2006: Mean ravines: Ko’olau a true cliff-hanger
As an 18 handicap preparing to take on the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Challenging Golf Course,”
I looked at my assignment to visit Ko’olau Golf Club as an odyssey of truth. You know, a man-vs.-nature, survival-of-the-fittest, discover-your-inner-self thing.
Opened in 1992 as a private club, Ko’olau originally boasted a 155 slope, the maximum assigned by the U.S. Golf Association. After being sold at a bankruptcy auction in 1997, the course – located about 20 minutes from downtown Honolulu – was softened slightly to attract play. Today, its slope remains a robust 152 – still among the toughest 25 men’s tees in the country, according
to the USGA. Ko’olau is one of the courses offered through Norwegian Cruise Line’s Golf Hawaii program, and I was able to shoehorn in a round during a three-day stay on Oahu prior to boarding NCL’s Pride of Aloha.
Carved from a dense rainforest at the foot of the imposing Ko’olau mountain range, the Dick Nugent-designed course is a torturous concoction of narrow fairways, gaping bunkers and numerous forced carries over jungle-filled ravines. But somewhat ironically, given the setting, it has only one water hazard, a large pond bordering the 16th green.
I abandoned plans to play from the 7,310-yard back tees – a story-telling contrivance hatched with a colleague – when general manager Steve Mayher told me that my visit fell during the rainy season (November to February) in an area that receives more than 100 inches of rain annually.
I wanted a challenge and a good story, not a suicide mission. From the 6,797-yard championship tees, with a 145 slope, Ko’olau is still a beast. The first thing my playing partner for the day, Marko Brickman, informed me was that two poor fellows he had played with a week earlier – decent players, he claimed – had combined to lose 35 balls. The record for one round reportedly is 63.
Brickman, a part-time Oahu resident, proudly told me he was playing Ko’olau for $29 thanks to a coupon occasionally offered to locals.
“Not bad for the toughest course in the world, huh?” Brickman chuckled. “It’s just a matter of how much you want to pay to get beat up.”
Ko’olau quickly exacted its toll: a lost ball and double bogey on the par-5 first, a triple on the third. What had I gotten myself into? I briefly curtailed the bleeding on the par-3 eighth, curling in a 15-foot, right-to-left putt for birdie, but a pair of 8s and two more lost balls followed on the next two holes.
After back-to-back pars, I was able to enjoy the magnificent view of Oahu’s windward coast from the 15th tee, the start of Ko’olau’s spectacular closing stretch.
But Ko’olau is relentless. I watched helplessly as my eighth and final lost ball – not bad by Ko’olau’s standards, I reasoned – hooked into the jungle on the par-3 17th, leaving me only the 18th to play.
Only? It’s the No. 1 handicap hole, reflecting the fact that its 448 yards are lined with bunkers and include two forced carries over the same massive ravine. I placed my drive precariously on the edge of the ravine, 3 feet from disaster, 200 yards from the hole. With darkness rapidly approaching, I sent my 5-wood approach screaming into the night. When Marko and I reached the green, we found my ball 5 feet from the pin.
Naturally, I pushed the putt. But as I tapped in for my par and a 96, I felt a small measure of satisfaction. Ko’olau is a thrill ride, and if nothing else, I had kept my round from careening wildly off track.