Robin Nelson: Patience, persistence key to Mr. Hawaii's success

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

They've dubbed him "Mr. Hawaii," for his exhaustive body of work around this heavenly island chain. Shattering all expectations that come with this moniker, Robin Nelson doesn't come complete with floral shirt, flip flops and dark shades.

He does, however, come equipped with a good idea about what it takes to design a memorable, challenging golf course, not to mention the kind of patience that would make a chess player blush.

Nelson, a golf course architect based in Mill Valley, Calif., has been waiting nearly a decade for one of his most prized projects to open to the public. Sure, he kept himself busy in the meantime by designing or remodeling close to 30 golf courses in and around the Hawaiian Islands.

But this is the one he's been longing to unveil.

On April 5, Royal Kunia Country Club in Leeward (Oahu) will open its doors to the public nine years after the final blade of grass settled into place.

"The sad thing about all of this is that it was one of the best golf courses in Hawaii and no one could play it," says Nelson. "It has everything. There are dramatic views and there's challenge if you want to play from the back tees."

Royal Kunia plays to over 7,000 yards from the tips, providing long-knockers with all the real estate they can handle. There are 101 bunkers, so navigating the layout requires both power and precision. But the real challenge here was finding an owner with enough savvy, resolve and cold cash to overcome an impact fee process that former Honolulu City Councilman John DeSoto once referred to as "extortion."

Shortly after its completion in 1994, Mayor Frank Fasi imposed a $25 million impact fee on Royal Kunia's original developers, Royal Oahu Resorts Inc. Royal Oahu Resorts managed to cough up $12 million, and it appeared as if the project might clear Fasi's ludicrous monetary hurdle.

But before construction on the clubhouse began, the Japanese lending group JL Kunia Corp sued Royal Oahu Resorts for $95 million in promissory notes assumed in December 1993. The wheels continued to fall off as JL Kunia then filed for bankruptcy in the face of the Japanese business bust of the mid-90s.

"You know the old saying about one thing after another," Nelson says. "Well this was the classic case of it. I won't even go into the politics of it all. But it got to the point where the city and county thought about condemning it."

Nelson's spirits were lifted in May 2000 when Liongain Hawaii Inc. purchased the course for $11.5 million. And finally, in early 2001, bitterness morphed into elation. Then City Council Chairman Jon Yoshimura introduced a plan to waive the remaining $13 million by accepting $2.5 million in cash and $1 per round in perpetuity.

"It was kind of anticlimactic at that point," Nelson says. "I had gone on with my life, so to speak."

It's not that Nelson has become nihilistic about his profession. He's just learned to deal with the nuances of designing courses in Hawaii and the Pacific Rim. Whether it is politics, geography, geology or even meteorology, Nelson has dealt with it at some point.

"I have another golf course on Kauai, Puakea at Grove Farm, that went through about the same thing as Royal Kunia," Nelson says. "We built 10 holes in the early 1990s and hurricane Iniki came in and wiped out the entire island. It just sat there for years and finally they decided to open the 10 holes and deal with the other eight holes later. Steve Case of AOL grew up at Grove Farm and he bought it two years ago. We just completed the course in December and it will open in July."

Mr. Hawaii says he never grows tired of his beloved island chain and all its idiosyncrasies - it helps when you have two outstanding courses opening within four months of each other. Yet he isn't inclined to put all his architectural eggs in one basket.

The Cal-Berkeley grad makes his home and office outside of the San Francisco Bay area and says he'd like to become involved with more projects in his home state. He recently designed a sinewy, scenery-stocked course in the High Sierra Nevadas of Northern California - Dragon at Gold Mountain (Editor's note: Now named Nakoma Golf Resort). He's even tapped into the Empire State golf scene, where his Ravenwood Golf Club outside of Rochester, N.Y. continues to garner rave reviews.

"The reason you don't hear more about Robin is that a lot of architects who work in the Pacific Rim don't have the name recognition when they come back to the States to bid on jobs," says John LaFoy, a golf course architect and good friend of Nelson's.

LaFoy also says that Nelson's penchant for remodeling keeps him from basking in the limelight.

"I do a lot of remodeling work, so I understand where Robin is coming from," says LaFoy. "You realize when you are doing renovation work that you are not going to get the same kind of exposure as you do when you design new golf courses. But let me tell you, a lot of the renovation business is word of mouth. If he is getting that many renovation jobs then he is doing darn good work. I would consider that to be a major feather in Robin's cap."

Nelson, who was recently named the "Architect of Year" for 2002 by Asian Golf Monthly doesn't like to play the lack-of-recognition card. However, he was miffed when a magazine article recently divulged a list of who's who in Hawaii golf course architecture and his name wasn't on it.

"I threw the thing aside and was like 'what the heck,'" Nelson says. "I have hand my hand in more courses over there than anyone."

It could be a while before the next magazine article gives Mr. Hawaii credit where credit is due. Nelson is used to the wait.

The Robin Nelson File

Design highlights: Dunes at Maui Lani (Hawaii), Mauna Lani (Hawaii), Mimosa Golf Club (Philippines), Jade Dragon Golf Club (China), Ravenwood Golf Club (N.Y.), Dragon at Gold Mountain (Calif.). Remodels: Waialae Country Club, Kapalua Bay Course, Kaanapali North, Mid Pacific Country Club.

Design philosophy: "I have been doing this 30 years and I am evolving into a minimalist. The great thing about golf is that every course is different. I like to play with what the site gives you, unless you have a site that is flat and solid rock. Beyond that, you get into what the owner wants and the market and who is going to be playing it."

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

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