Architect Rees Jones built the 18-hole layout at the exclusive Kohanaiki Golf Club on the Big Island while renovating the Mauna Kea course in 2008. Unfortunately, adverse economic conditions delayed the opening for five years, before the course was finally unveiled in May 2013.
The course is the mainstay sporting element of a luxury 450-acre residential development that lies along one and half miles of shoreline just south of Kona international airport and it’s the private playground of property owners and their guests, though there is limited public play for Hawaiian residents one day a week.
Kohanaiki occupies a rather unique environmental location, where fourteen Ahu rock shrines and more than two hundred anchialine ponds are dotted around the black lava landscape. These sacred pools connect to the ocean through lava tubes and water in these ponds rises and falls with the tide.
On the back nine, the SeaDwarf Paspalum fairways are routed around these Hawaiian cultural sites and numerous natural pools so that six of the holes lie along the Pacific coastline, starting at the long par five 12th, playing directly towards the Ocean, with an intimidating 240-yard carry from the black tees.
Four fabulous holes (two par threes and two par fours) nestle into the shoreline and they each require heroic shots across swathes of black volcanic rock. The par four 14th is easily the best of this quartet, its fairway fading slightly right to an island green complex that’s completely surrounded by a sea of solidified lava.
Essentially a real estate play, the golf course at Kohanaiki is located close to Kona airport providing easy access from a number of the major US cities. The course was designed by Rees Jones and opened in 2013, although he originally started work on the project in 2007/8 when renovating Mauna Kea.
The surrounding real estate development is quite magnificent, and at the time we played there 70 of a projected 350 high end resort homes had been built- I can't imagine a nicer place to get away to! No expense has been spared in creating what is essentially a very high end country club.
Families have been well catered for with a very tasteful beach club, and a clubhouse set up with all number of family activities in mind- a movie theatre, ten pin bowling alley, games room, cards room etc. The mens and ladies facilities incorporate indoor and outdoor showers, saunas, spas, hot pools, cold pools…. No detail has been overlooked, no expense spared. I know of no club that has done a better job of setting up to look after all the needs of the high end golfing client and family
The golf course is a delight to play as well. Fairways are wide, and greens are big- welcoming the family golfer- but although most greens have a number of pin options the better golfer will find that often enough the pin is tucked behind bunkers or swales and not so easy to access. In other words the course is playable for the longer handicapper but still challenging and interesting for the better player.
I was immediately struck by fairway surrounds at Kohanaiki with lava framing both sides of the fairway on early holes (1-6). What was unusual was that the fairways were set a few metres below the level of the surrounding lava providing a lava wall each side of the hole. It looked great and with the occasional palm tree also planted in the first cut of rough it is a unique and compelling look, and one unique to Kohanaiki (as far as I know). It was as if the fairways were routed down valleys in the lava…
Just when the course began to have the sniff of becoming a little repetitious, holes 7 & 8 introduced water hazards to change the look and add some excitement to the round. Both are good holes
In the back nine the tension builds as you can sense the course heading for the sea. Hole twelve is a strong par 5 heading directly toward the water- but along the way you have to negotiate all number of hazards- sand, shrub, ancient alters, and a tightening fairway… It is one of the most demanding holes on the course, especially when the wind blows!
After the par-5 12th hole turns toward the ocean, the four most dramatic holes- two par 3s and two par 4s- play along the beach, requiring shots over hazardous pits of black volcanic rock.
This run of holes along the beach are the highlight of the round, and combine lava carries, with exposure to the sea breezes.
Hole 13 continues the drama with a mid length par 3 over lava and shrubbery to an elevated and contoured green. It requires good club selection and a solid blow.
Fourteen is a short par 4 with a raised island green surrounded by lava. It’s a thrilling little hole.
Fifteen is another par 4 which demands the approach shot fly a lava field to a contorted and slightly raised target. The green here will sort out the men from the boys!
The last beach hole is the sixteenth, and it is a tough medium length par 3 hard against the shoreline. Any success here will require a well struck iron to carry both the lava and green side bunkering to reach the dancefloor.
While the par 5 seventeenth moves away from the beach it maintains the golfers' interest. It is a dog leg par 5 which asks the question of the golfer as to the line of his tee shot- the brave can get home in two if successful. At this point the first time visitor should take a minute and check out the beach club. It's not too shabby!
The final hole is going to be remembered because of the image of the impressive clubhouse and walls as its backdrop, but in reality it is a strong hole with a challenging green- to post a score you will need to hold your nerve
Kohanaiki impresses on a number of levels: The club facilities and service levels are as good as I have seen for high end members and families
The course itself is beautifully manicured and the adjacent facilities such as the take all you like comfort stations were a revelation. The course offers something for everyone, catering for long handicappers, and better players at the same time
Although Kohanaiki is the last of a long line of courses built in the lava, the use of the lava walls on the early holes in particular created a distinctive “Kohanaiki look”
Unlike many of the courses in Hawaii, Rees Jones has managed to vary the look and feel of the holes throughout the round- keeping a player on their toes, and maintaining the interest on upcoming holes until the very end.
The course is walkable but has some long distances from green to tee here and there. It really is a cart course.
Overall I rate Kohanaiki very highly- certainly it is one of THE best courses in the Hawaiian Islands. It is just a pity that many will never get the chance to see it... It is a gem. Kohanaiki GC is a private club, and can only be played by members and their guests.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.