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Keeping up with the Joneses at Mauna Kea Golf Course on the Big Island

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KOHALA COAST, Hawaii -- It's difficult to believe that before 1965, golf didn't exist on the Big Island of Hawaii. It's also hard to fathom that the first course built here -- Mauna Kea Golf Course on the Kona side of the island -- is arguably still the best.

Of course, Mauna Kea didn't maintain its lofty status by remaining pat. While other outstanding courses -- such as Mauna Lani South and the Jack Nicklaus Course at Hualalai Golf Club -- were taking their place among the elite on Hawaii, Mauna Kea had begun to wear down. That's the natural progression of all things, especially golf courses. So one of the original designer's sons, Rees Jones, did what he does best. He restored this 1965 Robert Trent Jones Sr. classic to perfection and added a few modern touches.

History puts Mauna Kea over the top

But having a difficult, well maintained golf course isn't anything unique. Putting those finishing touches on top of something such as Mauna Kea, however, makes it stand above most of the field.

Back in the early 1960s, the elder Jones told then-owner Nelson Rockefeller that he could build a golf course on the fields of lava by the sea at the base of one of the world's tallest mountains. Not only could he build a great course, but regarding the third hole, Jones said, 'Mr. Rockefeller, if you allow me to build a golf course here, this will be the most beautiful hole in the world.'

Beauty, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder, but you would be hard-pressed to find anything prettier than Mauna Kea's third. Perhaps equal -- but 'more spectacular' could only be argued as a personal choice. Now stretched to 270 yards from the back tee, this hole spans over a significant piece of the deep blue Pacific, across black rock and onto a green protected by deep bunkers and sucker pin positions. It's beautiful and dangerous, pretty much how it was on Dec. 8, 1964.

That was the date that the Big Three -- Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player -- christened Mauna Kea and golf on the Big Island. They each stood there on that tee and did what the great players of their era did -- they parred the hole.

Nicklaus wound up winning and Head Professional Johnny Eusebio recounted how the Golden Bear turned near disaster into birdie on the short, par-4 sixth.

'It looked like he shanked a 5-iron off the tee into the fifth fairway,' Eusebio said. 'Then he managed to hit a 5-iron onto the green and make the putt for birdie.'

Mauna Kea also played host to the Shell Wonderful World of Golf in 1969, with a match between Dan Sikes, Al Geiberger and Peter Alliss.

'That's the thing about this golf course,' Eusebio said. 'It has an iconic feel to it.'

Restored with integrity

For the rest of us, par is like birdie on No. 3. Most are just relieved to not be hitting three from the drop area. Bogey isn't a bad score.

In fact, bogey is acceptable for most players on most of the holes. With deep fairway and greenside bunkers, difficult approaches and a little bit of wind, Mauna Kea is as difficult as it is beautiful.

At 7,370 yards, you almost have to be a PGA Tour player to tackle Mauna Kea from the tips. Fortunately, there are four other sets of tees to give the recreational golfer a little hope and a little fun.

Even before the younger Jones took to restoring the course, Mauna Kea was formidable. The holes that run along the ocean and the holes that soar some 300 feet above Kohala Coastline all have one thing in common: they aren't easy. You're as likely to get an uneven lie as an even one and chances are you're be calcuting a club or two in one direction or another depending on the uphill or downhill nature of the shot and the strenghth and direction of the wind.

The third may be the signature hole, but the 11th is arguably just as beautiful with a green that not only backs up against the sea but affords a view of one of the most beautiful and secluded beaches in Hawaii, right behind the Mauna Kea Beach Resort hotel.

Rees Jones came along and didn't change the holes for the most part. He replanted the course with Tifeagle Bermudagrass on the greens and Tifway 419 hybrid Bermudagrass on the tees, fairways and roughs. A new irrigation system, the number of bunker increased to 99 and the overall yardage was expanded by about 200 yards from the tips, and multiple tees will challenge all levels of players.

Mauna Kea Golf Course: The verdict

After the recent restoration and subsequent tender loving care, Mauna Kea Golf Course is arguably the best course on the island. The course has everything: beauty, location, flawless conditioning and plenty of challenge.

There are also top-notch practice facilities, lesson opportunities and terrific dining at Number 3 Restaurant located on the end of the clubhouse overlooking the golf course and the ocean.

This is one course you don't want to pass up on a trip to the Big Island.