There’s a thrill that comes from visiting a new destination and finding that it rebukes every one of your expectations – but that it’s still wonderful. There’s also a thrill that comes from reaching that destination and finding that it perfectly matches the image you carried in your mind’s eye. The latter is how Darrin Gee characterizes Mauna Kea. “For me, Mauna Kea frames the mainlander’s vision of Hawaii golf in every conceivable way. There’s a perfect juxtaposition of elevation changes, native vegetation, crystal blue waters, expanses of lava and emerald green fairways. It’s exactly what a Hawaii course should be. Mauna Kea is not only about aesthetics. It’s a wonderful strategic design – holes that are challenging, but fair. There’s also Mauna Kea’s lore.”
Mauna Kea rests at the northern tip of the island of Hawaii, on the Kohala Coast. It takes its name from a dormant volcano that looms to the south, a mountain that’s tall enough (at 13,796 feet) to seasonally be frosted with a patina of snow, despite its tropical locale. (Mauna Kea translates from the Hawaiian language as “white mountain.”) The original golf course at Mauna Kea and the adjoining Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (now operated by Prince Resorts Hawaii) was the vision of Laurance Rockefeller, the fourth son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Besides helping to oversee the family’s investment and philanthropic interests, Rockefeller established resorts at several locales in the Caribbean. When he arrived on the big island’s Kohala Coast in the early 1960s – then still largely undiscovered – he saw the potential for a world class golf course amongst the vast expanses of black lava rock. He purchased nearly 2,000 acres above Hapuna Beach and Kauna’oa Bay and flew in the world’s pre-eminent designer, Robert Trent Jones, Sr., to evaluate the possibilities. “The story goes,” Darrin explained, “that after the two men walked the property, Rockefeller asked Jones if he could build a course. Jones picked up some lava, crushed it in his hands and replied, ‘You will have your course.’” Thus, the 50th state’s first great course was born. (Jones would later consider Mauna Kea among his three best original designs.)
“There are so many good holes at Mauna Kea,” Darrin continued. “All four par-3s are great [each one plays over 200 yards from the back]. There are excellent short par-4s (including one that’s potentially drivable), long par-5s that require two monster shots for a chance at eagle, and dogleg lefts and rights that require players to use lots of different shots.” A great part of Mauna Kea’s lore arose from its third hole, an audacious par 3 that in its original incarnation measured 261 yards from the tips – nearly all of that two and a half football fields a carry over the Pacific, from one rocky promontory to the next. If the very existence of such a hole (with its green encircled by seven bunkers) weren’t enough to put Mauna Kea on the golf map, a 1965 match orchestrated to help promote the new course would etch it onto the collective golf consciousness of a generation…and help begin to establish Hawaii as a golf destination. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – all in their prime – were invited to play a “Skins” style competition. Darrin picks up the story: “During the warm-up round, the three players went to the back tee on number three, holding drivers. The wind is said to have been up that day, and only one of three was able to poke it to the green. Fearing embarrassment, one of the other players refused to play from the back tee on TV – and they instead played from the blues, which measure 210 yards over the water. For many years the back tee was closed for golf and used instead for weddings. Now the back tee is open again. I have to say that whatever tee you choose, it’s a spectacular shot; none of the drama is lost from the front tees.” (Some sources identify Arnold Palmer as the long hitter on that fateful day in Mauna Kea’s history; he would later return, with design partner Ed Seay, to design the sister course at Mauna Kea Beach Resort, Hapuna.)
It’s worth noting that many players consider the 247-yard par-3 11th hole an even more challenging hole than number three. It plays downhill 100 feet, which makes it a bit shorter than the card would imply. Four deep bunkers guard short right, short left and short center, respectively; a shot that goes long is in the Pacific. Where number three is largely a play of strength – you make it or you don’t – number eleven has a level of subtlety. A three here is well-earned; a four is nothing to be ashamed of.
As of this writing, Mauna Kea is undergoing a significant restoration. In a fitting passing of the torch, the work is being led by Rees Jones, one of RTJ’s golf course architect sons. “One major aspect of the restoration is the bunkering,” Darrin explained. “They’re being deepened and fashioned to have higher lips. While the restoration work is welcome after 44 years, it’s a testament to Mauna Kea’s quality that the course remains challenging to top players. If you happen to watch the broadcast of the Big 3 match and then play the course, you’ll see that it’s the same, except that the trees are taller. It’s withstood the test of time. To score, you have to think and play your best. To me, that’s a sign of a classic course.”
The bunkers of Mauna Kea (in their pre-renovation state) play into Darrin’s most lasting memory of the course. “I was out playing the course with a good friend, and we got to the 18th, a 428-yard par 4 that’s considered one of the toughest finishing holes in Hawaii. I hit a beautiful drive, but put my approach in the bunker that guards the hole on the right. I climbed in to make my shot, and my friend stood watch to see where the ball would land. I thought I made a great swing and pured it out of there, but neither my friend nor I ever saw the ball come down. As far as I know, it’s still in the air. I feel like I’m forever playing the course.”
Darrin Gee is golf’s newest authority on the mental and inner aspects of the game. Based on the Big Island of Hawaii, Darrin is praised for bringing people to (and back to) the game of golf. Over 10,000 golfers have experienced his golf program and The Seven Principles of Golf™ since 2000. Darrin’s The Seven Principles of Golf: Mastering the Mental Game On and Off the Golf Course (Stewart, Tabori & Chang 2007) is a classic akin to Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book and Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. His second book, The Seven Personalities of Golf: Discover Your Inner Golfer to Play Your Best Game was published in 2008. He also released two top-selling mental game DVDs, Mastering the Mental Game, Volume 1: Putting and Mastering the Mental Game, Volume 2: Full Swing. Darrin has been featured in numerous publications, print and TV, and has been featured in several bestselling golf instruction books, including The Secret of Golf by former GOLF Magazine Editor-in-Chief, George Peper and 1001 Reasons to Love Golf. He is a sought-after motivational speaker for corporations, incentives, meetings and conventions throughout Hawaii, the US mainland and abroad.
If You Go…
Getting There: Mauna Kea is on the northern tip of the island of Hawaii, 26 miles from Kona. Kona is served by many major carriers, including Alaska (800-ALASKAAIR; www.alaskaair.com) and American Airlines (800-433-7300; www.aa.com).
Course Information: Mauna Kea (800-882-6060; www.maunakeabeachhotel.com ) plays 7,114 yards from the tips to a par 72, with a slope rating of 143. Green fees range form $125 to $175.
Accommodations: There are two resorts on premises at Mauna Kea – the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Hapuna Beach Hotel. Both are operated by Prince Resorts Hawaii (888-9PRINCE; http://princeresortshawaii.com). A variety of Hawaii golf packages are also available.
Follow the nationwide golf tour when it goes to the Plantation Course at Kapalua, Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii in January.