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.

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.


Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery


A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.