OAHU, Hawaii – As the most-watched meteorologist in Hawaii, Guy Hagi has a handle on local weather patterns.
If only his tee shots were as easy to predict.
It was just past daybreak on Oahu, and the tradewinds had conducted their early-morning business. Blowing off the ocean, they’d carried in rain clouds that wrung themselves like sponges on the island’s windward side, softening the turf at Ko’olau Golf Club, where Hagi stood and waggled on the first tee.
In such tenderized conditions, a Tour pro could go low. But Hagi kept his forecast modest, realistic. It called for temperatures in the mid-80s, with high scores pushing into triple digits: mostly sunny, with a chance of shanks.
“At a course like this, you never really know,” said Hagi, a 10-handicap and the weekday weather anchor for “Hawaii News Now,” which airs on CBS and NBC. “But the general rule of thumb here is, you’ll need as many balls as your handicap. It’s one of the toughest places you’ll ever play.”
Few course raters disagree.
Designed by Dick Nugent in 1992, Ko’olau ranks as the hardest layout in Hawaii and among the most difficult in the world. Stretching 7,310 yards from the tips, it runs along the base of the Ko’olau Mountains, through a jungly landscape that calls to mind a backdrop for Jurassic Park. Viewed from a distance, Ko’olau’s fairways resemble thin green threads stitched across lush fabric. Rainforest vegetation grows so thickly around them that errant shots rarely are worth even a short hunt.
Soon after Ko’olau opened, a team from the U.S. Golf Association assigned the course a slope of 163 from the tips, shattering the limits of a slope-rating system that officially capped out at 155. Subsequent raters have since dialed back the slope to 152, but that drop is not reflected in the average golfer’s score.
Thanks to its location on the wet side of the island, Ko’olau plays longer than it measures, with a network of ravines and sizable forced carries that can turn even nimble players into tropical Tin Cups. Two stats to consider, both course records: 62, fired by Hawaiian-born Tour pro Dean Wilson; and 69, which, according to the pro shop staff, is the number of balls a visitor once lost.
“Put it this way,” Hagi said, after sending his first drive toward a vegetative tangle. “I don’t come here to have my ego massaged.”
In its drama and demands, Ko’olau not only leaves a deep impression. It lends wow factor to a Hawaiian island that golfers often overlook.
When mainlanders think Oahu, they tend to think Pearl Harbor and Honolulu, Danno, Don Ho and Diamond Head. But on golf vacations, they more frequently turn to Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, home to Kapalua, Princeville, Mauna Lani and other of the state’s most famous luxe escapes.
The cause of this discrepancy boils down to demographics. Approximately 1 million people reside on Oahu, more than two-thirds of Hawaii’s total population. With less open land, Oahu has less room for extravagant courses, which isn’t to suggest there aren’t sweet places to play.
Ko Olina Golf Club, at the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa, sits on Oahu’s sunny west side, and offers resort golf with all the pleasant island trappings. Waterfalls gurgle behind pristine greens, and warm ocean breezes send palm trees swaying alongside the broad fairways of the Ted Robinson design.
On Oahu’s North Shore, fabled for its big wave surfing, the massive swells of Pipeline break just down the road from Turtle Bay Resort and its two pedigreed tracks: the relaxed, user-friendly Tom Fazio layout and the more exacting Arnold Palmer course, which played host to the Champions Tour through 2008. The front nine of the latter charts an open, links-like path before narrowing through a forest of ironwood pines. Emerging from the trees on the signature 17th, golfers take aim at a target that appears plucked from a postcard: The green sits on a plateau, ringed by craggy bunkers, within 100 feet of crashing North Shore waves.
Elsewhere on the island lie assorted local favorites, including Makaha Resort, noted for its fine conditions and its colorful, cacophonous peacock population, and Royal Kunia Country Club, a bring-your-camera course with sweeping views of Pearl Harbor and Diamond Head.
But as a sheer force of nature – a course that latches to your memory and refuses to let go – nothing on Oahu can rival Ko’olau, where, as noon approached, Hagi arrived at the 18th tee. Over the past four hours, the round had gone according to his forecast: scattered sunshine, scattered golf shots. The midday tradewinds were bringing in more rain clouds, and Hagi had one final monster to contend with: a 476-yard par 4, the hardest hole on Hawaii’s hardest course.
In 2007, a big hitter named Bret Melson, playing one tee from the tips, managed the miraculous on this lengthy dogleg when he cut the corner with his driver, crow-flying the jungle and carding an improbable hole-in-one. Hagi, feeling less heroic, opted for a safer shot, which was only “safe” by Ko’olau standards: a stout carry to the fairway, over a ravine.
Hagi’s tee shot was a beauty. But no sooner had it landed than the heavens closed, the bright skies blackened and the wet side of the island was drenched once more. Hagi scrambled to his cart and watched the downpour. He knew just what would happen. Urged on by the tradewinds, the clouds would empty out, then pass over the mountains, drifting, dry and fluffy, toward Honolulu. Then the sun would shine again, and, in the friendly weather, Hagi would attempt one final iron shot. That much he could predict. Exactly where the ball would end up, he couldn’t say.
– Josh Sens is a freelance writer from Oakland, Calif.