It was a bold decision to build a five-star hotel at Mauna Kea on the black desolate lava fields of Hawaii’s Big Island. Some thought Laurance Rockefeller was crazy when he commissioned Robert Trent Jones Senior to build the island’s first course, which would stretch the top pros to the absolute limit and create a visually stunning course for visitors, ensuring they would return to the Big Island time and time again.
The original RTJ Senior design proved too challenging for the average golfer, so his son Robert was called in to soften the layout. Nevertheless Mauna Kea remained a tough proposition and the par three 3rd with its green set above volcanic rock some 200 yards away is a classic example. One of the most photographed golf holes in the world where the pounding blue Pacific Ocean combines with black lava rock, blue sky and lush green turf to create a most vivid image. Don’t forget your camera and also don’t forget your all-weather gear as 33 of the world’s 35 climates are reputed to exist on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The Mauna Kea golf course closed for most of 2007 and 2008 for renovation by Rees Jones, the “US Open Doctor” and son of the course’s original architect. The makeover included the addition of new bunkers, tee to green reseeding with new hybrid grasses and, naturally, the course was lengthened. From the tips, Mauna Kea now measures 7,370 yards – 200 extra yards have been added – but with multiple tee boxes the course remains playable for all levels of golfer.
Be forewarned -- anyone heading to Mauna Kea had best be able to golf their ball because this is clearly not your run-of-the-mill Hawaii resort. When Rees Jones updated the course he took one of his father's best designs and clearly strengthened it. The terrain is the dominant feature and failure to hit consistently straight tee shots with sufficient distance will have players gasping for air. Be sure to play the correct tees because Mauna Kea will not suffer fools who bite off more than they can chew.
The uphill terrain in conjunction with elevated targets makes for a fairly steady aerial game requirement and it's too bad a bit more variety in the overall routing would have helped.
Much is rightly made of the long par-3 3rd playing across a mega-inlet of the Pacific Ocean and it does not disappoint. The hole features a very lengthy green so if there's any doubt take more than enough club to get to the pin. As good as the 3rd is -- the par-3 11th is one of Hawaii's best holes. The tee is elevated and you stare in wonderment at the Pacific Ocean with its azure blue color shimmering in the distance. The green is also quite challenging -- a small landing area that calls upon one's very best plays. Although playing downhill -- the hole usually features varying wind velocities and the 250 yards can only be negotiated with the surest of shots.
The outward side is a good mixture of holes but it is with the return nine that matters really accelerate to a rousing conclusion. Holes such as the par-4 14th, par-5 17th and the closing par-4 18th are top shelf. Many Hawaiian Island golf courses are great for the ego because the avenue for missed shots is tolerated. If you think you've warmed up sufficiently with the other courses you play when in Hawaii -- head over to Mauna Kea for the acid test. In 4-5 hours you'll know for sure.
M. James Ward