2004: America's Best - Mauna Lani: Lava-filled eye-openers

Kohala Coast, Hawaii

The west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island is an unlikely place for golf. Forget about being in the tropics. The ground and the climate here are bone dry, thanks to a soil base of infertile lava and only 10 inches of rain per year. It actually might qualify as a desert, were it not for the abundance of underground water. Credit also must go to some ingenious golf course architects. Starting with Robert Trent Jones Sr. in the mid-1960s at nearby Mauna Kea Golf Course, they learned to shape the lava into beautiful golf holes and then spread topsoil on it for a growing medium.

Today, a dozen courses dot the South Kohala coastline, stretching north from the Kona International Airport. Among the more intriguing are the two 18-hole layouts comprising the Francis H. I’i Brown Golf Courses at Mauna Lani Resort. The North Course and the South Course evolved from a single 18-hole layout in 1981 designed by a committee of landscape architects from the Honolulu firm of Belt Collins. In 1991, Robin Nelson came on board to add nine holes to each side of the existing course, thereby creating two distinctive layouts.

The resort-friendly South Course is flat, but prettier, thanks to vast open fields of lava and three oceanfront holes. Some golf fans will remember its holes from the Senior Skins Game held at Mauna Lani-South from 1990 through 2000. Today, housing is conspicuous around the holes and is likely to become more so.

The North Course is tougher and more sophisticated, and – even though it is close to some areas of resort development – it has its remote areas. The course makes liberal use of many mature kiawe (mesquite) trees and incorporates about 50 feet of elevation change. The ocean comes occasionally into view but never into play. Parts of the course look like the rolling terrain of Southern California – until you look inland and realize that five massive volcanoes, including 13,800-foot high, snow-capped Mauna Kea, rise around you.

Greens in Hawaii are notoriously grainy, which undercuts some of their traditional shotmaking appeal. The matter is a little more complicated than usual at Mauna Lana-North, where the original holes (Nos. 1-3 and 13-18) have Bermudgrass 328 greens and the newer holes (Nos. 4-12) are Seashore Paspalum. This discrepancy will be resolved when conversion to Paspalum is completed within two years.

Overall, there’s plenty of interesting ball placement needed on tee shots and full second shots at Mauna Lani-North, especially when the prevailing trade winds come out of the north at 15-20 mph. The result is an interesting golf course that holds one’s attention throughout the round.

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