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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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Hidden Gem of the Day: Oak Hollow Golf Club in High Point, North Carolina

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These aren’t the traditional “top-100” golf courses in America, or the ultra-private golf clubs you can’t get onto. These are the hidden gems; they’re accessible to the public, they cost less than $50, but they’re unique, beautiful and fun to play in their own right. We recently asked our GolfWRX Members to help us find these “hidden gems.” We’re treating this as a bucket list of golf courses to play across the country, and the world. If you have a personal favorite hidden gem, submit it here! 

Today’s Hidden Gem of the Day was posted by GolfWRX member thejuice, who submitted Oak Hollow Golf Club in High Point, North Carolina, as his hidden gem of a golf course. In his description, thejuice charts out what exactly he loves about the course, and why the Pete Dye designed track is now going to be his go-to-stop in North Carolina.

“It’s a Pete Dye design that has a lot of the unfair Dye slopes in the greens, with the normal Pete Dye risk/reward setup on several holes.  I played it with some cousins during my family reunion and thought it was fantastic.”

“We normally play Starmount Forest (I’m a ClubCorp member), Grandover, or Bryan Park (both have 36 holes, and both are fine facilities), but I think I want to make Oak Hollow my preferred course when I go to visit my NC fam.  For the price, it just can’t be beaten.  I think we paid $40 on a Saturday morning (8 am tee time) and it was definitely worth more than that with several holes on a large lake and excellent fairways and greens.”

Sounds good, right? Well according to Oak Hollow Golf Club’s website, that Saturday morning rate comes with a cart, and should you want to play during the week, an 18 hole round will set you back just $33. They have plenty of specials listed on their site too, but the one that stands out the most is the 18 hole weekday walking fee, which costs only $17.

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Check out the full forum thread here, and submit your Hidden Gem.

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Hidden Gem of the Day: The Wilderness at Lake Jackson in Texas

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These aren’t the traditional “top-100” golf courses in America, or the ultra-private golf clubs you can’t get onto. These are the hidden gems; they’re accessible to the public, they cost less than $50, but they’re unique, beautiful and fun to play in their own right. We recently asked our GolfWRX Members to help us find these “hidden gems.” We’re treating this as a bucket list of golf courses to play across the country, and the world. If you have a personal favorite hidden gem, submit it here! 

Today’s Hidden Gem of the Day takes us to “The Lone Star State” and The Wilderness at Lake Jackson in Texas. The course was submitted by GolfWRX member pearsonified, who calls The Wilderness “the best value in Texas”. Pearsonified also believes that the course contains “perhaps the most memorable green sites” he’s ever seen as he went into full detail on why he believes The Wilderness is such a gem.

“This Jeff Brauer design is a RIDICULOUS sleeper with perhaps the most memorable green sites I’ve ever played. The par five 7th plays to a kidney-shaped green that’s nearly 70 yards long and features a few different plateaus. The long par three 16th—one of my favorite holes anywhere—is a classic Biarritz with a 5-foot-deep swale cutting right through the middle. Honorable mention goes to the short par four 11th which properly balances risk with reward and goads players to bite off as much as they can.”

According to The Wilderness at Lake Jackson’s website, a weekday round for a resident will cost $49, while for a non-resident the fee rises to $59. Although rising above the hidden gem “less than $50” rule, to play after 2 pm at the Wilderness will set you back just $44, and all of these rates include a cart fee.

@SilverStarGolf

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Check out the full forum thread here, and submit your Hidden Gem.

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Hidden Gem of the Day: Quail Hollow Golf Course in Boise, Idaho

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These aren’t the traditional “top-100” golf courses in America, or the ultra-private golf clubs you can’t get onto. These are the hidden gems; they’re accessible to the public, they cost less than $50, but they’re unique, beautiful and fun to play in their own right. We recently asked our GolfWRX Members to help us find these “hidden gems.” We’re treating this as a bucket list of golf courses to play across the country, and the world. If you have a personal favorite hidden gem, submit it here! 

Today’s Hidden Gem of the Day was posted by GolfWRX member PixlPutterman, who submitted Quail Hollow Golf Course in Boise, Idaho as his hidden gem of a golf course. PixlPutterman calls Quail Hollow a “target golfers dream,” and judging by his description of the 18 hole course, it’s easy to see why.

“Nestled in the foothills at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. The course is kept in country club level condition and is very challenging. Its a target golfers dream, you can play it with about six clubs and you rarely “need” a driver. Greens are in great shape, and there are some great elevation holes. Pic (below) was taken from the Champion Tee on the 18th Hole. You basically tee off over two other holes, and the view is AWESOME.”

According to Quail Hollow Golf Course’s website, a weekend round with a cart at the course nestled in the Boise foothills will cost you $48, while playing during the week is just $44. Both senior and twilight rates come in at around $39.

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Check out the full forum thread here, and submit your Hidden Gem.

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