When the Senior PGA Tour comes to the Big Island of Hawaii in late January - with the MasterCard Championship at Hualalai Resort - the players will find themselves in the midst of one of the best year-round golf destinations anywhere.
The best thing about it? You can play these wonderful courses and others along this delightful coastline for yourself. With the exception of Hualalai, which you can only play if you are staying at the Four Seasons or are a property owner, all are resort courses and welcoming of the public.
The Kona-Kohala coast sports a handful of premier golf resorts, most playing next to the Pacific shoreline. Separating the two sides of the island are the majestic mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Amazingly, during the winter months it is possible to view the snow-capped peak of Mauna Kea while playing golf at the shoreline. And the summit of Mauna Kea is one of the best spots in the state from which to watch a sunrise or sunset.
Ranked as one of the top three courses in Hawaii for more than 35 years, the Robert Trent Jones-designed Mauna Kea Golf Course was constructed in 1965. Its crown greens make it a tough course on which to score, but the challenge is a fair one. Bring your "A" game when playing here. Acting as salve to the challenge of the round are some of the best ocean and mountain views from any course in the state, led by the par-3 third, which plays over an ocean inlet.
One of the newest golf resorts to be built along the Kohala Coast, the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel is a 350-room gem within the borders of Mauna Kea Resort. Its all-oceanview rooms and suites overlook what many people consider to be the best beach in the state. The good news for golfers is that just mauka (toward the mountains) is the Hapuna Golf Course, one of Arnold Palmer and design partner Ed Seay's best works to date.
A perfect complement to its sister Mauna Kea Golf Course, Palmer and Seay shaped the Hapuna course through the arid foothills above the coastline. Its views are spectacular and wide, presenting a panorama from the mountains, down the slopes and across the golden kiawe bushes to the brilliant blue Pacific. On most days Mount Haleakala is visible across the channel on Maui. If played from the correct set of tees (there's lots of carry), this is a course every golfer should enjoy.
Mauna Lani Resort, just down the coast from Hapuna Beach, is the former host of the Senior Skins Game. (Starting in 2001 it moved to Wailea Resort on Maui.) The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows and the Orchid at Mauna Lani are the accommodations choices and both are spectacular and relaxing. The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows was the first hotel built here. Walking the grounds, one will discover serene, hidden pools, historic petroglyph sites and old Hawaiian fishing ponds. A real treat is dinner at the Canoe House, where on most nights it is possible to dine just steps from the beach.
Mauna Lani offers two 18-hole golf layouts, the Francis H. I'i Brown North and South courses. (The Skins Game was played on the South Course.) It is fair to say these two courses epitomize Kohala Coast golf: lava-lined fairways leading to gorgeous oceanfront holes.
Another golfer's delight along this magnificent coast is Waikoloa Resort. There are several accommodations choices here, including the Aston Hotels-managed Shores at Waikoloa. They have one- and two-bedroom suites with kitchens and in-room laundry facilities, and the units have either ocean or golf views.
If you are looking for a full-service resort experience, the adjacent Hilton Waikoloa Village offers a 1,200-room complex with dolphin pools, monorails, tennis courts, two golf courses and great sunsets. Families love this property. While the kids are engaged in learning Hawaiian culture or supervised beach activities, adults enjoy the two golf courses.
Named the Beach Course and the Kings' Course, these two layouts are now managed by quality oriented Troon Golf. Always in great shape and a lot of fun to play, the Beach plays through some wonderful lava formations and down to the waterfront, while the Kings' is a shotmaker's delight, with some challenging and intriguing holes.
The southernmost resort along this stretch is Hualalai Resort. Designed by Jack Nicklaus, Hualalai is one fun course to play. Nicklaus' use of the natural lava formations on the course is brilliant, the green are true, and the upkeep is impeccable. A new Tom Weiskopf course is currently under construction.
The MasterCard Championship has played here for several years, and the one factor that can really affect scoring is the wind. The signature par-three 17th, for example, which plays right at the water's edge, plays 164 yards from the tournament tees. But club selection can range from a 9-iron to a 4-iron, depending on the strength and direction of the wind.
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai provides an elegant home base for your stay on the Kona-Kohala Coast. But then again, it's hard to go wrong anywhere you choose to stay and play on this sunny stretch of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Mauna Kea Golf Course 808/882-5400
Hapuna Golf Course 808/880-3000
Mauna Lani Golf 808/885-6655
Mauna Lani Bay Hotel 808/885-6622
The Orchid at Mauna Lani 808/885-2000
Waikoloa Kings' Course 808/886-7888
Waikoloa Beach Course 808/886-6060
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai 808/325-8000
Four Seasons Golf Course 808/325-8480