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


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.