Fantasy becomes reality when you pack your golf clubs along with your Aloha shirts and okanuis on a Hawaiian island getaway on Oahu.
Hawaii has always occupied a place in fantasy for many Australians. It was where Elvis crooned, Magnum PI’d and Tattoo screamed, “De plane! De plane!” whenever new arrivals emerged on the horizon. It was where American sit-coms travelled for ‘out-of-studio’ holiday specials and where waves conjured by Mother Nature became the stuff of legend.
Banzai Pipeline made the likes of Mark Richards, Tom Carroll and Mark Occhilupo household heroes in the 1980s and ’90s, while Waimea Bay – and ‘The Eddie’ – has served as a magnet to surfers chasing the ultimate thrill ride on water. It is where magical things take place on a regular basis and the golf experience on Oahu, Hawaii’s third-largest island, is no different.
Australia is now regularly ranked the No.3 nation for providing visitors to Hawaii, a position we vie for along with the Japanese and Canadians, and many are incorporating a round of golf in this island paradise on their itinerary. With a climate as temperate as our own, it should come as little surprise that the home of the PGA Tour’s opening two tournaments of the calendar year is a golfer’s haven, with 41 courses on Oahu alone.
The home of the PGA Tour’s opening two tournaments of the calendar year is a golfer’s haven, with 41 courses on Oahu alone.
Golf fans will be most familiar with the Plantation course at Kapalua Resort on Maui that hosts the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, Waialae Country Club where the Sony Open has been played since 1965 and Ko Olina Golf Club on Oahu’s south-west coast, home to the LPGA Tour’s Lotte Championship won by our own Minjee Lee in 2016. All three are known in part for the scenic outlook they enjoy across the Pacific Ocean, but there is more to golf on Oahu than simply water views and sandy landscapes.
There are two very distinct styles of golf course on Oahu; the traditional resort-style layout framed by palm trees and favoured in Instagram posts, and those courses carved out of jungle with the towering volcanic mountains as the backdrop.
Teeing off at Royal Hawaiian Golf Club brings a sense that John Hammond himself has dropped you in by helicopter to the latest incarnation of Jurassic Park, as the front nine weaves its way through the jungle before opening up along fairways laid out across volcanic rock. Just 25 minutes from the heart of Waikiki, it took less than five minutes driving in our rented red Chevy Camaro convertible before the scenery changed considerably and the temperature dropped a couple of degrees in the shadows of the mountains.
Originally named Luana Hills Country Club and from the Pete Dye design team, Royal Hawaiian was the last course in Hawaii with bentgrass greens, a title it relinquished in 2017 when the greens were converted to the more manageable paspalum. We were welcomed warmly in the pro shop by California Mike – complete with Owen Wilson twang – and then set out to discover whether the warning of an average of eight lost balls per round would hold up.
It was a less than auspicious start, with the brother-in-law and I down three balls before one of us – me, thank God – finally found the fairway at the first hole. To be fair, with the driving range out-of-bounds to your left and jungle to your right, the tee shot at the 379-yard, par-4 first is intimidating to say the least. When we were greeted by a green more than two-thirds bordered by water at the 187-yard second, we really started to worry.
If you can keep your head down long enough to not be distracted by the stunning setting, there is plenty of room to thread your golf ball but every tee welcomes you with its own sense of ‘wow factor’ and hint at trouble ahead. A regular haunt of former US President Barack Obama, Royal Hawaiian is a golf experience like few others and while it may rankle the purists, it is a quality layout that doesn’t try to take away from your surroundings by imposing over-the-top design features.
Holes two to eight are carved out of dense jungle and as you head towards the back nine the trademark Hawaiian trade winds start to whip through the more open expanses. The two highlights for me were the downhill par-3 seventh that feels as though your ball will never come down – or be swallowed mid-air by a pterodactyl – and the driveable par-4 17th that at 317 yards – and with the favourable wind – is well within reach for the big hitters able to shape the ball left to right.
Although courses such as Waialae are private, members-only facilities, there are many courses on Oahu freely accessible to holidaymakers. There are five courses in and around the Ewa Beach area alone – Hawaii Prince, Ewa Beach, Hoakalei, Coral Creek and West Loch. The most famous of these is the 27-hole Hawaii Prince that was designed in partnership by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, and given it is just 30 minutes from downtown Honolulu is an easily justifiable day out.
Ko’olau Golf Club occupies terrain similar to Royal Hawaiian and is regarded as the most difficult of all courses on Oahu if your measure is how many balls you leave behind [see panel below].
If you possess a more adventurous streak, play as a ‘civilian’ at Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course that is situated amid the Marine Corps Base Hawaii where for about $50 you can enjoy what are perhaps the best-value ocean views of any golf course on the planet.
Fun for the whole family
If your Hawaiian escape incorporates some of the younger age brackets among your touring party, Aulani Disney Resort on the south-west corner of Oahu will be a welcome stop-over. It also happens to sit adjacent to Ko Olina Golf Club. Home to the LPGA Tour’s Lotte Championship each April and with a roll call of winners that includes Ai Miyazato, Suzann Pettersen and Michelle Wie, Ko Olina is also something of a playground for American celebrities including Hollywood’s most famous golfer, Happy Gilmore himself, Adam Sandler.
Measuring a tick over 6,800 yards (6,218 metres) from the back tees, Ko Olina is everything that you would expect from a high-end resort course but at a standard that sets it apart from most others. Our hire clubs were the latest from TaylorMade, the conditioning compares favourably with
any course of its nature and there were enough elevation changes to make club selection tricky.
Where Royal Hawaiian tightened us up from the first tee shot, Ko Olina – and other such courses exposed to the Hawaiian elements – relies largely on the wind for its defence, but its wide-open spaces can cause you to drop your guard.
With water flanking the entire right side, the 412-yard second is rated as the toughest on the course but the 195-yard par-3 eighth and picturesque 428-yard par-4 finishing hole are also pars well made.
“The challenge gets tougher the closer you get to the hole,” says former Ko Olina head professional Marcus Judge. “Nearly all of the greens are raised, so running the ball onto a green is difficult. The greens also have plenty of slope to them with most having at least two distinct levels.
“The greens staff try to keep the green speeds in the 9.5 to 10-feet range on the Stimpmeter, specifically for the wind and slope in the surfaces. This all means that on windy days, just finding the putting surface with an approach shot can be challenging, and then finding the correct tier on the green with a chip or putt is even more difficult.”
A popular holiday spot for locals and international visitors alike, Ko Olina is also home to the famous Palm Cove luau, which provided the perfect conclusion to our visit to this island paradise that is now more accessible than ever.
Ko Olina is also home to the famous Palm Cove luau, which provided the perfect conclusion to our visit to this island paradise.
Golf for me, breakfast with Mickey and Minnie Mouse for the kids and some quality time for the wife at a day spa to die for; perhaps a Hawaiian holiday is the stuff of fantasy after all.
Keep it in play
It’s unanimous; Ko’olau Golf Club is the toughest golf course on Oahu.
Here are the top 10 hardest golf courses on Oahu, according to Aloha Golf Tours, ranked by average number of balls lost:
Ko’olau – average of 10 lost balls
Royal Hawaiian – 8
Turtle Bay (Arnold Palmer course) – 5
Ewa Beach – 5
Kapolei – 5
Turtle Bay (George Fazio course) – 4
Pearl – 4
Royal Kunia – 2
Makaha Valley – 2
Hawaii Kai – 2
Need one more point to build a compelling argument that the golf clubs should come on holiday to Hawaii? They fly for free.
Hawaiian Airlines provides for two 32-kilogram pieces of luggage per person and you will not be charged any additional oversize costs if one of those is your prized golf bag, providing you pack only 14 golf clubs, 12 balls and one pair of shoes.
Don’t worry, you can always buy more golf balls once you get there.
For more information on Hawaiian Airlines, visit HawaiianAirlines.co.nz
Five Things I Learned in Waikiki
1. Ross could be the greatest clothing store known to golfers.
Think of it as Big W but with all the top brands at drastically reduced prices. Rather than paying anything up to $100 for a golf shirt at home, I walked to the fitting rooms with two adidas shirts, two Callaway shirts, Nike shirt and shorts, a Tommy Hilfiger shirt, Greg Norman shorts, a Calvin Klein belt and a couple of dress shirts before I was told there was an eight-garment maximum. And this was at 11 o’clock at night!
2. Jump on a trolley.
They are a great way to get your bearings in Waikiki (which, to be honest, is centred largely on Kalakaua Avenue that fronts Waikiki Beach) and also a handy way to get around if your feet need a rest. It’s also a good way to gauge some dining options that the less inquisitive tourists may not venture towards, or head off on a day tour that takes in Diamond Head Crater.
2. Jump on a trolley.
3. You will never be more than 150 metres from an ABC Store.
If you’ve been to Waikiki you will know what I mean, but for the uninitiated they are everywhere and sell groceries, snacks, alcohol and gifts – everything from a snow globe to the loudest Hawaiian shirt you can imagine. And ukuleles. Lots of ukuleles.
4. The service is something else.
I’m not a person who likes overly attentive service – more often than not I’ll skip the bag drop and carry my clubs from the car myself. But the relaxed Hawaiian lifestyle mixed with America’s service industry makes for a feeling of being spoiled and not someone simply looking for a tip. One evening, our party of 10 went for dinner at the famed Duke’s Restaurant at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort. When we had polished off the signature Hula Pie for dessert, we asked whether it would be possible for the bill to be split three ways. “Of course,” was the polite response. Not two minutes later, three bills were brought to our table without us having to once recount what we had each ordered. What an absolute delight.
5. A great tip for antipodeans is to travel to Hawaii in February, March, May or November. These are slightly off-peak times during which to take advantage of great deals on flights and accommodation. Also good to note is that ‘Grad Week’, the American version of ‘Schoolies’, kicks off the American summer in June with Californian kids flooding the resorts. At one point as we swam in the ridiculously blue waters of Waikiki, I looked around and thought I was caught in every American teen spring break movie ever made. To be fair, most of the kids I came across were quite polite… but there were heaps of them.
Where to stay, play and eat
Places to stay
These four places each have great
golf courses either beside the hotel
• Turtle Bay
• Four Seasons Oahu
• Prince Waikiki
• Kahala Hotel
• Koolina Resort
Places to eat
• International Marketplace – several restaurants, including Eating House 1849 and Herringbone Waikiki.
• Kakaako – plenty of options including Highway Inn for Hawaiian food/local eats and Moku Kitchen.
• Chinatown/downtown Honolulu – including The Pig and The Lady and Senia.
For Hawaii golf packages, including flights with Hawaiian Airlines, visit thegolftravelagency.com.au or call +61 2 9555 5311.
For more information on Hawaiian Airlines, visit HawaiianAirlines.co.nz