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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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Kingston Heath: The Hype is Real

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We touched ground late in the afternoon at Melbourne Airport and checked in very, very late at hotel Grand Hyatt. Don’t ask about our driving and navigating skills. It shouldn’t have taken us as long as we did. Even with GPS we failed miserably, but our dear friend had been so kind to arrange a room with a magnificent view on the 32nd floor for us.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The skyline in Melbourne was amazing, and what a vibrant, multicultural city Melbourne turned out to be when we later visited the streets to catch a late dinner. The next morning, we headed out to one of the finest golf courses that you can find Down Under: Kingston Heath. We had heard so many great things about this course, and to be honest we were a bit worried it almost was too hyped up. Luckily, there were no disappointments.

Early morning at Kingston Heath C) Jacob Sjöman.

Here’s the thing about Kingston Heath. You’re driving in the middle of a suburb in Melbourne and then suddenly you see the sign, “Kingston Heath.” Very shortly after the turn, you’re at the club. This is very different than the other golf courses we’ve visited on this trip Down Under, where we’ve had to drive for several miles to get from the front gates to the club house.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Nevertheless, this course and its wonderful turf danced in front of us from the very first minute of our arrival. With a perfect sunrise and a very picture friendly magic morning mist, we walked out on the course and captured a few photos. Well, hundreds to be honest. The shapes and details are so pure and well defined.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Kingston Heath was designed by Dan Soutar back in 1925 with help and guidance from the legendary golf architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who added to its excellent bunkering system. Dr. MacKenzie’s only design suggestion was to change Soutar’s 15th hole from a 222-yard par-4 (with a blind tee shot) to a par-3. Today, this hole is considered to be one the best par-3 holes Down Under, and I can understand why.

I am normally not a big fan of flat courses, but I will make a rare exception for Kingston Heath. It’s a course that’s both fun and puts your strategic skills to a serious test. Our experience is that you need to plan your shots carefully, and never forget to stay out of its deep bunkers. They’re not easy.

The bunker shapes are brilliant. (C) Jacob Sjöman.

Kingston Heath is not super long in distance, but it will still give you a tough test. You definitely need to be straight to earn a good score. If you are in Melbourne, this is the golf course I would recommend above all others.

Next up: Metropolitan. Stay tuned!

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Barnbougle Lost Farm: 20 Holes of Pure Joy

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Another early day in Tasmania, and we were exploring the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-design, Barnbougle Lost Farm. The course was completed in 2010, four years after the neighbor Barnbougle Dunes, resulting in much excitement in the world of golf upon opening.

Johan and I teed off at 10 a.m. to enjoy the course at our own pace in its full glory under clear blue skies. Barnbougle Lost Farm starts out quite easy, but it quickly turns into a true test of links golf. You will certainly need to bring some tactical and smart planning in order to get close to many of the pin positions.

The third hole is a prime example. With its sloping two-tiered green, it provides a fun challenge and makes you earn birdie — even if your tee and approach shots put you in a good position. This is one of the things I love about this course; it adds a welcome dimension to the game and something you probably don’t experience on most golf courses.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The 4th is an iconic signature hole called “Sals Point,” named after course owner Richard Sattler’s wife (she was hoping to build a summer home on the property before it was turned into a golf course). A strikingly beautiful par-3, this hole is short in distance but guarded with luring bunkers. When the prevailing northwesterly wind comes howling in from the ocean, the hole will leave you exposed and pulling out one of your long irons for the tee shot. We left No. 4 with two bogeys with a strong desire for revenge.

Later in the round, we notice our scorecard had a hole numbered “13A” just after the 13th. We then noticed there was also an “18A.” That’s because Barnbougle Lost Farm offers golfers 20 holes. The designers believed that 13A was “too good to leave out” of the main routing, and 18A acts as a final betting hole to help decide a winner if you’re left all square. And yes, we played both 13A and 18A.

I need to say I liked Lost Farm for many reasons; it feels fresh and has some quirky holes including the 5th and the breathtaking 4th. The fact that it balks tradition with 20 holes is something I love. It also feels like an (almost) flawless course, and you will find new things to enjoy every time you play it.

The big question after trying both courses at Barnbougle is which course I liked best. I would go for Barnbougle Dunes in front of Barnbougle Lost Farm, mostly because I felt it was more fun and offered a bigger variation on how to play the holes. Both courses are great, however, offering really fun golf. And as I wrote in the first part of this Barnbougle-story, this is a top destination to visit and something you definitely need to experience with your golf friends if you can. It’s a golfing heaven.

Next course up: Kingston Heath in Melbourne.

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Barnbougle Dunes: World Class Golf

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We arrived to Launceston Airport in Tasmania just before sunset. Located on the Northeast Coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania, Barnbougle is almost as far from Sweden as it gets… yet it immediately felt like home when we arrived.

Launceston Airport, Tasmania. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The drive from the airport was just over an hour, taking us through deep forests and rolling hills before we arrived to Barnbougle Golf Resort, which consists of two courses — The Dunes and Lost Farm — a lodge, two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and we couldn’t see much of the two courses on our arrival. I would like to add that both Johan and I were extremely excited about visiting this golf mecca. We later enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Barnbougle Lost Farm Restaurant before we called it a day.

The locals at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

The next day, we woke up early and got out to The Dunes Course as very first guests out. Well, to be quite honest, we weren’t actually the first out. There were a few locals — Wallabies, lots of them — already out on the course. The natural landscape at Barnbougle is fantastic and my cameras almost overheated with the photo opportunities. After two intense hours of recording videos and producing photos both from ground, we headed back to Lost Farm for a wonderful breakfast (and view). After our breakfast, it was time to try our luck.

“Tom’s Little Devil.” Hole No.7 at Barnbougle Dunes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Before describing our experience playing the courses, I would like to mention about Richard Sattler, a potato farmer and owner of Barnbougle. In the early 2000’s, Richard was introduced to U.S. golfing visionary Mike Keiser, who had heard about his amazing stretch of farmland in Tasmania and came down to visit. Mike convinced Richard that Barnbougle (which at that stage was a potato farm and still grows potatoes and raises cattle today) might be perfect for creating a top quality golf course.

After an introduction to well renowned golf architect Tom Doak and the formation of a partnership with former Australian golf pro and golf architect Mike Clayton, the development of the Barnbougle Dunes Course commenced.

The walk between the 4th and 5th holes. (C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Featuring large bunkers dotted between fun rolling fairways shaped from the coastal dunes, Barnbougle Dunes offers the golfer some tough challenges, in particular on the first nine. This is indeed a course that will entertain all kinds of golfers.

After our round, we looked back at some fantastic highlights such as playing the iconic 7th hole, a short par-3 called ”Tom’s Little Devil,” as well as the beautiful par-4 15th. We were just two big walking smiles sitting there in the restaurant to be honest. Lets also not forget one of the biggest (and deepest) bunkers I’ve seen at the 4th hole. The name of the bunker is “Jaws.” Good times!

As a small surprise for Johan, I had arranged a meeting after our round with Richard Sattler. Richard, ever the farmer, entered the car parking just in front of the clubhouse in a white pick-up van with a big smile un his face. We talked to Richard for almost 30 minutes. He is an extremely humble man and left such a warm impression on us. Richard explained the Barnbougle story: how it all began and the property today.

To me, this is a high-end golf destination offering something very unique with two world-class courses in Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, both ranked in the top-100 greatest golf courses by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine (U.S.). With the courses located just next to each other, it’s probably one of the best golf resorts you can find down under and a golf resort that I would like bring my hardcore golfing friends to visit. Everything here is exceptional with the resort providing spacious rooms, comfy beds, good food and spectacular views.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Barnbougle Dunes is a real treat to play for any golfer and will leave you with a sweet golfing memory. Compared to the golf courses available on the more remote King Island, Barnbougle is accessible (given Tasmania is connected by better flight connections) and the hospitality and service at is much more refined.

The golf resort is one of the absolute best I’ve been to. I can also highly recommend playing Barnbougle Dunes; I had great fun and you can play it in many ways. Tomorrow, we will be playing and experiencing the other course at Barnbougle: Barnbougle Lost Farm, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course with 20 (!) holes.

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