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.
This place used to be awesome, but the new grass ruined the character of the greens. What’s used to be slick and grainy greens is now slow and grabby. Still, number 3 and 11 are two of the best par threes in the world.
Originally Laurence Rockefeller commissioned Robert Trent Jones Senior to build The Big Island's first golf course alongside his new five star hotel on the coastal black lava 30 minutes north of Kona airport. RTJ Snr's brief was to build a course tough enough to test the professionals, but picturesque enough to bring the tourists...
He succeeded and the course opened in 1965, but the layout was too demanding for all but the best, and his son RTJ Jnr was brought in to soften the course. Keeping it all in the family Rees Jones undertook a significant renovation in 2007/8- adding bunkers, new grasses, and lengthening the course.
When the course opened the big three of professional golf- Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player were there to commemorate the occasion.
Mauna Kea is certainly a challenging course in a beautiful setting- it's a tournament course, and a resort course all in one! With a beautiful beach and hotel adjoining the course it is a great place to stay and golf.
The purists should note that there is significant elevation change throughout the property, so it is primarily a cart course. Most greens are raised or on ledges above the golfer requiring control of distance and flight- making it difficult to play for longer handicappers and those that do not hit a high ball flight. In fact a good deal of the golfing public are going to struggle!
It is also relatively monotonous playing the same sort of approach over, although it suited me well enough and did provide some thrilling approach shots with all clubs. The start is pleasant, but unremarkable:
- Hole 1 is a short par 4 with a sharp dogleg right- reminiscent of Hoylake as the driving range is OOB on the inside of the dogleg
- Hole 2 is a right to left dogleg and the downhill tee shot sets you up for a short iron to a raised green protected by bunkers along the front
But turn the corner and the view will take your breath away! - Hole 3 is the standout hole- one of the most spectacular in all of golf! The very back tee is a ridiculous 272 yards, all ocean carry par 3, but even the regular mens tees can go back to a 210 yards shot over the briney, The white caps come rolling in sending spray many metres in the air as you wind up to let loose. With a gusty sea breeze in play it is an exhilarating shot and one you won't forget. Any par here is well remembered. The green is huge but runs at an angle from right to left. Playing from the very back tee to the very back left of the green would be nearly 300 yards!!!
After hole 3 Mauna Kea drops from the paranormal back to reality with a succession of solid well maintained golf holes with raised greens and bunkers up front.
The ninth is a par 4 that heads back to the clubhouse from a very elevated tee and I thought the view and the shot down the valley was delightful.
In the back nine hole 11 grabbed our attention. It is a par 3 with the ocean as the back drop. It measures 250 yards from the back markers, but plays significantly downhill. It is a pretty hole and because of the drop away your ball will stay in the air seemingly longer. But it is still not an easy target to hit and any par is well earned. It may be overlooked with all the fuss about the third hole, but the eleventh is another special hole
Mauna Kea is a good course, in a beautiful part of the world, with a nice beach and hotel next door, and pretty decent weather as well. Hole 3 is an all world hole- one you will never forget playing- and hole 11 is pretty special as well… Any golfing holiday to The Big Island should include a visit to Mauna Kea.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Stunning course with nice quick greens, firm fairways and a great staff. Wonderful views. Range was a bit lacking but the course certainly made up for that. Defiantly would play multiple rounds here if given the chance. Worth a trip from the Mainland.
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