Hawaii sculpts exotic courses from lava

February 06, 1994|By Harry West | Harry West,Special to The Sun

Thirty years ago, if developers wanted to build a championship golf course in an exotic locale, the Kohala Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii would have been the last ground to be broken.

Yet, today it's one of the world's prime places to play the game.

The transformation has been a work of art. Centuries ago, the coast area was devastated by lava flows, the molten rock laying waste to everything in its path. There was no soil left, just heaps of refuse from the bowels of the Earth. The fury unleashed by Pele, the goddess of the volcano, had missed only a few stretches of pristine coastline.

But the island's weather was warm and usually dry, and in the early 1960s, when Laurance S. Rockefeller was flying over Kaunaoa Bay on the island's northwest shore, he was captivated by the island's potential and decided to build a world-class resort there with a golf course.

Robert Trent Jones Sr., who has designed some 300 course worldwide, was given the challenge. He needed lots of soil, so he decided to manufacture it from the lava rock. Heavy machinery was brought in to grade, crush and roll the lava into fairways and greens. The result: a golf course that consistently has been ranked among the world's best, a magnet for top professionals as well as the rich and famous.

When the golf course at Mauna Kea Beach Resort opened in 1964, it stood alone as an oasis amid the desolation. Now, other golf course architects have emulated Mr. Jones' success, and championship courses have begun a march down Hawaii's coast.

Opened within the last year are the Hapuna Golf Course at Mauna Kea, designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, and 18 new holes at Mauna Lani, a resort that has been chipping away at Mauna Kea's lofty position as king of the coast. It, too, has

attracted the Hollywood crowd as the site of the PGA's Seniors' Skins Game the last four years.

The new courses joined existing 18-hole courses at Mauna Kea and Mauna Lani -- and two courses at the nearby Waikoloa Beach Resort. When the new course at the Four Seasons resort is finished -- it's under construction down the coast in the North Kona region -- there will be a 126 holes of golf in this vacation mecca. Some six miles inland, in the cool and breezy uplands above the Waikoloa resorts, there is an 18-hole gem designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the Waikoloa Village Golf Club.

Mauna Lani

The Francis H. I'i Brown Golf Course at Mauna Lani was ready for play in 1981, and draws raves, especially for its over-the-ocean -- sixth hole with a peninsula green guarded by lava and sand traps.

The Ritz-Carlton, condos and town houses were added to the resort later, so a second 18 holes were woven into the original 81. The famous No. 6 became No. 15 and gained a rival for beauty when its companion on the South Course, the 221-yard, downhill, along-the-ocean No. 7 -- surrounded by lava -- was opened.

There are lava sculptures on the North and South courses, some in sand traps, some bordering the greens. Lava lines many of the fairways, keeping even the low handicappers honest when they see a chance to take a shortcut.

Most of the new holes are inland, where the man-made lakes and obstacles have been combined with natural hazards to put the emphasis on shot-making rather than length.

The greens are grainy but true, and if you give the ball a good roll you'll get a fair result -- that is, if you learn how to read the break the grain will cause.

All the par-3 holes on both courses are works of beauty, and golfers use plenty of film along with their irons. In fact, it's easy to forget about the score when you're marveling at scenery that runs from the summit of Mauna Kea -- crowned with its world-famous observatory -- to the Pacific, where it is not unusual to see whales cavorting during the winter months.

Hapuna Golf Course

Mauna Kea Resort has a second hotel, the Hapuna Beach Prince, near completion. Its second golf course opened last summer and stretches from near the ocean into the highlands. Again, the emphasis is on the environment. Indigenous plants requiring little water were used, and kiawe trees were transplanted in keeping with the area's natural arid landscape.

From the middle tees, the course is only 6,000 yards, but that stretches to 6,500 yards for championship to nearly 6,900 yards for tournament play. Unless your drives are dead straight and long, settle for the middle tees and enjoy your outing, or end up beating the bushes to find your hooks and fades.

Here, as at Mauna Lani, the views are breathtaking. The course takes you 700 feet up the slopes of the Kohala Mountains. The undulating greens and fairways are in plush condition.

The par-5 holes are noteworthy, with tees on hillsides and narrow fairways far below. To experience what Mr. Palmer and Mr. Seay have been able to carve out of wasteland is worth every penny of the green fees ($60 for resort guests; $110 for visitors. Carts, which are required, cost $40 for guests and visitors).

Alii Country Club

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