With five top-notch courses, Pacific Links International builds a golf empire on Oahu
Bruce Simmonds plans big things for golf on Oahu.
Simmonds, the chief executive officer of Pacific Links International, hopes to usher in a new era that actually winds the clock back to the glory days when Oahu was the premier golf destination in the Hawaiian islands.
Pacific Links International has purchased five golf courses on Oahu within the past three years -- Royal Hawaiian Golf Club, Kapolei Golf Club, Olomana Golf Links, Makaha Golf Club and Makaha Valley Country Club. The Canadian company, formed in 2009, is also finalizing the purchase of the two Ka'anapali courses on Maui and continues shopping for more.
Simmonds said Oahu has "huge potential" for golf.
"With Makaha and Turtle Bay -- and before the (course) boom on Maui and Kauai -- Oahu was the best (Hawaiian) island for golf. The last 30 years the standards of maintenance and design and the quality of courses has taken a hit. There have been quite a few built and not well maintained. ... We think we can bring more sophistication to the industry there. A lot of the course presentation and service isn't what it is on Maui. We are looking to change that."
Pacific Links International, owned by Canadian citizen and Chinese entrepreneur Du Sha, continues to acquire high-end golf properties in select destination markets throughout North America. The idea is to create a mobile country club for frequent golfers and business travelers who crave reciprocal access to top courses around the world.
The company owns two courses in Las Vegas and the acclaimed Pete Dye Club in West Virginia with access to more than 50 other affiliated clubs, including the PGA Tour's TPC Network. Simmonds created a similar business model in 1993 when he founded ClubLink, currently Canada's largest owner and operator of golf courses.
Betting big on China in Oahu
Pacific Links International has bet big on Oahu. It hired Greg Norman Golf Course Design to renovate both the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club and the Makaha West course.
The company even sponsored its first Champions Tour event, the Pacific Links Hawaii Championship, at Kapolei last September as a coming out party for the brand. Norman spoke to a gathering of several hundred prominent business and political leaders in Honolulu about the importance of golf tourism on the island.
Simmonds believes the potential growth of the game in China could bear fruit on Oahu.
"Part of our strategy is to replace the Japanese golfer with the Chinese golfer," he said. "That (China) is an important market for us. Oahu is underrated as an island. It is where they have to fly into first. The Asian visitors feel more comfortable (on Oahu). It is more cosmopolitan with more shopping and dining and nightlife. We want to cater to their golf needs. We think Oahu can do that. In most cases, the other islands are too quiet. They want cosmopolitan. That is what they are used to."
These acquisitions could be the first stage of the company's push into Hawaii.
"Our objective is to have the largest single presence in the Hawaiian islands, up to 10 to 15 courses," Simmonds said. "That will give us some marketing muscle to not only attract market share of existing golfers but bring in new golfers.
"We think that our strategy for members and branding put us in a prominent position of leadership in the rebirth of golf in Hawaii. It has certainly been down in the dumps for the last five years and one could argue the last 25 years. We are innovators. We will have an innovative membership (plan). We look for a long successful presence there."
Spearheading change on Oahu
Oahu currently bats second string as a golf destination in Hawaii. The island's golf scene lacks the ocean views of Maui (think Kapalua's Plantation Course) or The Big Island (Mauna Kea) and Kauai (Princeville). There aren't many places golfers can consistently count on to be in good shape.
In September 2010, Pacific Links International acquired Kapolei near Ko Olina on the sunny, dry side of the island. This solid Ted Robinson design hosted the LPGA Tour's Ladies Hawaiian Open from 1996 to 2001.
The purchase of the former Luana Hills Country Club soon followed. The knock on the now-named Royal Hawaiian -- a Pete and Perry Dye design circa 1994 -- was always a layout too quirky to be enjoyable. Its intoxicating jungle setting, reminiscent of Jurassic Park, was just too unforgiving.
Norman's renovation has revamped the front nine, especially the start of the round. New tees have transformed the difficult first hole, a par 4, into a much more forgiving par 5. By moving the tees up, the par-5 second hole became a more-sensible par 4. Blind shots were eliminated by reshaping the ninth hole.
Simmonds said more extensive changes on the back nine should be completed this summer. The par-5 14th will become a par 4, and the problematic 17th green moved back to create a more pleasing par 5.
"It was just not playable. People lost 14 balls," Simmonds said. "It was too quirky and gimmicky. What people will say now is 'Wow. It is not only a dramatic course, (but) it is playable and well maintained.' That's a huge difference."
President Barack Obama will certainly approve. He's played the course several times while on vacation from the Oval Office.
Norman's work at Makaha West will take more time. The course, currently closed, could open in 2015, Simmonds said. This is the first time the neighboring West and East courses -- both William F. Bell designs -- have been under the same ownership since the 1960s. The East course, a par 71 of 6,369 yards, continues to operate as a value-oriented place to play.
"The changes (on the West Course) will be dramatic," Simmonds said. "It will be a new golf course. We are using some additional land that wasn't used (in the original layout). That is a real bonus. Some of the new land is spectacular."
Like a lot of locals, Michelle Wie learned the game at the 6,326-yard Olomana Golf Links in Waimanalo, which was bought last year. Simmonds said the affordable Olomana remains the busiest course in the company's Oahu portfolio. Infrastructure upgrades, while necessary, will have to wait.
"There is money that needs to be spent that should have been spent a long time ago," he said.
March 18, 2013