege to enjoy. Even if this might sound weird to you, I’d definitely take the jump and get the Ashiatsu treatment, where a therapist uses her feet to release trigger points and tension throughout your body — especially if you have a bad back.
There are two courses at Hualalai — one private and the other for members and resort guests only, the 7,117-yard track designed by Jack Nicklaus. We played the latter, which hosts the Champions Tour’s Mitsubishi Electric Championship every January. I found Hualalai GC very player-friendly, with its generous fairways, and immaculate conditions.
The course traverses around ancient lava formations and through time-honored fishponds. For example, on the par-5 7th hole, I was playing the forward tees, so I had to hit it perfectly in the gap of the lava wall that splits into the fairway. Luckily, I did.
The last trio of holes are played along the shoreline of the ocean. The signature par-3 17th embraces the crashing surf against the lava and the rocks, setting up a beautiful and memorable penultimate hole. There’s also an ancient hieroglyph on a rock by the tee box. The photo here of the 17th doesn’t do it justice.
I don’t usually post so many videos of my awful swing, but this gives you a better sense of the stunning hole.
Finally, the par-4 finishing hole is a splendid one that has a slight carry over a pond off the tee. It is a slight dogleg left with imposing bunkers guarding the left side of the fairway all the way to the green.
WHERE TO STAY
I couldn’t recommend staying at Four Seasons Hualalai more — whether you’re with friends, family or a significant other — and enjoying a couple of rounds of golf, along with the other amenities the resort has to offer. If you’re looking for luxury and hospitality at its finest, then you will love this place. It was by far my favorite resort property along the Kohala Coast of the Big Island.
Throughout our day at Hualalai, I glared incessantly at Ross Birch, the head of the Big Island Visitor’s Bureau, and made bratty remarks when reminded that we weren’t staying at Hualalai. He simply responded, “Next time!” Ross, I’m holding you to that!
That said, I’m looking forward to my next trip to the Kohala Coast.
If the Four Seasons is a little out of your price range, good news! — there are a bevy of other options. We stayed at the Mauna Kea Resort (~$500/night) for the first three nights of our six-night trip. The architecture of the hotel was very mid-century modern, aka 60s, which made me a tad wary initially, but I was very impressed with the renovations they’d completed several years ago. The rooms are superb and extremely comfortable — definitely five-star worthy. I loved leaving the doors open to my lanai and falling asleep while listening to the waves crash against the beach. Speaking of which, the beach at Mauna Kea was absolutely lovely and had I had the time, I would’ve spent a fair amount of time swimming in the ocean.
Here now, check out a gallery of pictures from the trip…