Ko'olau Golf Club on Oahu: A stern Hawaiian test with panoramic views and tropical wonder

By Paul Arnett, Contributor

KANEOHE, Hawaii -- Folks in Hawaii grow accustomed to the everyday beauty. When you spend a lifetime with the blue ocean breezes and the green mountain vistas, you tend to forget that tourists spend their savings on just two weeks in the picturesque island chain.

Ko'olau Golf Club - No. 3
The third hole at Ko'olau Golf Club, a par-4, 442-yard test, features a dogleg right and trouble that lines the right side.
Ko'olau Golf Club - No. 3Ko'olau Golf Club - No. 15Ko'olau golf course - No. 18Ko'olau Mountains
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Ko'olau Golf Club

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Tropical splendor stars at Ko'olau Golf Club in eastern Oahu. The Dick Nugent-designed course encompasses three distinct climate zones and is carved out of a tropical rain forest. The course, located on the side of a mountain range, features winding ravines, elevation changes and picturesque views of waterfalls.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7310 yards | Book online | ... details »

But even the locals are blown away by the splendor of Ko'olau Golf Club in the windward community of Kaneohe, about a 30-minute drive from Waikiki.

General Manager Timothy Murphy, who has run several golf courses during his 15 years in Hawaii, said the winter and summer seasons were particularly mild in 2010, leaving the much-discussed layout and its paspalum greens in good shape.

"This is definitely the most nationally awarded course on this island (Oahu)," Murphy said. "We have many people who come here just to walk the course to see all the tropical flowers and waterfalls. It's a beautiful and challenging setup."

Photos of the Ko'olau Mountain range that cuts through the center of the island of Oahu can't do justice to what it's like to stand on the 15th tee of this Dick Nugent-designed golf course that opened in 1992. Golfers can take with them friends who have never held a stick in their life, and both can enjoy a good walk on this 18-hole journey that's often like a jungle ride at an amusement park.

There are four sets of tees, suitable for every handicap, from scratch to infinity. The tournament setup of 7,310 yards features a 75.7 rating and a ridiculous slope of 152. Fortunately, for those of us who can't break 90 on a good day, the resort layout of 6,406 yards offers a more appropriate challenge.

Once a sign that read "The Toughest Course in the Country" sat strategically at the entrance, but it was removed to prevent scaring away the customers.

Local golfer Martha Hernandez said that sign was like a siren's call when friends paid her a visit.

"They always wanted to go play Ko'olau first," Hernandez said. "It didn't matter how many golf balls they lost or what their score was; that was the course at the top of their list."

Playing Ko'olau Golf Club? What to bring

This difficult design has been softened a bit through the years, but there remain certain things you need to bring:

• A lot of golf balls to handle all the blind shots and forced carries that accompany nearly a dozen strategically placed ravines. For those who drive safely and command respect from their irons, you have a chance to post a good score. PGA Tour golfer Dean Wilson holds the Ko'olau Golf Club course record with a 62. For the rest of us, well, it's best to play with someone who has toured the golf course in case you get lost in the woods. You can't hit worm-burners here and expect to break 100.

• A digital camera with plenty of memory sticks. You'll want to want to send some pictures back to your friends stuck in a wintry office with no hope of removing the golf clubs from the garage until April. It's the best part of this vacation.

• A knowledge of the weather patterns of the island chain. If the trades are blowing, bring some rain gear. Ko'olau Golf Club is so beautiful, in part, because of the trade winds showers. All windward sides of the islands are wetter than the leeward sides, particularly between November and March. If the course is soggy, try to accept it as soon as you can, and you'll enjoy the round more. It doesn't rain every day during the winter; there are stretches where the weather is perfect, but because the golf course sits against a mountain range with sheer, 3,000-foot cliffs, it lends itself well to wet weather.

• Time to hit one bucket of balls at the scenic practice facility that covers five acres. There is a driving range, a two-tier, 7,000-square-foot putting green and an elevated chipping green complete with a bunker.

It will give you an idea of what awaits on the golf course, which opens with a par 5 and ends with a two-fairway gem on which you can play it safe to the right or go deep to the left. If you choose the left fairway from the black tees, make sure you eat your Wheaties; you'll need to carry 260 yards on this bunker-laden hole that ranks as the most difficult stop on the third-most difficult golf course in the country.

There's also a restaurant on the premises, Honey's, a perfect, 19th-hole gathering place for a tired foursome.

"You get a good mix of local players and tourists over here," Murphy said. "We're trying to set up transportation from Waikiki to help tourists find us. We're the closest of any of the major resort courses from downtown Honolulu and Waikiki."

Golf Instruction at Ko'olau Golf Club

The KMR School of Golf sits just to the left of the golf shop entrance. It is dedicated to junior golfers and has developed such local players as Tadd Fujikawa. It was founded in 2001 and is approved by the PGA of America.

Ko'olau Golf Club: The verdict

Playing Ko'olau Golf Club is a must for anyone willing to lug their golf clubs across the Pacific Ocean. Play it once to learn all the tricks -- the narrow Nugent-style finger greens, the ravines and the many bunkers placed strategically. Then play it again to see if you can score.

"Every hole is a challenge," said Randy Cadiente, a 16-handicapper. "From the start to the finish. Make sure you bring a lot of golf balls, because you might need them."

When you get to the 15th, also make sure you find the black tee box and take a little journey on a nearby trail to the old Hawaiian birthing stones. The view will give you pause. And if you do have any beliefs in the spirit world, best be gone by sundown.

The facility sits the spot at which Kamehameha I defeated the Oahu warriors to solidify his hold on the island. He forced the warriors to jump off nearby cliffs to their deaths. The legend of the Night Marchers and their ghostly processions on moonless evenings along the Ko'olaus is widely accepted in these islands. It will leave you with chills -- and a story to tell your family and friends who wait for your safe return at the hotel.

Paul Arnett, Contributor

Paul Arnett is the sports editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He covers professional golf during the Aloha season in Hawaii.

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