Home » Course Review

Mauna Kea's sister course is a wild, rugged beauty guaranteed to steal your heart

Dale LeathermanBy Dale Leatherman,

HONOLULU -- In 1960 Hawaii's first governor, William Quinn, invited Laurance Rockefeller to tour the remote Kaunaoa Bay on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island. As the governor hoped, Rockefeller fell in love with the site. He built the famed Mauna Kea Hotel and commissioned Robert Trent Jones to create the Mauna Kea Course.

The 1992 completion of the Hapuna Golf Course and the opening two years later of the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel fulfilled the late developer's vision of a world-class resort complex of hotels, golf courses and homes. Hapuna, which means spring of life, gets its name from the artesian wells and streams that once were a godsend to travelers along the dry Kohala coast.

An Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay design, the Hapuna Golf Course is the sister layout to the more renowned Mauna Kea across the street. But comparing the two is "apples and oranges." Mauna Kea is longer (7,165 yards) and more difficult, but Hapuna (6,875 yards) is more memorable because of its rugged beauty -- dark lava fields, tall brown grasses, emerald fairways and greens -- all topped with brilliant blue sky and ocean views.

Considered the most environmentally sensitive course in the islands (and near the top in that category on the mainland as well), this wild links course is a target golfer's dream, and just plain fun to play. Ranging along a rumpled stretch of land rising to 700 feet above sea level, the layout overlooks the Kohala Coast and the Pacific. Inland, the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes and the Kohala Mountains form a spectacular backdrop.

Though the layout may seem short by mainland standards, here in the islands courses like Hapuna become monsters when the trade-winds are howling. If you catch it on a rare calm day, the main hazard is the narrow fairways. But factor in the wind, and all bets are off. It's possible to have a 10 to 15 mph wind in your face all day. From 7:30-10:30 in the morning it is in your face, and then it can do a 180-degree change so that you're facing it again on the back nine.

Unless you play the back tees, you may not be able to use a driver to hit the preferred landing areas.

The holes wind through kiawe (mesquite) scrub and jagged beds of lava. The trip from greens to tees is a delight -- with tall grasses, waste bunkers, dense shrub, and massive fields of brown lava rocks that often seem to close in around you. Local rules say anything outside of the manicured areas of the holes is a lateral hazard and can be played accordingly.

And always there are the views of mountains or sea. There is never a sense of crowding, just isolation, beauty and an absorbing test of golf.

The putting challenge has two nuances. The break is generally down from Mauna Kea, but the grain of the grass always leans toward the ocean.

The route starts out uphill and rises to the 11th tee which, at 700 feet, is the highest point on the course. From there the track turns down toward the ocean.

The first attention-grabber is the third hole. A tricky 545-yard par-5, it opens with an elevated tee fronted by scrub, tall grasses and lava fields. The target is a wide landing area that sets up a long downhill second shot across an area of high-cut rough to a second landing area. The green is tucked beside a lake, with a trio of sand bunkers on the right. The wind usually blows across the bunkers toward the lake.

The sixth hole, a daunting 44l-yard, par-4, deserves its No. 1 handicap. The landing area is narrow, with a bunker on the right, and the second shot is to a stingy green with a left-side bunker. The wind is often with you, but does not offset the intimidation.

Hapuna's windswept par-3s present one clubbing dilemma after another. For instance, the long seventh hole plays into the wind across an expanse of white sand and tall grass clumps in front of the green.

Holes 11 and 12 are quintessential Hapuna, playing through rugged natural terrain toward an ocean panorama with the island of Maui in the distance.

One of the finest par-5s is the 566-yard 14th, which tees off over a large lava field to a wide fairway. Faced with more than 200 yards to the green, most players will hold up on the second shot to set up an approach. The forward-sloping green, which is elevated and at a right angle to the fairway, is protected by bunkers and natural waste areas. The wind? In your face.

Hapuna closes with a dogleg par-4 demanding a precise drive and a long second to a crowned green. On this green you'll want to do a slow 360 for a last look at the ocean and the mountains -- then head into the clubhouse to make another tee time. To borrow James Bond's words, once is not enough.


Where to stay: The Hapuna and Mauna Kea hotels are within walking distance of each other and both golf courses. Whichever you choose as your lodging, you have privileges at the other. Mauna Kea is the famous Rockefeller concept hotel that inspired hotels throughout the islands to incorporate open, breezy common areas and historic art pieces into their decor. Rockefeller's collection of more 1,600 museum-quality pieces of Asian and Pacific art are displayed throughout the Mauna Kea Hotel and grounds. There are 310 spacious rooms and suites fronting on beautiful Kauna'oa Bay, and a full complement of water and land sports.

Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, completed in 1994, is a more modern, upbeat hotel with an enviable setting in the bluffs above Hapuna Beach, rated by Conde Nast Traveler as the best beach in America. All 350 guest rooms have views of this beach and access to a wonderful spa and full recreation facilities.

Where to dine: Of the resort's dozen or so choices, these are the standouts. At Hapuna, try the Ocean Terrace for a variety of fresh seafood as well as carved prime rib. The hotel's signature restaurant is the Coast Grille, noted for its oyster bar, Pacific Rim cuisine, and locally raised New England lobster.

At Mauna Kea, Batik offers everything from Euro-Asian dishes to Thai curries to lobster. The Terrace is home to the famous Mauna Kea Sunday Brunch, which includes a sushi bar, chilled seafood bar and specialty carvery stations. Dinner at the Pavilion at Manta Ray Point offers Big Island seafood, grilled specialties and lighter fare. After dinner, stroll down to the lava outcropping on the Point to watch manta rays swimming below. And then there are special meals, such as the Saturday night clambakes or the traditional luau.

Sunset: The best places to watch the sun drop into the ocean are Mauna Kea's Copper Bar (great Mai Tais and a traditional island trio) and Hapuna's Reef Lounge or Beach Bar.

Stargazing: The evening sky is so clear over Hapuna that stargazing is a popular activity. A high-powered telescope is set up three nights a week, and an astronomer shares his knowledge with guests.

Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment