Hapuna Golf Course on the Big Island: Mauna Kea's little sister is worth checking out

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

KAMUELA, Hawaii - Maybe we can't be a Rockefeller, but we can play golf like one. See, in 1965 Laurance Rockefeller, grandson of the famous John D., staked out a Hawaiian beach resort in a highly unlikely location: a patch of black lava on an inaccessible spot on the Big Island.

Hapuna's No. 17
Hapuna's No. 17
Hapuna's No. 17Hapuna GC: #15Hapuna Beach HotelHapuna's No. 17
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Hapuna Golf Course

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Hapuna Golf Course stretches along the beautiful Kohala coastline before rising to over 700 feet above sea level. The snow-topped Mauna Kea volcano serves as a dramatic backdrop and there are seemingly endless views of the Pacific. Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay collaborated to create a visually stunning links course that utilizes the natural contours of the landscape and silky fescue grasses.

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 6875 yards | Book online | ... details »

Many thought he was crazy but the spot has since become one of Hawaii's most popular golf resorts, complete with two luxury hotels and two championship golf courses, the Mauna Kea and the Hapuna. And once the seal was broken, others followed, turning the Big Island's Kohala Coast into a top Hawaiian golf destination.

Now seven courses dot the Kohala Coast, creating a line along King's Trail, a trail originally created by ancient Hawaiians crossing the lava fields to bring goods to the ruling ali'I - Hawaii's nobility. Today, golfers travel the same line, perhaps not in the service of ancient rulers, but pars and birdies, which many golfers would claim are even tougher taskmasters.

Mauna Kea came first, completed in 1964, and has received the most attention of the courses on the Kohala Coast. But Mauna Kea has a little sister that golfers shouldn't miss in their trek along the coast: the Hapuna Course.

Hapuna Matata

Most golfers arrive on the Big Island with their must-play list in hand, and Mauna Kea usually tops the list. But Mauna Kea can be bruising, a tough 6,737 yards from the blues, with a slope and rating of 71.9/138.

Literally, Hapuna means "springs," a reference to the water that bubbles from under the lava rocks, known for its revitalizing properties. So after Mauna Kea beats you up, Hapuna applies a soothing salve.

Designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, the Hapuna golf course opened in 1992 and was intended to provide a low-maintenance compliment to its big sister. As such, it's in danger of becoming an also-ran, but in fact, it has become a favorite in its own right.

An apt description for Hapuna is pleasant. This course is not the one you'll go home raving about, but you just might enjoy it the most. A little shorter than others in the area, playing at 6,875, 6,534, 6,029, and 5,067 yards from the four sets of tees, respectively, greens are more reachable; pars, birdies, and even eagles are within reason.

This may be why the course is particularly popular with the ladies. It's been named a "top-100 women-friendly course" by Golf for Women, because its fun, target-golf format demands accuracy over brute strength.

But just because the ladies love it doesn't mean it's not challenging. Hapuna offers more elevation changes and narrower fairways than Mauna Kea; the difficulty lies in keeping your ball in play. The brown gorse-like flora lining the fairways, known around here simply as "scrub," can be quite a ball stealer.

No. 11 is a fan favorite, mainly because of its scoring potential. A medium-length par 5 (510 from the blue tees, 483 from the "regular," and 410 from the ladies' tees), it normally plays downwind. Catch your drive just right and going for it in two becomes a possibility. My husband did just that, and made his putt for eagle. I wish I could say the same.

The course's signature hole, the par-5 No. 3, offers the best risk-reward possibilities. It has you aiming for a wide landing area, then running your ball alongside a lake, threading the needle past water on the left and three bunkers on the right. It's reachable, from tees of 545, 536, 511 and 434 yards. But you'd better be accurate or your ball will get wet.

Brad Baptist, head professional for both Mauna Kea and Hapuna, said your tee shot is critical at these courses.

"Scoring well here is hitting the right golf shot off the tee," Baptist said. "It's really hitting the right shot to the fairway that sets up the right shot to the green."

The greens are fairly small, but flat. "They don't have a lot of undulations to them," Baptist said. "So if you can get on the green, you've got a good shot at birdie."

The verdict on Hapuna Golf Course

So much for drive for show, putt for dough. At Hapuna, it's drive for show, drive for dough.

Be off of those narrow fairways, and you're in trouble. Land in the middle, and greens are not only in reach, they also roll easy, for makeable pars and birdies.

The guy playing behind me would agree.

"It's a shot-maker's golf course, with some surprising tee shots," said Paul Lundin of Bakersfield, Calif. "You think you hit a good shot and you can be in trouble. Conditions were great, I thought the greens putted very true."

Lundin's one complaint? The wind.

Ah, yes, the wind. Gusts of 30 to 40 mph aren't uncommon here. And indeed, as we teed off on the first hole, the wind threatened to knock my ball right off the tee. But it became less of a factor as we climbed inland to No. 3, then gusted up again as neared 18.

The wind is the tradeoff. Unlike Kauai, this side of the Big Island sees almost no rain - a mere seven inches annually - but makes up for it with consistent winds. Have some low shots in your bag for when it gets truly gusty.

Hapuna offers top-notch amenities, from a large, well-stocked golf shop, to full practice facilities, to small touches like carts loaded with water bottles. One negative: no GPS. But the fairways are very well-marked and the free yardage guide should help keep you on track.

Green fees on the Hapuna course run $145 standard and $115 for hotel guests.

Stay and play

To get the resort rate at the golf shop, you have two choices for hotels: the 310-room Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, named among America's Top Resorts by Condé Nast Traveler, and the AAA four-diamond 350-room Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel.

Rates at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort begin at $370, at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, $360. Both hotels offer various packages and specials, including golf packages, which will bring down your bottom line.

Of course, if you're a Rockefeller, consider the $7,000-per-night Hapuna Suite, an exclusive 8,000-square-foot, four-bedroom super deluxe hideaway, enclave of the rich and famous.

Dining out

Batik, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel's fine-dining venue, overlooks Mauna Kea's outstanding beach and offers excellent food and service. Be sure to order their signature chocolate soufflé.

Other good options in the area are Roy's Kohala and the ever-popular Merriman's.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

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    Me wrote on: Apr 6, 2009