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Review: Mauna Lani is a must-play in Hawaii

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The Mauna Lani Bay Resort sits on the Kohala Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii, the largest and youngest of the Hawaiian islands. When most people think of Hawaii they think of beaches and tropical rain forests. The western side of the island, however, is one of the driest in the state with the Kohala Coast averaging just 10 inches of rain per year. By contrast, the Hilo area, on the east side of the island, is one of the wettest major cities in the U.S. averaging over 140 inches of rain per year. The diverse island features eight of the world’s 13 climate zones, all on an island that is 4,028 square miles (roughly the same size as Los Angeles County) and is home to 175,000 people.

The Mauna Lani resort features two 18-hole golf courses, the Francis H. I’i Brown South Course and the North Course. The two courses are the current home of the Hawaii State Open tournament and the South Course hosted the PGA Senior Skins game for 11 years. The original golf course opened in 1981 and was made up of nine holes on the current South Course and nine on the North. In 1991, nine holes were added to each course.

There is a great view of the ocean behind the 15th green. Photo by Matt Kartozian.

There is a great view of the ocean behind the 15th green. Photo by Matt Kartozian.

The South Course is all about scenery and the ocean with stellar views on Nos. 7, 13 and 15. The North Course is more of a tournament course that winds its way through Kiawe (mesquite) forests. During the state tournament, two rounds are played on the North Course and one round on the South Course.

When you pick up your cart, you are greeted with a massive putting green and views of the Pacific Ocean. The South Course features lush tropical plants, ocean views all over the place and lava. Lots and lots of lava. The resort was built smack dab in the middle of a lava field and most holes are lined with it. Several even feature lava as hazards close to or in the fairways.

Lava mound sit in the middle of the fairways on several holes. Photo by Matt Kartozian.

Lava mounds sit in the middle of the fairways on several holes. Photo by Matt Kartozian.

While on the Big Island, I ventured out to play the Mauna Lani’s South course, as I am a sucker for ocean views while golfing. I am not a great golfer; I consider myself to be average. My current handicap is 18 and on good days I shoot around 90, some days a little more, some a bit less. I’m used to playing in the dry desert air at 1,300 feet. Playing at sea level took its toll on my distance, so when I showed up to the Mauna Lani I elected to play the white tees. At 6,025 yards, it made a decent score possible while the 68.3 rating and 124 slope would still make it challenging for me. For golfers of differing abilities, both courses feature four sets of tees. The South Course plays 6,938 yards from the tips with a 72.8 rating and 133 slope. The North Course is 6,913 yards from the tips with a 73.2 rating and 136 slope.

I played as a single and was paired with three other singles for my round. Oddly, we were each given our own cart. The first thing I noticed and liked about the course was the wide fairways. At times I tend to hit boomerangs that start out straight, then rapidly turn to the right off the tee. The wide fairways turned out to be fortuitous on the 492-yard, par-5 first hole as I hit a boomerang that landed on the right sight of a massive mound of jagged black lava, but still on the fairway. I finished the hole with a bogey, leading me to have high hopes of a decent round. Most of the front nine winds through the inland areas of the resort and a few of the holes have nice ocean views. No. 7 is a spectacular 163-yard par 3 with the ocean on your left below lava cliffs, but it’s only a teaser for what’s to come.

Water is a consistent theme on the South course. Photo by Matt Kartozian.

Water is a consistent theme on the South course. Photo by Matt Kartozian.

The back nine is where the Mauna Lani South Course really shines, and it’s a true delight to play for a golfer from a land-locked state. Nos. 11 and 12 wrap around one of the many lakes that are everywhere around the resort. No. 13 sends you back to the ocean on a short par-4 (300 yards from the whites). The lava theme continues, as the cliffs border the entire hole on the left.

The 15th hole is the gem of the resort, a hole so pretty you want to drop your clubs and pull out a beer and beach chair and just watch the waves roll in. The hole is a medium-length par-3 (131 yards from the whites and 196 yards from the tips) that has you hitting over a bay full of sharp lava jutting out of the ocean. A drop zone is provided for those who get distracted by the scenery and put a ball in the ocean as I did. The green sits above the water and is ringed with bunkers and a few palm trees. I have been lucky enough to play some great scenic courses, but this hole alone makes the Mauna Lani worth the trip.

The course is not just kept in great condition; it is immaculate! The greens were quick, smooth and consistent. The sand in the bunkers is soft and fluffy, and the grass in the rough is lush. The fairways are perfect.

Teeing off on the South course at the Mauna Lani.  Photo by Matt Kartozian.

Teeing off on the South Course at the Mauna Lani. Photo by Matt Kartozian.

While I played the white tees and did alright, shooting a 92 with six pars, the course is very challenging for great golfers when playing the blue or black tees.

“When we have the Hawaii State Open, we have the best golfers in Hawaii and quite a few from California and the West Coast,” said Tom Sursely, director of golf for the Mauna Lani. “I think the lowest we have seen over three rounds in the State Open have been 6- or 7-under par. From the back tees, the South Course is very difficult, particularly the par 3s. The North is more undulating and a design where the trees are along the fairways and sometimes in the fairways. You have to place the ball. It’s not like one is a resort course and one is a championship course; they are both very difficult from the back tees. Our two courses have completely different looks and completely different styles. The South Course gets the most play with its spectacular ocean views; people really enjoy playing it. The fairways are wide because we do get some wind. The North is through an old Kiawe forest; it doesn’t look at all like the South. It’s all old Kiawe growth. When people stay at the resort they will play four or five rounds.”

The Mauna Lani also has a comprehensive teaching program with a golf academy, four teaching pros and a third nine-hole kids course that is also used for teaching. The longest hole is 130 yards, with most in the 60-to-70-yard range. The course has regulation greens and bunkers that are ideal for teaching players of all ages.

For an average or great golfer, the Mauna Lani is indeed a bucket list golf course. The resort is pretty swanky as well. The hotel was built in the 80s, but does not have that dated 80s look or feel to it. It has four restaurants, a great beach and pool to watch the sunset. There’s a shuttle to take you over to the golf course or spa, and a pond next to the valet that is seemingly stocked with hundreds of large, well trained Koi fish. As you approach, they will see you, surface and open and close their mouths as if to say, “Feed me!”

Salt water ponds are located throughout the property, including two with sea turtles and one with hammerhead sharks. Austin Powers fans, I was disappointed to learn the sharks are not equipped with “laser beams.” Unless you came for that, you won’t be left wanting if you book your next golf vacation at the Mauna Lani Bay Resort

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Matt Kartozian is an amateur golfer, professional photographer and journalist based in Phoenix, Arizona. He can often be found on the sidelines at NFL, NHL and MLB games, as well as racetracks around the world. Matt specializes in off-road racing and events like the Baja 1000. When not dodging racecars and linebackers, Matt likes to spend time on the golf course.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Big Mike

    May 23, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    Both are great. Played each 2 times while there on vacation 2 years ago. The review is spot on!

  2. tlmck

    May 3, 2016 at 1:46 am

    Lani is great, but you have to try Mauna Kea. Just awesome.

  3. Luis Carrion (Boricua Golf)

    May 2, 2016 at 7:34 am

    Live in Hawaii for the last 6 years and was able to play at Mauna Lani a few times, definitely a must if you are visiting the islands, I miss Hawaii so much, wish I was there now…Aloha!!!

  4. Golfgirlrobin

    Apr 30, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    The resort has a great Unlimited golf package that makes a stay there a pretty decent deal. First class resort that’s still very low key; much more enjoyable week there than another trip where we stayed at The Fairmont Orchid up the beach where I felt underdressed the whole trip.

    Courses are both fun and challenging. Lots of lava but very little of it is really in play if you can hit the ball at all.

  5. Brian

    Apr 30, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    Going to the Big Island later in May. Really want to try the South course…but I’m afraid it’s just too much $$. Great review though!

    • David

      May 2, 2016 at 11:25 am

      Played the North course a couple years back and had a great time. They typically have a couple discounted tee times each day online. Waikoloa Village is also a solid option if you’re on a budget.

      • Brian

        May 3, 2016 at 12:26 pm

        Is the Village course a good one? They don’t seem to have much of a presence online, and for the low cost of the round, I wasn’t expecting much. Currently planning to play Hapuna, Big Island CC, and Makalei, with an eye out for a deal on Mauna Lani North or South.

        If you’ve got great things to say about Waikoloa Village (not Kings or Beach), I’ll have to give it a look. Seems to be a steal at $50 or so a round if it’s good.

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Branson, Missouri Continues to Evolve as a Golf Destination

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If you think you know Branson, Mo., it’s time to think again. While the live music venues that put the bucolic Ozark Mountains town on the map continue to thrive, its reputation as a top notch golf destination has grown … and continues to evolve.

Heck, golfers who’ve visited just a few years ago will find the scene almost unrecognizable. Sure, the awe-inspiring Top of the Rock — designed by legendary Jack Nicklaus and holding the honor of being the first-ever par-3 course to be included in a professional PGA championship — is as striking as ever, but its sister course, Buffalo Ridge, has undergone a metamorphosis.

No. 15 at Buffalo Ridge

Designed by renowned architect Tom Fazio and originally opened in 1999, Buffalo Ridge has done the unthinkable – make its list of previous accolades pale in comparison to what now graces the land. In conjunction with owner and visionary conservationist Johnny Morris, Fazio has exposed massive limestone formations, enhanced approaches and added water features to make every hole more memorable than the last.

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio masterpieces not enough? Gary Player has stamped his signature in the Ozarks with the recently opened Mountain Top Course. This 13-hole, walking-only short course is unlike anything you’ve ever played.

Strap your bag to a trolley and let your imagination dictate your round. There are stakes in the ground with yardage markers nearby, but they’re merely suggestions. Play it long or play it short. Play it from different angles. The only mandate is to enjoy the course, nature and camaraderie.

No. 10 at Mountain Top

The Mountain Top greens are huge and as smooth as putting on a pool table. Nearly as quick, too. And the bunkers are as pristine as the white sands of an isolated Caribbean beach. Capping off your experience, the finishing hole plays back to the clubhouse and the green boasts multiple hole locations that enhance golfers’ chances at carding an ace. Hard to imagine a better way the end an already unforgettable round.

It shouldn’t take you much longer than two hours to get around Mountain Top Course. If it does, you were likely admiring the stunning panoramas. One notable addition to those views is Tiger Woods’ (TGR Design) first public access design — Payne’s Valley (named to honor Missouri golfing legend Payne Stewart) — which is full speed ahead on construction and scheduled to open in 2019. As a treat, the 19th hole was designed by Morris. Named “The Rock,” it’s a short par-3 that promises to be amazing.

Payne’s Valley will be both family-friendly and challenging. It has wide fairways and ample landing areas along with creative angles and approaches that shotmakers love and expect from a championship course.

If two years is too long to wait for new golf, then Morris and his Big Cedar Lodge have you covered with the yet-to-be-named ridge-top course by the industry’s hottest design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. With all the heavy lifting complete, the Ozarks is scheduled to be unveiled in 2018.

The Ozark Mountains form the backdrop on No. 5 at Buffalo Ridge.

Once opened, this par-71 (36-35) track will play “firm and fast” and offer multiple avenues into each green. Both Coore and Crenshaw bristle at the notion that there’s only one way to approach the playing surface. Bring it in high or run it along the ground. Considering the exposed nature of the course and propensity for high winds, the latter may be your best option.

There’s more. Tiger won’t be finished with Branson when he wraps up Payne’s Valley. He’s also designing a family-friendly par-3 course on the grounds of Big Cedar Lodge. There isn’t a date attached to this project, so stay tuned.

These new tracks join the likes of Thousand Hills, Branson Hills and Pointe Royale Golf Village to make Branson a powerful player on the golf destination scene. Combine that with world-class fishing and camping, as well as countless museums, restaurants and points of interest and this bustling Ozarks town is a must-visit spot in Middle America.

Learn more or plan your trip at explorebranson.com.

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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club

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Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own. 

Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.

All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.

A view from the ninth fairway

Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.

Trees, or no trees?

The 18th tee

The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.

The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.

Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.

A good variety

Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16.  What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14.  These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set.  The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.

A view of the ninth fairway from across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s tempt the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.

Green complexes are…complex

The green on the 18th hole

Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world.  They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.

The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a decent lie.

Ari’s last word

All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.

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Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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