Luana Hills Country Club on Oahu: Welcome to the jungle
[EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS COURSE IS NOW KNOWN AS ROYAL HAWAIIAN GOLF CLUB.]
KAILUA, Hawaii -- In a valley that was once a sacred meeting place of great Hawaiian warriors and an island queen, you'll find Luana Hills Country Club. It has seen its share of celebrities and world leaders, including President Bill Clinton and more recently President Barack Obama. It's also been the location site for many films, including Black Hawk Down, set in a convincing-looking Somalia.
That alone could be reason enough to visit Luana Hills, even if it is one tough golf course.
Situated between Mount Olomana and the towering Koolau Mountains on the east side of Oahu, Luana Hills is jungle golf. And like a jungle, it's easy to lose things in Luana Hills - like your mind, if you let it get to you.
But while you're losing balls here, you can't help but marvel at the deep ravines where the Maunawili Stream cuts though a valley with vines that hang a hundred feet from the trees. This may well be the most beautiful golf course on Oahu, which is saying something.
Luana Hills C.C.: The old days
There was a time when play at Luana Hills Country Club was discouraged. That's not the case anymore.
When it opened back in 1993, a Japanese group owned Luana Hills. For all intents and purposes, it was closed to outside play. Yes, you could play there, but the green fees were around $175, which was discouraging enough to act like a standing reservation it for its Japanese members.
But when the Japanese economy went south in the late 1990s, Luana Hills fell victim as well, and since then the golf course has changed ownership several times. Now the folks at Luana Hills want you to test your golf skills, which need to be substantial to take on this Pete Dye design carved through the rugged jungle hills.
These days, it's dependent on daily fee play, and many on the island are unfamiliar with the course. "Probably more people on the mainland know about us than the locals," said Darin Sumimoto, longtime general manager of Luana Hills.
Golf at Luana Hills: Bring your "A game"
In typical Dye fashion, Luana Hills requires precision. You must miss greens on the correct side and err long or short as the hole dictates. It sounds simple enough, but there's one other factor: the wind, which swirls up high but may not be felt at ground level.
At first glance, you wouldn't think a 6,600-yard course could be that challenging. But even from 6,164 yards, which is where most good players tee it up at Luana Hills, it's still really tough.
The trick is to not get ahead of yourself, bring plenty of golf balls (used ones for your first time might be wise) and play fairly conservatively. This is one course where laying up on a difficult approach may be the best strategy to avoid double bogey or worse.
Luana Hills' front nine might be more difficult
Luana Hills really is a tale of two nines, which might explain why play is often started on the back nine first.
While the back nine sits more in the jungle, it's also more protected from the wind. The front nine is more exposed, making holes like the par-3 third, with its island green and a wind that you often can't feel off the tee, all that more difficult.
There are actually 19 holes at Luana Hills. One of the signature holes is the Pond 11th, which is sometimes out of play. When that's the case, the par-4 12th hole becomes the 11th, and another par-3 becomes the 12th.
Most of the time, though, the Pond is in play, and with water surrounding its narrow green on three sides, there's little margin for error.
The 13th might be one of the most unusual par 5s you'll ever play. At 401 yards, it would seem to be a medium length par-4 hole, but a large gorge lies some 230 yards off the tee. A tee shot of 255 yards or so, usually into the wind, is required to carry it, forcing most players to lay up. From there, the hole plays uphill to a small green, meaning no matter what you do, it's going to require two really strong shots to get a putt at eagle, and three good ones just have a chance at birdie. Patience is definitely a virtue on the 13th.
The 16th is another strong par-3 hole. Because it plays severely downhill, you'll probably need two or three less clubs than the yardage, which is more than 200 from the back tee.
Then there's the 18th hole, yet another example of the precision this course requires. Miss this green short left, and you've found the wetlands once again. Playing away from pins is often the best strategy if they are positioned near trouble.
Luana Hills Country Club: The verdict
The key to enjoying Luana Hills is to come in with a healthy respect for the course and to bring lots of golf balls. This might be the one time I advocate picking up one of those discount sacks of "experienced" golf balls, because there are so many opportunities here to find the jungle.
"We're the course everyone will play once," said Sumimoto, who is available for lessons. In other words, it's easy to feel intimidated the first time you try it.
In reality, though, this course is one you need to play a couple of times before you can get a good feel for it. It's only rated at 71/134 from the blue tees, so there are opportunities to score on Luana Hills. Plus, the lost balls generally play as lateral hazards as a local rule, if that's any consolation.
Once you play it a couple of times, you start picking the right clubs, and that should produce more confident swings, a must for playing Luana Hills. And there are birdie and par opportunities on Pete Dye's greens, the only ones on the island that are bentgrass.
My recommendation is to make sure you warm up first on at the club's ample grass driving range, practicing your knockdowns and figuring out your ball flight for the day. Then just take what the course throws at you and enjoy it.
October 6, 2009