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.

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  1. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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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