Mixing religion and the golf gods works well for Ko'olau Golf Club on Oahu

By Travel ArticlesFebruary 19, 2013, 5:00 am

KANEOHE, Oahu Hawaii -- It's a typical Sunday morning at Ko'olau Golf Club.

The parking lot is packed. There are cars and people everywhere.

The chaotic scene tells a story of revival, not just for a golf club that has struggled since opening in 1992 but for a church searching for a home. The First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu overcame improbable odds in 2006 to become the only church in the world to own a golf course on-site.

The Sunday I visited in January, few of the cars were driven by golfers. Sunday morning tee times are restricted to just four groups per hour. While the rest of the golf world counts on the Sabbath to make money, Ko'olau actually trims back access to save parking spaces for members of a massive congregation that numbers 1,200 members and continues to grow. The arrangement signifies the unique cooperation between American Golf, the course manager, and its church owners.

Church Executive Director Ron Mathieu -- who was intimately involved in the purchase of the course -- likes to call this symbiotic relationship the 'miracle at Ko'olau.'

'We bump into each other from time to time, but it is a really good relationship,' Mathieu said. 'We have been good to them, and they have been good to us.'

A partnership is born

Built for $82 million, Ko'olau Golf Club sits on heavenly land roughly 45 minutes from downtown Honolulu. The course was carved from 242 acres of a tropical rain forest designated as a nature conservancy in the shadow of the Ko'olau Mountains.

Originally a private club, Ko'olau never thrived, hindered by a wet climate and a penal layout once regarded as the toughest course in the country from the tips. Stuck on the windward side of the mountains, Ko'olau averages nearly 78 inches of rain per year, according to General Manager Ken Terao. Soggy conditions and rainy days -- along with the threat of high scores -- certainly don't attract golfers.

Mathieu said it took a series of extraordinary events for the church to take control of an ailing property. He gets excited telling the tale, how a new federal law ultimately trumped a state law to allow the church to operate on conservancy land and how the involvement of a Catholic bishop helped the church sell its former Honolulu home.

It even took some creativity to keep long-time operator American Golf on board. American Golf, which manages 95 courses around the country, operates a spacious pro shop and restaurant out of the basement of the beautiful 110,000-square-foot church rent free. Mathieu said the current lease is simple.

'We don't charge them anything,' he said. 'If they make money, they do. They have made money every year we've been here. We don't need a profit from the course. They pay the property tax. They pay the utilities. It is just the jewel in their crown (of courses).'

The setting is so popular for weddings and banquets the non-profit church created a for-profit business to host the celebrations. 'It's pretty complicated with three entities,' Mathieu admitted.

But the cost-sharing benefits everybody. The course restaurant can deliver church members and staff a convenient meal throughout the week. They also get discounts on tee times and memberships. Some groups play right after their service. In return, the church sometimes attracts new members through the course.

'It's a great way to expose the church to the general public,' Mathieu said. 'We are not in their face about our church, but a number of people have joined our church because of golf.'

Senior pastor Dan Chun has said: 'Now there is no excuse to skip church for golf; people can come to church and still golf.'

Mathieu said several parties have offered to buy the course, but it's not for sale. 'We are not selling,' he said. 'We've got a great arrangement with a good company. It is a good partnership.'

Playing Ko'olau Golf Club

Despite attempts to soften a ball-gobbling beast, it still takes an act of the golf gods to shoot a low score at Ko'olau.

A Jurassic Park jungle lines the fairways. Deep ravines dissect many holes. In 2012, Golf Digest ranked Ko'olau No. 25 on its list of the toughest courses in America, down from third in 2007.

Mathieu said the church lease requires American Golf to make capital improvements every year. The maintenance staff has hacked back the jungle, removing some blind shots over ravines and filled in bunkers to make it more forgiving. Mathieu belongs to a group from the church -- playfully called the PGA (Presbyterian Golf Adventures) -- that scouts other courses on Oahu to make sure Ko'olau keeps up with its competition.

'People who have played this course over the past 15 years know it is in the best shape it has been during that time,' Mathieu said. 'They have done a lot of bunker work. It had a reputation of being so tough. They have made it more playable.'

Terao still recommends players bring as many balls as the number of their handicap. Hawaiian-born PGA Tour pro Dean Wilson owns the course record with a 67, a score some high handicappers might threaten in nine holes.

The first hole -- a tight-and-winding downhill par 5 -- and the demanding 18th hole -- a par 4 highlighted by epic carries on the tee and approach shots -- form arguably the toughest bookends in golf. Players will be rewarded by putting the driver away on the quirkiest holes -- par 4s at No. 5, No. 6 and No. 10 and the par-5 16th hole. It's highly recommended to tee off from the back tee of the 15th hole, a relatively short par 4. The panoramic views stretch for miles.

Robert Thue, a resident of Greenwich, Conn., who has been visiting Oahu for 20 years, recommends people enjoy the setting, not worry about their score. Ko'olau ranked among the top 100 public courses in the country by Golf Digest from 2003-2009. 'I come here for the solitude and scenery,' he said.

Ko'olau Golf Club: The verdict

The best advice I can give is to call ahead before you play Ko'olau Golf Club and ask about course conditions.

The day I played, it was so wet I lost two balls plugged in the fairways. On a clear day with dry fairways, however, it is one of the best golf experiences in the Hawaiian islands.

I like Terao's advice as well. As a 10-handicap, I lost eight and still played pretty well. Those who play it safe will be rewarded with a decent score.

Ogilvy urges distance rollback of ball

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 23, 2017, 8:49 pm

Add Geoff Ogilvy to the chorus of voices calling for a distance rollback of the golf ball.

In an interview before the start of the Emirates Australian Open, Ogilvy said a "time-out" is needed for governing bodies to deal with the issue.

"It's complete nonsense," he said, according to an Australian website. "In my career, it’s gone from 300 yards was a massive hit to you’re a shorter hitter on tour now, legitimately short. It’s changed the way we play great golf courses and that is the crime. It isn’t that the ball goes 400, that’s neither here nor there. It’s the fact the ball going 400 doesn’t makes Augusta work properly, it functions completely wrong.’’

Full-field scores from the Emirates Australian Open

Ogilvy used an example from American baseball to help get his point across to an Australian audience.

“Major League Baseball in America, they use wooden bats, and everywhere else in baseball they use aluminium bats,’’ he said. “And when the major leaguers use aluminium bats they don’t even have to touch it and it completely destroys their stadiums. It’s just comedy.

“That’s kind of what’s happened to us at least with the drivers of these big hitters; We’ve completely outgrown the stadiums. So do you rebuild every stadium in the world? That’s expensive. Or make the ball go shorter? It seems relatively simple from that perspective.’’

Ogilvy, an Australian who won the 2006 U.S. Open, said he believes there will be a rollback, but admitted it would be a "challenge" for manufacturers to produce a ball that flies shorter for pros but does not lose distance when struck by recreational players.

The golf world celebrates Thanksgiving

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 23, 2017, 6:01 pm

Here's a look, through social media, at how the golf world celebrates Thanksgiving.

Lexi Thompson:

Baking time!!

A post shared by Lexi Thompson (@lexi) on

David Feherty:

Jack Nicklaus:

GC Tiger Tracker:

Steve Stricker:

Golf Channel:

Frank Nobilo:

Ian Poulter:

Tyrone Van Aswegen:

Happy Thanksgiving: Biggest turkeys of 2017

By Grill Room TeamNovember 23, 2017, 3:00 pm

Thanksgiving brings us golf's biggest turkeys of the year. Donald Trump, Grayson Murray and a certain (now-former) tournament director headline the list. Click here or on the image below to check out all the turkeys.

Tributes pour in for legendary caddie Sheridan

By Randall MellNovember 23, 2017, 2:54 pm

Tributes are pouring in as golf celebrates the life of Greg Sheridan after receiving news of his passing.

Sheridan, a long-time LPGA caddie who worked for some of the game’s all-time greats, including Kathy Whitworth and Beth Daniel, died Wednesday in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., at 63. He was diagnosed in July 2016 with brain and lung cancer.

Sheridan worked the last dozen years or so with Natalie Gulbis, who expressed her grief in an Instagram post on Wednesday:

“Greg…I miss you so much already and it hasn’t even been a day. 15+ seasons traveling the world you carried me & my bag through the highs and lows of golf and life. You were so much more than my teammate on the course…Thank you.”

Sheridan was on Whitworth’s bag for the last of her LPGA-record 88 titles.

“When I first came on tour, I would try to find out how many times Greg won,” Gulbis told Golfweek. “It’s a crazy number, like 50.”

Matthew Galloway, a caddie and friend to Sheridan, summed up Sheridan’s impressive reach after caddying with him one year at the LPGA Founders Cup, where the game’s pioneers are honored.

“Best Greg story,” Galloway tweeted on Thanksgiving morning, “coming up 18 at PHX all the founders were in their chairs. Greg goes, `Yep, caddied for her, her and her.’ Legend.”

In a first-person column for Golf Magazine last year, Gulbis focused on Sheridan while writing about the special bond between players and caddies. She wrote that she won the “looper lottery” when she first hired Sheridan in ’04.

“Greg and I have traveled the world, and today he is like family,” Gulbis wrote. “Sometimes, he’s a psychologist. Last year, my mom got sick and it was a distraction, but he was great. When I used to have boyfriend issues and breakup issues, he was my confidant. In a world where caddies sometimes spill secrets, Greg has kept a respectful silence, and I can’t thank him enough for that. He’s an extension of me.”

Four months after Gulbis wrote the column, Sheridan was diagnosed with cancer.

“The LPGA family is saddened to hear of the loss of long-time tour caddie, Greg Sheridan,” the LPGA tweeted. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and players he walked with down the fairways. #RIP.”

Dean Herden was among the legion of caddies saddened by the news.

“Greg was a great guy who I respected a lot and taught me some great things over the years,” Herden texted to GolfChannel.com.

Here are some of heartfelt messages that are rolling across Twitter:

Retired LPGA great Annika Sorenstam:

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan in a retweet of Gulbis:

Golf Channel reporter and former tour player Jerry Foltz:

Christina Kim:

LPGA caddie Shaun Clews:

LPGA caddie Jonny Scott:

LPGA caddie Kevin Casas:

LPGA pro Jennie Lee: