Beauty by Design

I once gave an avid golfer a trick ball that was, by all appearances, a standard golf ball. But, in fact, it was made of a highly pressurized synthetic rubber that caused it to bounce and bounce (and bounce), taking his tee shot right onto the green. It made for a fun and impressive round, yet even without a bag of these wondrous balls, you can still play some of the best golf of your life on the Big Island.

Like a fine wine, a world-class golf outing depends on several variables combined and tweaked in just the right proportions—with maybe a dash of luck sprinkled in. There’s no better playground than on the Big Island, aptly nicknamed the “Golf Capital of Hawai‘i.” With premiere courses to choose from, golfers negotiate immaculate green fairways with dramatic landscapes and ocean vistas. But don’t be fooled by the beauty—here, you will find some of the most demanding and challenging courses, crafted by the best designers in the world. 

Big Island golf is very unique because of countless varying factors. Underlying many of the courses are lava rock that makes for a firm ground, causing drives to go farther while allowing balls to roll for extended distances. The grasses often used, Bermuda hybrids and Seashore Paspalum, are optimally suited to the environmental conditions and their nearly vertical growth means that a ball will usually sit well, promoting better club to ball contact and, ultimately, desired scores. Trade winds impose a challenge, while focusing in such a breathtaking environment is a test in itself. The same lava that can help you get more out of your drive are sometimes strategically left by the designer in the middle of the fairway so if hit, say a quick prayer that your ball ricochets in a favorable direction. If it happens to go in the weeds, fear not, as there are no snakes here to worry about—but beware of the sharp kiawe thorns.

But magnificent views and long drives aside, golf legend Arnold Palmer once said that the more he practiced, the luckier he got. So while on island, hit the links and practice getting lucky. Here are some golf options you won’t want to miss.

Mauna Kea Golf Course  

In 1964, this grande dame of Big Island golf courses was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., a glorious 18-hole, par 72 course with panoramic vistas and 120 challenging bunkers. In 2008, the course was remodeled and beautified without changing the core design by his son, Rees Jones. Golf Digest perennially names Mauna Kea Golf Course as one the top golf resorts in America and discerning players agree.  Renowned signature holes like the par 3, No. 3 is played across an inlet of the blue Pacific and onto an ocean side green that is guarded with pristine white-sand bunkers. It was in December 1964 that Arnold Palmer, Jack 

Nicklaus and Gary Player first introduced hole No. 3 to the nation as their Big Three challenge was televised from this very spot. But it doesn't stop there—No. 3 at Mauna Kea is consistently the most photographed hole in the state, if not the world. Step up to the tee box and you will instantly see why. Embracing all the qualities of resort golf, Mauna Kea Golf Course is one for the memories. For tee times, call (808) 882-5400.

Hapuna Golf Course

Opened in 1992, this unique and environmentally sensitive course was designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay. In Palmer’s words, he endeavored to “respect and preserve the existing terrain and environment while staying within the framework of playability.” Fun, challenging, and a balance between risk and reward are just some of the terms players use to describe the signature holes at the Hapuna Golf Course. Here, golfers have a variety of options at play—the 14th hole is a fantastic par 5 that heads straight away from the tee albeit slightly uphill. Long hitters may choose to “go for it” by shooting over a hazardous ravine to a wide but shallow undulating and elevated green that is usually stroked by a left to right wind. Short hitters may prefer to lay up their second shot on the fairway before going over the ravine and onto the green. Here, the game is uniquely yours. If you’re looking to play at Hawai‘i’s most natural golf course, reserve tee times by calling (808) 880-3000.

Mauna Lani Resort North Course

Many players consider this well-conditioned course a hidden gem. Built in the 1980s, the North Course (Francis H. I’i Brown Course) is tucked within a myriad of barren lava fields and kiawe (mesquite) forests that are fed by a natural oasis of underground springs. The northern boundary is a very sacred spot in Hawaiian history—it’s a protected, 230-acre archaeological site that contains seven ancient Hawaiian fishponds, all which were used to cultivate seafood for Hawaiian royalty. The course’s holes are all inland and somewhat sheltered from the coastal trade winds; however, they still require thoughtful pre-shot strategy since trees in the fairways create “bunkers in the sky.” The highly acclaimed 17th hole is a par 3 that sits in what is basically a bowl of lava, an emerald pearl in a sea of matte-black basalt. If you’re looking for a quintessential Big Island golf experience, look no further than the North Course at the Mauna Lani Resort. Reserve tee times at (808) 885-6655.

Mauna Lani Resort South Course

A favorite of many repeat visitors, pounding surf may deafen your conversations while amazing vistas steal your concentration. Home to the Senior Skins games in the 1990s (a tournament which hosted household names like Palmer, Trevino, Nicklaus and Watson), this course is known for its magnificently manicured greens and smooth fairways. A feast for the senses, ocean side hole No. 15 is a par 3 that requires tee shots to rise over the surf and sometimes through treacherous winds. Both challenging and breathtaking, you’ll want to savor your time here. “If I had only one course to play the rest of my life, this would be it,” says one young player. Located in the Mauna Lani Resort, reserve tee times by calling (808) 885-6655.

Hualalai Golf Course

Hosting the PGA Champions Tour since 1997, this was the first Jack Nicklaus signature course on the Big Island and his first created on an all lava terrain. When talking about the course’s design, Nicklaus comments, “The inspiration came from the use those natural ups and downs, always keeping in mind that the ocean is the greatest influence here.” Indeed, golfers rave about the stark beauty and contrast of lava fields paralleled against a turquoise seascape. At just over 7,100 yards, this course offers an exhilarating challenge that is sure to create memorable tales, especially the unforgettable 17th hole. This par 3 was designed by Nicklaus to quite literally “touch the ocean.”  While only 164-yards, its intimidating layout requires precise strokes and accurate placement. Residents and residential guests of Hualälai and the guests of Four Seasons Resort Hualälai are invited to enjoy this exquisite facility. For information, please call (808) 325-8480.

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