Mauna Kea Golf Course's legacy grows with each year

By Art Stricklin, Contributor

KAMUELA, Hawaii - As befitting his background, his passion and his last name, Laurance S. Rockefeller was determined to build the best, regardless of cost, challenges or location. So when the longtime hotelier found a remote piece of property covered with black lava, located between two drop dead beautiful white sandy beaches, he knew he had found the perfect spot.

It was the early 1960s and far from the over-glamorized and often over-crowded Hawaii of today. The Big Island of Hawaii was still a fairly un-discovered location at the time.

But Rockefeller, a proud member of the family dynasty, had his dream and he wasn't going to be denied. Today, golfers everywhere are certainly glad he didn't because the result is the world-famous Mauna Kea Golf Course and hotel of the same name.

In one of the most visionary decisions in the history of modern tourism, Rockefeller prevailed with his will and passion to build the best, regardless of cost, and the beautiful result, located on 1,839 oceanside acres, has validated the belief.

While he knew all about building fine hotels, golf course design was best left to the experts, so Rockefeller brought in the leading golf architect of his time, Robert Trent Jones, Sr., to design the original course at Mauna Kea.

Builder of several hundred courses worldwide, Jones, who has spawned his own family golf dynasty, certainly knew his craft, but he quickly realized that he was working on one of the best natural sites he had ever seen. The land was next to the snow-capped Mauna Kea Volcano, which means White Mountain in Hawaiian.

The land for Mauna Kea Golf Course was routed up and down the rugged lava-strewn hillside overlooking Kauna'oa Bay, Hapuna Beach and the bright, blue Pacific Ocean. It would feature natural drops of more than 100 feet from tee to green, stunningly beautiful views of the ocean below, not to mention huge greens and tough shot values.

But Jones knew the golf course needed something else, it needed a signature hole so special that 35 years later people would be talking about it and it would become one of the most photographed holes in the world.

Maybe Jones didn't know that would happen when he created Mauna Kea Golf Course's par 3 third hole, but that's exactly what transpired with Jones' creation when it opened in 1965. The hole features a tee box, which overlooks a large Pacific inlet, with the sea rushing inland on a continual basis.

Put quite simply, you either clear the ocean inlet with your tee shot, find the farthest right sliver of the fairway, or you're wet. The wind is almost always in your face, the waves pound nosily against the rocks; it's a visually intimidating hole to say the least.

But Jones, an early showman and promoter, as well as legendary architect, knew he would need one more thing to make his new course a success, he would need to create a bit of a legend.

So to christen his new golf course, Jones brought together a Big Three golf match. Three of the greatest players of that, or any generation, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, all in their prime, came together for an early Skins Game-like format to formally open Jones' new design.

The tee box for the third hole was set on the farthest back promontory, some 250 yards from the green and golf's three superstars all headed back there, driver in hand, to test Jones' new creation. With the wind howling in their face, only Palmer reached the green off the tee and Jones' legend was set.

It was the hole too tough for even golf's best to conquer. Today, that tee box is used as a prime photo spot and picnic area with a plaque in the ground to commemorate the Big Three match.

But to only remember one hole from Jones' work at Mauna Kea Golf Course would be a mistake. For there are plenty of outstanding offerings on this par 72 course, which measures 7,114 yards from the back tees.

While the first hole is a fairly tame dogleg right par 4, the second is the initial layout with a view of the ocean as it sweeps downhill 394 yards from it high perch straight down to a fairly large green, leaving golfers two good par chances to start their round.

You hear the sound of the third hole long before you see it as you turn the corner. Every golfer, regardless of handicap, should head to the back tee, if not to take a shot, at least to get a full view of this wonderful hole, which now measures 210 yards from the back markers.

The noise from the ocean and waves is just as loud on the large green surrounded by seven bunkers, but at least golfers are on firm ground and don't have to repeat their scary tee shot over the ocean.

Mauna Kea Golf Course's par 4 fourth is the number one handicap hole and heads back into the mountains. There are large bunkers on both sides of the fairway with a steep uphill approach shot to a well-guarded multi-leveled green.

Holes five, a par 5, and six, a par 4, are the only parallel fairways on the entire course, meaning the ever-present Oceanside wind never comes from the same direction twice. The long uphill par-5 eighth winds up on one of the highest points and best views of the entire course.

Mauna Kea Golf Course's par-4 ninth tumbles slowly toward the sea and the massive clubhouse. There are large trees on both sides of the fairway so a long, straight drive is mandatory for success on the hole. There are four large bunkers in front of the green with more trees and brush behind.

During the Big Three matches, Nicklaus and Palmer shot 31 on the back nine, still a record, and the back side journey begins with a par 5 10th shaped in a long elysian curve up and to the right with three excellent shots needed to reach the green in regulation. The green is large and very sloped so golfers must keep their approach shots below the hole to have a good chance at success.

While the par 3 third is rightfully deserving of its publicity, the par 3 11th has the well-earned title of the toughest short hole on the course. Off the tee box there is a drop of more than 100 feet toward the water. Go long and you're in the ocean, short and you could find yourself in one of four deep bunkers, part of the 120 overall on the course. Nicklaus made bogey here three straight times during the Big 3 matches and mere mortals are happy to walk away with that score, if not worse.

Holes 12-17 play back into the mountains with elevated greens, tight fairways and more beautiful views of the hotel and scenery below.

Mauna Kea Golf Course's par 4 18th has been voted one of the toughest finishing holes in Hawaii and it's easy to see why. It measures 428 yards from the back tees, but bunkers and brush on both sides of the fairway demand length and accuracy off the tee. The hole bends slightly to the right, meaning the green is hidden from the fairway, but when it finally does come into view as you round the curve, the view can be stunning.

It's enough to make you glad Rockefeller and Jones held onto their dreams and produce one of the most memorable rounds of golf and most memorable views anywhere in Hawaii or this nation. The course is still a standard others are judged by 30 years after they opened.

Today, the big island is teeming with golf, including the neighboring sister Hapuna Golf Course which opened in 1992, but nothing has surpassed Hawaii's grand dame, Mauna Kea Golf Course, born of a dream and fulfilled with the promise of truly special and scenic golf.

Art Stricklin, Contributor

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