By George Fuller and Rich Skyzinski
Why wouldn’t you take the golf clubs to Hawaii?
The average daily high temperature does not vary even 10 degrees at any point of the year, and the golf settings are virtually unlimited. Golfers can play in the spray of the Pacific Ocean, ensconced by dense tropical jungle, in the midst of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities or in a desolate nature preserve.
A convenient and satisfying round of golf on Oahu — Hawaii’s most populous island — can be tough to find. If you’re staying in Waikiki, where most all the hotels are located, your closest choice is Ala Wai Golf Course, a busy municipal just blocks from Waikiki Beach, where rounds are sometimes scarce (due to demand) and can take a while to complete. If you’re willing to drive an hour or more, resort courses such as Hawaii Prince and Ko Olina, both in Ewa, or Turtle Bay in North Shore become accessible. More on those later.
MAKAHA RESORT AND GOLF CLUB
William F. Bell was one of the game’s most prolific golf course architects between the 1950s and ’70s. He is credited with designing more than 200 courses in his lifetime — all but one of them in the western half of the continental United States (including 10 in Arizona) or Hawaii.
His first course in Hawaii was the Makaha Resort, which opened in the late 1960s on the other side of the island, away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki, and immediately was tabbed by Honolulu Magazine as Oahu’s best course.
Others have followed with similar acclaim. Golf Digest has included it on its “best places to play” list and on its roster of the country’s best resort courses.
It’s a good debate as to whether the top draw is its beauty or demanding nature of the course itself. It is rare that wind is not a factor here and the greens are big, well maintained and not without their share of roll. It helps to be a good iron player because many holes are well protected by bunkers or water hazards.
The course starts at the base of a valley, works its way into the mountains and then back down, but there are plenty of gorgeous ocean views.
KO’OLAU GOLF COURSE
You’ve gone to Hawaii to enjoy yourself, but that might be a challenge if you start a round at Ko’olau and you’re unsure you brought enough extra golf balls. One Hawaiian website has a suggestion: You should have as many golf balls with you as your handicap.
Located just a 15- or 20-minute drive from Honolulu, this simply is one of the most demanding courses in the country. Even from the middle set of tees that play to approximately 6,450 yards, this is all the golf course a player could ask for. Don’t be shy; tee it forward.
Great ravines cross many holes, creating several forced carries that, in many cases, make major contributions toward skyrocketing scores.
The course was opened in 1991, built by Dick Nugent from some 1,500 acres of tropical jungle bordering the Koolau Mountain Range, so heavy rainfall is frequent. The views are nearly as outstanding as the finishing hole, which might be high on the list of most difficult 18th holes anywhere. Depending on which set of tees are selected, the drive is over an unforgiving ravine and requires a carry of 170 yards at the least and perhaps up to 240.
TURTLE BAY RESORT (Palmer Course)
This is one of Oahu’s most popular courses, perhaps because the Palmer Course was the site of tour events for both the LPGA and Champions Tour.
The Turtle Bay Championship was played on the Palmer Course seven times between 2001 and ’08; that event was the last in a long run of events that started as the Kaanapali Classic in 1987. The LPGA played five SBS Opens there from 2005-09.
Wind is virtually a constant presence, and because the first nine is somewhat open and rolling, the feel is quite unlike that of a tropical paradise. The second nine is completely different as it winds its way through a virtual forest of pine trees and the Punaho’olapa Marsh, so this is a joy for players who are bird watchers.
The most memorable hole is the 17th green because of all the bunkers that protect the drive zone and the green, which sits a flip wedge from the Pacific Ocean.
Golf Digest also has included Turtle Bay on its annual list of the country’s best resorts.
As an aside, the restaurant at the course, Lei Lei’s, is generally highly regarded among the locals.
KO OLINA GOLF CLUB
All the plaudits should be convincing enough for island visitors to put Ko Olina on their must-play list.
Where to start? Voted best golf course in Hawaii by readers of Honolulu Magazine in 2010; recipient of the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper’s “best of the best” award as Oahu’s top-rated golf course; and included on the Golf Digest list of best new resort courses in the U.S.
If that weren’t enough, the LPGA and Champions Tour previously played events here.
Built on oceanfront property by Ted Robinson and opened in 1990, water comes into play on half the holes and wind is always a factor. Because the winds change depending on the time of the year, one of the most versatile holes is the par-3 eighth. Though it plays to approximately 190 from the middle tees, the shot can be as little as a 7-iron with the wind or a fairway wood if the breeze is stiff and into the player’s face.
Because of the tremendous number of hotel rooms within a few minutes, Ko Olina is a frequent inclusion in golf packages.
ALA WAI GOLF COURSE
This isn’t new or flashy, but there’s no course that’s easier to get to from Waikiki or Honolulu’s prime tourist areas.
For the longest time, Ala Wai had the reputation of being the busiest golf course in the United States, and still today, the county-owned facility is remarkably popular. It was the site of both of the USGA’s public links events; Verne Callison won the first of his two APL titles there in 1960 and Kelly Antolock was the WAPL champion at Ala Wai in 1983.
Perhaps the best part of Ala Wai? It’s the least expensive 18 holes on the island.