Mauna Kea golf course rises in elevation for exceptional views. // © 2013 Kenneth Shapiro
Nobody gazing at the jagged, rocky lava fields of Hawaii Island would think to themselves, “What a great place for a golf course.”
Yet, Hawaii Island offers some of the best golf resorts in the world. Between the world-class accommodations, the amazing natural beauty and the design of the golf courses, Hawaii Island will have all golfers — from beginners to experts — coming back again and again.
Some of the island’s best courses are found on the northwest side of Hawaii Island along the sunny Kona/Kohala Coast.
One of the top golf resorts here is at Hualalai, home of The Champions Tour opener, which recently signed a new deal to keep the event at this gem of a resort. The two Jack Nicklaus-designed courses here can be tricky — those who can’t keep it in the fairway will spend a day scouring the lava rocks — but, once the golf is over, guests can be spoiled at the Four Seasons Resort, Hualalai, which is consistently rated one of the best resorts in Hawaii.
Nearby, in the Mauna Lani resort, is the former home of the Senior Skins game. The courses here feature mountain and ocean views in every direction — providing golfers with a snapshot of the overall Hawaii Island experience. The signature hole on the North Course is the 17th, a short par 3 that plays from an elevated tee down to a green surrounded by lava. The South Course features two amazing par 3s, including the dramatic, over-the-water 15th hole, which might be one of the most photographed golf holes in the world.
Accommodations here include the luxurious Fairmont Orchid and the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows. Both properties feature top-rated spas and upscale dining to enhance the post-golf experience.
Also along the coast is the Hapuna Golf Course, next door to the Hapuna Prince Beach Resort. This course rises to an elevation of 700 feet and the views are spectacular. In particular, golfers should be sure to check out the vista from the 11th tee. The Hapuna Golf Course also features one of the best practice and learning facilities on the island for clients who want to work on their game.
With large Marriott and Hilton properties, Waikoloa is one of the most popular resort areas on Hawaii Island. There are two courses here, and the better of the two is the Beach Course with its signature 12th hole — an oceanfront par 5.
On a recent visit, I got the chance to play what may be the most legendary course on Hawaii Island: Mauna Kea.
This course, built in 1964, was the first to be carved out of the island’s lava fields. The audacious idea came together when course designer Robert Trent Jones Sr. crumbled a few lava rocks together and told resort developer Laurance S. Rockefeller that it was possible to build a golf course here. The result is one of best courses in the world, consistently earning top ratings on Golf Digest’s “best of” lists.
Mauna Kea combines the best elements of Hawaii golf: natural beauty, amazing views, signature holes and oceanfront challenges. The course features holes right at sea level and others that rise up the slopes of Mauna Kea. The third hole is the course’s signature: a 272-yard par 3 that needs to be carried over what feels like an enormous expanse of ocean. This tee was so tough that it even posed a challenge for the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player when the course first opened.
With more than 120 devilish bunkers, Josh Sullivan, director of golf at the resort, admits that Mauna Kea is challenging compared to other resort courses, but he insists that it’s also more interesting.
“The course is certainly not boring for most golfers,” said Sullivan. “But for those who enjoy history, breathtaking views and playing something exceptional, Mauna Kea is a must.”
The quality of the on-course experience is matched by the overall level of accommodation at the resort. Mauna Kea Beach Hotel was the passion project of Rockefeller, who founded the property in 1965. His wish was to create a world-class hotel that matched the beauty of one of the best beaches in all of Hawaii.
It is an especially great time to visit Mauna Kea, as the 258-room hotel recently completed a $150 million renovation — which included an update to the golf course and a new golf clubhouse and restaurant. The property exudes a quiet sophistication that is a far cry from some of the busier resorts in Hawaii. With Rockefeller’s massive personal art collection on display throughout the resort, and the unique architecture of the main building, it almost feels like you are staying in a museum — one with amazing ocean views, a stunning natural white-sand beach and warm and reliable service.
The guestroom decor uses natural woods, with accents of orange and white, to create an ambience that is so retro-chic it feels like you have walked onto the set of television’s “Mad Men.” The emphasis is on luxury, however, with throw blankets and comfortable easy chairs, as well as all the latest technology. I was also blown away by the bathroom in my top-floor suite, which featured an open shower with jaw-dropping views of the ocean.
Other resort amenities include gourmet dining; a seaside swimming pool with new padded chaise lounges, beach umbrellas, cabanas, towels, beach activities and equipment; an 11-court Seaside Tennis Club; a new 2,500-square-foot fitness center with 43 Life Fitness exercise machines; and the new Mauna Kea Spa by Mandara.
As the largest of the Hawaii islands — more than twice the size of all the other islands combined — there is plenty of space for magnificent golf courses here. Mauna Kea, along with the other world-class courses on the Kona/Kohala Coast, will provide visitors with bragging rights, amazing memories and stunning photos taken on immaculate seaside greens.