Ranked No. 1 in Hawaii and No. 18 in the United States by Golf Magazine, the course at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has what it takes to be one of my favorites. In fact, it is the first course to be reviewed twice in Global Traveler — warranted by its $175 million renovation after the 2006 earthquake that centered very close to the property.
The earthquake may have been a blessing in disgui
se, since the hotel, built in 1965, was in need of an overhaul. In 2008, Rees Jones had the chance to look at his father’s work — Robert Trent Jones, Sr. designed the course in 1963 — and restore the course to its original toughness. Known as the “U.S. Open Doctor,” Rees pumped new life into the course, refurbishing all the bunkers and adding new ones, to a total of 99 — many of which I found. He also changed the greens, building in more undulations and adding more subtlety to the “reads.” The greens grass was replaced with a hybrid Bermuda grass called TifEagle. With a name like that, I was expecting a few eagles, but that was not to be.
Mauna Kea also rebuilt the clubhouse and renovated the hotel, decreasing the number of guestrooms from 310 to 258 and enlarging the premium ocean-view rooms to more than 600 square feet. Overall, it was a wonderful use of $175 million.
Hole 1 (374 yards, par 4)
I like to start a review with the first hole to show the personality of the designer — no disappointment here. If this dogleg made you say “daddy” before, it is even more of a challenge now. Rees Jones deepened all the bunkers and added one at the turn of the dogleg right. Trying to cut off some yardage here will cost you dearly. I nailed my 3-wood a little more left than I would have liked and was able to muscle a 5-wood (hit softly) to the back of the raised green with its added undulations.
Hole 3 (272 yards, par 3)
This is probably one of the most beautiful holes I have ever played anywhere in the world. From the tee box, you shoot over the ocean to the green. I was playing with the two club pros, Brandon and Josh, and was proud that my ball made it over the ocean, landing just right of the green. I had to muster all my skill to make this shot — walking away with a bogey was a well-deserved honor.
Hole 4 (438 yards, par 4)
On this No. 1 handicapped hole, you need two really decent shots to putt in for par. There are two sets of bunkers right and left where your drive lands, a large bunker on the left of the green and a huge back bunker. Rees made sure any bad shot would catch one of these traps. I drove my ball to the left side of the rough, nearly landing in a bunker. From here I landed an iron on the green, taking a not-so-nice bounce left into a greenside bunker. Fortunately, I came out cleanly and one-putted for a par and a “sandy” on this hole. This type of bunker play was seldom repeated during the day.
Hole 5 (600 yards, par 5)
“Ouch!” is what I said as I putted in for a double bogey on this par-5 big daddy. I made it to the palm trees on the right side of the fairway and into the rough on the dogleg left — the beginning of my demise. Play should not be as difficult as mine was, but the hole is long with undulations in the fairway. I also hit the approach bunker about 80 yards from the green. Brandon and Josh played magnificently while I hacked to the green. I got my money’s worth on this one.
Hole 10 (567 yards, par 5)
After you swing off of nine, get ready for this doozy, which has a near-horseshoe shape doglegging right to the green. I drove a clean, straight ball just left of the three fairway bunkers at the landing area. Josh out-drove me by about 100 yards; but Brandon slammed a ball past us both and as he grinned, we knew this was his best drive of the day. The pros were far enough to take a shot to the green, whereas I had to land just behind the left forward bunker. From here, it took me two shots to the green. Josh putted for a birdie on this elevated green — a smashing show of his skill.
Hole 11 (250 yards, par 3)
I really like this hole — one of my favorites, pre- and post-Rees renovations. It is a beautiful par 3 to a downhill green with the blue Pacific Ocean behind. The green is surrounded by two bunkers in the front and one to catch wayward balls that fly over to the left and back. All three of us had decent tee balls to the green; mine landed slightly short and to the right. A perfectly executed chip left me with a one-putt for par. Make sure you take in the view of the sunbathers and the Mauna Kea resort below.
Hole 17 (620 yards, par 5)
From the tee box, check out the magnificent homes that overlook this hole to the right, owned by some of the course’s more celebrated members and valued at many millions. The 17th hole slopes downhill to the green and follows a dogleg pattern to the left. Balls tend to drift toward the right; traps and a sloping hill with brush can cause issues, as they did for me. From here, you need to fire a fairway wood to an area beyond the forward fairway trap. This will lead you to a comfortable iron to the green, which is heavily guarded with four bunkers. We were joined on this hole by the head superintendent, who unsuccessfully tried to read the green to Brandon, causing him to miss his birdie putt.
Hole 18 (450 yards, par 4)
This is a wonderful finishing hole for a course and a resort that have been given a lot of tender, loving care. The tee box is elevated, with a grand view of the Pacific Ocean and the resort. The green shifts slightly to the right in this near-dogleg. The landing area is between two traps on either side of the fairway, and for some hitters a 3-wood might be the play. You may choose to bypass this area for the next level, which will leave you with a mid-iron to the green. Lunch at Number 3, the clubhouse restaurant, completes a perfect day at Mauna Kea.
Mauna Kea Beach Hotel
62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive
Kohala Coast, HI 96743
tel 808 882 7222
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