Trip Dispatch: Kona-Kohala Coast shines on Hawaii's Big Island

By Jason DeeganFebruary 20, 2014, 9:35 pm

KOHALA COAST, Hawai’i - Mother Nature got creative with her Crayolas when she colored the golf courses of Hawai’i Island.

Besides the usual hues of greens, browns and white found on most courses, the black backdrop of the centuries old lava rock and the bright aqua of the ocean create a kaleidoscope of natural beauty.

"The color contrast of the black lava, white sand and ocean blue on our courses is spectacular,” says Josh Silliman, the Director of Golf at Mauna Kea Resort. “There’s nothing like it. It’s very appealing."

Hawai’i Island, called the "Big Island" by mainlanders, celebrates 50 years of lava golf this year. Five decades ago in December of 1964, Golf’s holy trinity at the time – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player – played together at the grand opening of the Mauna Kea Golf Course, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that signaled the birth of one of the world’s best oceanfront golf destinations.

Mauna Kea, ranked 31st among “America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses” by Golf Digest in 2013-14, has been joined by a handful of sought-after resort courses along the dry, desert-like Kona-Kohala Coast. Iconic ocean holes – like no. 3 at Mauna Kea, no. 15 on the Francis H. I'i Brown South Course at Mauna Lani Resort and no. 17 on the Jack Nicklaus course at the Hualālai Golf Club – introduce players to the salt spray, and if they’re lucky, a whale breaching in their backswings. The luxuries of Maui and the jungles of Kauai tend hog the spotlight, and yet, this spectacular stretch of shoreline might be Hawaii’s purest golf paradise. It rains less than 10 inches annually, a virtual guarantee for those chasing good weather.

"The Big Island, to me, is the best kept secret in Hawaii, not just in terms of golf, but also the landscape,” says John Sanford, a Florida-based golf course architect who recently completed work at the Kona Country Club. "If you travel around the island, it is such a diverse landscape, especially with the volcanoes. It is my favorite island without a doubt."

Exciting excursions - I experienced kayaking and snorkeling with Kona Boys, ziplining with KapohoKine Adventures out of Hilo, whale-watching with Hawaii Ocean Sports and hiking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park while staying at the cool Kilauea Lodge - will take any Big Island vacation to a whole new level.

Golf on the Big Island of Hawaii


Vegetation is abundant on the The Kings Course at Waikoloa Beach Resort. (Jason Deegan/GolfAdvisor)

The first resort development you'll encounter driving north from Kona International Airport on Highway 19 is the celebrated Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at historic Ka'upulehu. This property sells luxury and a sense of community to go along with two 18-hole golf courses. Resort guests and members can play the Nicklaus Course, which hosts the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai on the Champions Tour each January. The layout has some of the island's widest fairways and flattest greens before unveling a trio of finishing holes playing along the surf. Hualalai's Weiskopf Course, meanwhile, is only available to members.

Up the road is Waikoloa Beach Resort, a mecca of shops, restaurants, a Hilton, the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa where I stayed and courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish. The 533-room Marriott sits on 15 acres facing the Anaeho'omalu Bay and the intriguing ancient fish ponds near its narrow beach.

I found the Kings’ course to be a solid track with a couple nice Weiskopf-inspired short par 4s, although I wish I had played the RTJ Jr.’s Beach course simply for the ocean view on no. 7.


The par-3 3rd hole at the Francis H. I'i Brown South Course at Mauna Lani. (Jason Deegan/GolfAdvisor)

Thankfully, there’s ocean golf galore at the Mauni Lani Resort. The Francis H. I'i Brown South and North Courses at Mauna Lani could be mistaken for twins with opposing personalities. The South course’s fairways are so friendly that I’ve heard golfers say they lack definition. The same can’t be said of the North course, which roams inland through an older lava flow and a confining Kiawe forest. While it lacks the magical ocean holes of the South, the North course is favored by golfers who want a challenge.

"Architecturally, they are night and day," says Colin Pears, a golfer visiting from Reno, Nev., who favors the North.

Me? I’d play the South’s ocean holes - nos. 7, 13 and 15 - over and over until I died of sunburn. The South course hosted the Senior Skins Game (last staged in 2011 as the Wendy's Champions Skins Game at Ka'anapali on Maui) from 1990-2000.

Stay and Play on the Big Island

Both the nearby Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows where I stayed and the Fairmont Orchid, Hawaii, are palaces right on the beach. Palm trees, jungle plants and ponds stocked with sharks, turtles and other sea creatures impress at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. Private lanais make all 343 rooms feel bigger. Mauna Lani's private oceanfront bungalows were completely renovated and  all the guestrooms and suites were refreshed in 2013, along with the pool. A new oceanfront hottub added this month provides a perfect place to lounge at sunset. The Bay Terrace restaurant offers a killer breakfast buffet at sunrise. For dinner, go for the Kona lobster and delicate braised short rib at the Brown’s Beach House Restaurant at the Fairmont.

Mauna Kea, just up the road, still looks great thanks to a renovation by Rees Jones in 2008. Its sister course, the Hapuna Golf Course by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, delivered the week’s biggest surprise. This often-overlooked, less-expensive round offers plenty of fun. It sits high in the hills above the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel with some great panoramic views and improved turf conditions.

The 350-room Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, built in 1994, and the elegant 252-room Mauna Kea Beach Hotel underwent room renovations in 2013 and other enhancements that have both properties sparkling. Mauna Kea, developed by Laurance S. Rockefeller in 1965, showcases the Kauna‘oa Beach, a breathtaking white-sand cove that ranks as the island’s best beach. Dinner at Manta is a splurge worth experiencing.

New golf developments on the Big Island

Construction related to golf continues along the coast. The Kona Country Club should open its revitalized Ocean Course this summer, according to Sanford, with greens rebuilt to their original size, refurbished bunkers, more level fairways, new cart paths and a modern irrigation system. Sanford said a similar renovation will occur on the Mountain course once the Ocean opens.

Last year’s May opening of Kohanaiki, a seaside Rees Jones design just south of the airport, enhances an already impressive array of exclusive private clubs on the island. Limited tee times on Mondays are available for locals with a valid Hawaiian license willing to shell out $275 for a tee time. Construction on a 62,000-square-foot clubhouse will begin in March.


Kohanaiki is a new, exclusive addition to the courses on the Big Island's Kona coast. (Jason Deegan/GolfAdvisor)

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”