Mauna Lani gives a classic taste of Big Island golf

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

KAILUA-KONA, HAWAII - Visitors who fly to the Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii are apt to notice one thing: lava. It's everywhere you look, an entire coastline of inky black rock, stretching for miles. Planes descend onto a landing strip carved out of the stuff, and driving to your hotel, you'll wonder how it's possible anyone could have chosen to build a resort on this stark moonscape.

North Course's #17
Mauna Lani Resort North Course: #17
North Course's #17South Course's #15Mauna Lani - Aerial view from the South courseMauna Lani - Aerial view
If you go

North Course at Mauna Lani Resort

4.5 stars out of 5 (based on 3 reviews)
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68-1400 Mauna Lani Dr
Kohala Coast, Hawaii 96743
Phone(s): (808) 885-6655
18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 6913 yards | Book online | ... details »

South Course at Mauna Lani Resort

4 stars out of 5 (based on 3 reviews)
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68-150 Ho'ohana St
Kohala Coast, Hawaii, Hawaii 96743
Hawaii County
Phone(s): (808) 885-6655
18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 6924 yards | ... details »

Then, turn left off the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway, and you're there. An oasis of palms and kiawe, and the emerald green of the two Mauna Lani golf courses, the North and the South Course.

Originally opened in 1981 as a single course, the course was halved 10 years later, with each half receiving a new nine designed by Robin Nelson's Honolulu-based firm, Nelson & Haworth. Now the North and South Courses host thousands of visitors a year, offering a classic taste of Big Island golf.

Mauna Lani's South Course

Of the two courses, the South is the more popular, mainly because of its ocean holes. Both courses offer quintessential "lava golf," a layer of emerald fairways atop black lava promontories. But the South course goes a step further, sending players right up to the coastline and back.

Every golf course wishes they could have a "Pebble Beach" hole. The South course has two: No. 7, a downhill par 3 with water crashing onto ocean cliffs beside you, and Mauna Lani's signature hole, No. 15, one of the most photographed golf holes in the world.

I snorted when I read the yardage guide's description of No. 7. "On-shore wind comes into play on this charming downhill par three," it reads. Dramatic, yes. Spectacular, yes. But I doubt the scratch golfers I was paired with, hitting from the tips, found it charming. They each lost three balls into the water as the wind beat their balls back at them, forcing them to eventually club up to driver before finally finding the front of the green.

After 7, you'll think nothing can top that experience, and for a while, nothing does. But then along comes No. 13, another coastline hole, with the ancient Fisherman's Trail running behind the green, and then 15.

Ah, 15. Another par 3, this shot requires a lengthy carry over water. The back tees are set up on their own little lava-rock island, and play 196 yards. Blues play 158, whites 131, and us ladies have only 112 yards of crashing, swirling water to carry. You'd better know your distances, because the green is large, and tiered. You don't want to end up on the wrong end of it, although you'll probably be so grateful just to be on it at all that you won't complain.

Mauna Lani's North Course

The North course, all inland, suffers a bit by comparison to its drama-queen sister. But it has charm of its own. This is a classic lava course, playing a little bit longer, 6,601 yards from the blues, versus 6,436 on the South course. It's a bit more difficult as well, with a slope and rating of 72.6/131 from the blues, compared to 70.5/128 next door.

Built on a bed of lava older than the South's 16th-century Kaniku flow, it's had time to develop more vegetation, and some of the fairways were cut right through forests of palms and kiawe.

Actually, some of the kiawe trees sit right in the middle of the fairways, creating what director of golf Dennis Rose calls "bunkers in the sky." Some of the regulars have complained about them, in fact, but Rose explained that they've been left as is, maintaining the integrity of the course's original design. "You've got to negotiate them by your tee shot, or manufacture a shot to get around them on your second shot," he says.

The course opens with the No. 1 handicap, a challenging beginning that might have you wondering what you've gotten yourself into. Pay attention to the signage-you'll learn small details, like the fact that Arnold Palmer won $15,000 with a birdie on this hole during the Senior Skins Game (which was played here for 11 years).

Several lakes bring water into play, and because it is more inland than the South course, this course also has one advantage: less wind.

The North course's No. 17 is its signature, a hole unlike any you'll find elsewhere. This par 3 features an entire amphitheatre of lava that encircles the green and creates a worthy Kodak moment.

Both courses feature seashore paspallum, a dense, vivid, almost Technicolor-green grass chosen because of its salt-tolerance and pest-resistance. It's pretty springy, though. Keep that in mind for your shots around the green - if you hit the fringe, the grass absorbs your ball like a sponge.

The verdict on golf at Mauna Lani

On the mainland, we have trees. Here on the Big Island, they have lava. It makes for a unique experience you won't soon forget.

For the most part, I think Mauna Lani deserves the Gold Medal award that GOLF Magazine has awarded it for the past seven consecutive years. The layouts, conditioning and service are all top-notch.

Really, the only downside I observed was the wind. Typical of Kohala Coast courses, Mauna Lani sees fairly constant tradewinds of at least 10 miles an hour, and gusts of 30 to 40 aren't unusual. If you want to score well here, learn wind management. Determine the direction and strength of the wind so you can club and aim accordingly. Don't swing harder - club up instead. And widen your stance by a couple of inches to create a more stable base.

As Rose explained, "Wind is our adverse weather condition out here. But the courses are built for that, and an equal number of holes run downwind as upwind, though it might not seem like it."

And bring extra balls. The sharp a'a lava is a greedy ball-thief, and balls are more expensive out here than on the mainland.

Green fees run $195 standard, $130 for resort guests. This includes a cart, but you have the option to walk.

Where to stay

You can get the resort rate at the pro shop by staying at either the Fairmont Orchid or the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows. I recommend the Mauna Lani.

The hotel's 342 rooms reflect an understated elegance, decorated in cool greens, orchids, and dark wood. Louvered sliding doors lead into your bathroom and out to your lanai. I visited when the hotel was at maximum occupancy, but it never felt crowded, and I appreciated small touches like free snorkel equipment and covered beach cabanas, and the hotel's generosity with towels - no mickey mouse signing them in and out.

But what really sets Mauna Lani apart is the grounds - acres of meandering paths that wander from a white-sand beach to prehistoric petroglyphs, to ancient springfed fish ponds stocked with native Hawaiian breeds. And, hey, is that what I think it is? Yes, three-foot, black-tipped sharks circle amongst the yellow tang and the humuhumunukunukuapua'a, Hawaii's state fish.

The ponds, which predate the hotel by centuries, serve as the focal point; they wind right through the open-air lobby, in fact, bringing the outdoors in.

And the spa ... well, they got it right. Designed as several interconnected thatched-roof bungalows, or hale, the spa offers a fine selection of services, including my favorite, lomilomi, a type of massage once reserved for ali'i, Hawaiian royalty.

Rooms start at $395, but deals can be had. The hotel runs regular specials, and offers multiple packages that include golf, meals, spa services, or combinations of all of the above.

Dining out

The hotel offers five restaurants, and my favorite was the most expensive, of course, the award-winning oceanside Canoehouse, serving Pacific-Asian cuisine. Other popular choices in the area are Roy's Kohala, and the Hualalei Grill, at the Four Seasons hotel. Be warned: you're in the ritziest section of the Big Island. You'll have to drive a ways to find more affordable dining options.

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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