Back to the future: Oahu golf courses look to revive the glory days

By Jason DeeganMarch 5, 2013, 5:05 pm

HONOLULU, Hawaii -- There are glimpses of golf greatness on Oahu.

The 17th green on the Palmer course at Turtle Bay Resort sits 100 feet from the ocean, overlooking the crashing waves. The 15th tee at Ko’olau Golf Club delivers a panoramic view of the mountains and a tropical rain forest. To get to the 12th tee at Ko Olina Golf Club, players drive their carts under a manmade waterfall and rock landscaping.

Oahu boasts the most golf courses of any Hawaiian island. Yet it still is widely dismissed as a second-tier golf destination in Hawaii, long removed from its heydays of the 1970s and 1980s when it was king. Today, its top courses lack the star power and ocean views of those on its sister islands. There’s no Top 100 track that serves as a beacon to attract players like Maui's Plantation Course at Kapalua or Kauai's Prince Course at Princeville. There are no true ocean holes, either. And many of the courses aren’t consistently in great shape.

Mark Bowlby, an Idaho resident, spent two weeks in January playing golf on the Big Island and Oahu. Bowlby, who has visited the islands 15 times, said the difference between each golf scene was striking. He fell in love with the new-and-improved Mauna Kea Golf Course on the Big Island. “I felt that the courses I played on Oahu were a little weak relative to other islands,” he said.

Mind you, a fantastic golf getaway can still be had on Oahu. It’s only considered “weak” when compared to the world-class competition nearby. There are three luxury golf resorts and plenty of Hawaiian culture and natural beauty to explore on Oahu.

Much of its potential remains untapped, though. Pacific Links International Chief Executive Officer Bruce Simmonds said golf on Oahu has “huge potential.”

His company has purchased five courses on the island in the past three years.

“The last 30 years the standards of maintenance and design and the quality of courses (on Oahu) has taken a hit,” he said. “There have been quite a few built and not well maintained. … We think we can bring more sophistication to the industry there. A lot of the course presentation and service isn’t what it is on Maui. We are looking to change that.”

Oahu’s Resort Scene

Ko Olina

Ko Olina boasts JW Marriott resort and 18 sunny holes of LPGA-caliber golf. 

Oahu’s best golf resorts are all so uniquely different.

Turtle Bay Resort works in harmony with the gorgeous North Shore and its signature natural resource, the ocean waves. Guests can take a surf lesson at the Hans Hedemann Surf School of Oahu or sit safely on the sidelines, watching more experienced people tackle the challenge.

The well-conditioned Palmer Course, a former LPGA TOUR and Champions Tour host, plays resort friendly with a few tough approach shots over water sprinkled in for effect. The George Fazio course serves up a few more glimpses of the ocean with fewer shot-making demands. Under new owners, the resort just completed a major renovation of its lobby and Surfer, The Bar. Makeovers of the guest rooms and restaurants are on tap.

Ko Olina, a resort community on the dry and sunny leeward side of the island, translates in Hawaiian to “place of joy.” Adjacent to four secluded ocean coves, the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa certainly follows that mantra. The hotel’s unique design showcases a collection of saltwater ponds filled with reef sharks and stingrays. All 387 guest rooms and suites were refreshed in 2011. A visit to the Ihilani Spa, refurbished in 2010, for a traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi massage or a seawater soak in jetted tub will set the world right again. Across the street, the Ko Olina Golf Club began hosting LPGA events in the 1990s, including the 2012 and 2013 LOTTE Championship. Architect Ted Robinson created a pretty palette for golf. Afterwards, splurge on dinner at Roy’s Ko Olina Restaurant next to the clubhouse or walk to Paradise Cove for an interactive Hawaiian luau.

Golfers looking for more action should stay at the Hawaii Prince Hotel Waikiki to revel in the hustle and bustle of Honolulu. All of the rooms and suites in its two towers face the Pacific Ocean and the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, as does a rooftop pool and hot tub on the fifth floor. Free shuttles run to the Waikiki beach and shopping district and to the playable Hawaii Prince Golf Club, a 27-hole Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay design 40 minutes away in Ewa Beach. The hotel's Prince Court restaurant serves a popular seafood buffet for dinner.

Improving Oahu’s golf scene

Makaha Valley

Oahu's Makaha Valley Country Club has new ownership and renovations coming from Greg Norman's design firm. 

Pacific Links International, a Canadian company formed in 2009, bet big on Oahu by purchasing the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club, Kapolei Golf Club, Olomana Golf Links and the West and East courses at Makaha Valley Country Club. It hired Greg Norman Golf Course Design to renovate both the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club and the Makaha West course. The company even sponsored its first Champions Tour event, the Pacific Links Hawaii Championship, at Kapolei in September of 2012 as a coming out party for the brand.

The knock on Royal Hawaiian, formerly called Luana Hills Country Club, was always a layout too quirky to be enjoyable. Its intoxicating jungle setting reminiscent of Jurassic Park was just too unforgiving. Norman’s renovation to make the original Pete/Perry Dye more playable has revamped several holes on the front nine, especially to start the round. Simmonds said the extensive back nine changes should be completed this summer.

Norman’s work at Makaha West will take more time. The course, currently closed, could open in 2015, Simmonds said. This is the first time the neighboring West and East courses – both William F. Bell routings - have been under the same ownership since their openings in the 1960s. The East course, a par-71 of 6,369 yards, continues to operate as a value-oriented place to play. “The changes (on the West course) will be dramatic,” Simmonds said.

Like a lot of locals, Michelle Wie learned the game at the 6,326-yard Olomana Golf Links in Waimanalo. Infrastructure upgrades, while necessary, will have to wait.

Oahu’s other top courses

In many ways, the Ko’olau Golf Club symbolizes golf on the island. It could be oh-so-good, but it’s not quite there. Like the Royal Hawaiian and Olomana, being located on the windward side of the Ko’olau mountain range has its drawbacks. It rains more here, which can often yield wet playing conditions. Ko’olau, ranked No. 25 on Golf Digest’s list of America’s Toughest Courses, would be well-served by a Royal Hawaiian-type makeover that enhances playability. American Golf, which manages the course for its unique owner, the First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu, has done an admirable job of taking out some bunkers and cutting back the jungle in recent years. On a clear day with dry conditions, there are few better golf playgrounds in the islands. Just be prepared to lose a few balls.

The Ewa Beach Golf Club, a 6,711-yard design by Robin Nelson, has none of those conditioning issues. It’s situated in one of the Oahu’s driest climates near the Hawaii Prince Golf Club. A Kiawe forest pinches the first nine holes before water hazards overwhelm the more open back nine.

Ewa Beach, too, symbolizes golf on Oahu. It’s underrated and finally becoming better appreciated..The same should be said of the entire golf scene on this special and diverse island. Oahu golf is still incredibly good, albeit not great … yet.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.