The stunning par-3 third at Mauna Kea can play as long as 272 yards. (Mike Bailey)
When it comes to golf in Hawaii you can’t go wrong with any of the four main islands – Maui, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island. In fact, each island has such great golf that you could argue any one of them is best of the bunch. The Big Island, with its varying climates and topography, offers the widest array of golf courses in Hawaii.
If you're thinking about a Hawaii golf vacation, it never hurts to think big.
As in, the Big Island of Hawaii.
It's twice as big as all the other islands combined, and it's also the newest, which makes for some interesting topography. Black lava beaches against the deep blue Pacific provide dramatic contrasts. Add the manicured green turf of some of the best golf courses in Hawaii, and well, you get the picture.
Volcano mountains, such as Mauna Kea at 14,000 feet, cast their shadows over much of the island, dividing air masses and creating nearly a dozen micro climates. Mauna Kea even has snow on its peaks in the winter time.
The Big Island is always changing. Visitors can check out Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and even make their way down to Kalapana on the east side of the park to watch the lava flow into the ocean. Witnessing creation live is especially impressive at night.
'The great thing about the Big Island are the great outdoor options after golf,' said Johnny Eusebio, golf operations manager for the Waikoloa Beach Resort on Kohala Coast. 'Volcanoes, beaches, fishing, and other water sports are all on this island. The Big Island has 11 of the 13 climates and as a result there are many types of courses from coastal golf, great elevations in terrain, tree-lined courses, and courses surrounded by lava. I feel every course here on the Big Island presents a unique experience. They all give you a different feel.'
Speaking of climates, the Big Island arguably has the best golf weather in the world, especially on the Kohala Coast on the northwest side of the island. This is where you'll find many of the Big Island's top resorts and courses. For example, during the week of the Sony Open on Oahu, when flooding rain hit most of the state and postponed the first round of the tournament, Mauna Kea was open for play with hardly a drop of rain. The area only gets about 6 inches a year, although the Hilo area, on the east side of the island, has been known to get up to 300 inches of precipitation annually.
'It's probably the driest place in Hawaii,' said Josh Silliman, director of golf at Mauna Kea, of the Kohala Coast. 'We had some clouds (during the Sony Open), and it might have scared some people away, but for the most part, the rain stayed north of us.'
When asked for another reason golfers should pick the Big Island, Silliman said, half-joking, half serious: 'Mauna Kea.'
Silliman was just being truthful. Mauna Kea Golf Course, ranked No. 19 on Golf Magazine's 'Top 100 courses You Can Play' list, is an exceptional Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that opened in 1964 and features one of the most picturesque par 3s in the world. The third hole (pictured above), which can be set as long as 272 yards from a new tee, plays over rocks and ocean to a peninsula green.
Recently renovated by Rees Jones, the 7,370-yard golf course has never looked better.
'Rees came in and made it even tougher,' Silliman said. 'It's a championship golf course on a resort property, which is kind of unique.'
But Mauna Kea isn't the only good game in the area. The nearby Mauna Lani Resort has two terrific layouts. The Francis H. I'i Brown South Course at Mauna Lani has an iconic hole as well, the 15th, a show-stopping par 3 that jets into the deep blue ocean and catches the attention of golfers.
But while the South Course, with its impressive coastline holes seems to get much of the attention, Mauna Lani's North Course is no slouch either. Both courses are designed by Homer Flint, R. F. Cain and Robin Nelson, and those who play the North Course regularly say it's on par or better than the South with a few ocean views of its own and some terrifically designed holes. Besides Mauna Kea and Mauna Lani, golfers also might want to consider the Kings Course and Beach Course at Waikoloa Beach Resort.
Other worthwhile golf experiences in the area include Waikoloa Village Golf Club, Mauna Kea's sister course, Hapuna, and the Jack Nicklaus-designed Hualalai Golf Course at the Four Seasons Resort. The Hualalai course, which winds along black lava fields perched above the Pacific, hosts the Champions Tour Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.
A little farther south down the coast is Kona Country Club, which has two excellent contrasting golf courses. Kona's Ocean Course, as its name would imply, is a classic William Bell layout that opened in 1964 and plays alongside the Pacific. The Ali'i Mountain Course, laid out on land that was once a playground to Hawaiian royalty, climbs into the foothills, offering elevation changes as well as overhead views of the coastline below.
Golfers might also want to consider the Dick Nugent-designed Makalei Hawaii Country Club in Kailua Kona, Opened in 1992, the course measures 7,091 yards from the tips and is one of the few Hawaii golf courses to feature bentgrass greens.
Or for some golf a little more off the beaten path, try Sea Mountain Golf Course on the south side of the island, Hilo Municipal G.C. on the east side or Waimea Country Club, a low-key public course with affordable rates and excellent conditions located on the north side.
For more information, check out HawaiiGolf.com's guide to Big Island golf.