The Big Island, part 1

For a weary traveler awakening in an unfamiliar bed, momentarily uncertain just what town or country this hotel room is in, there's something very pleasing about suddenly recognizing the sound of the dove-like cooing of Hawaii's native Franklin birds -- which in this case are a tipoff that you're on the sunny Kohala Coast of the island of Hawaii. This part of the Big Island has two of Hawaiian golf's premier luxury resorts: Mauna Lani Bay, former longtime home of the Senior Skins Tournament, and Mauna Kea/Hapuna, sister facilities in the Prince Hotel chain. The Big Island is the youngest and biggest of the Hawaiian Islands -- two of the five volcanoes which formed it still active -- and also the most varied in climate. To the island's northwest, leeward of the mountain of Mauna Kea (highest mountain in the Pacific, indeed often snow-capped) lies the Kohala Coast, arid and temperate year-round. Good reasons why the Resort at Mauna Kea was undertaken by Laurence Rockefeller as part of an tourism initiative fostered by the Hawaiian government back in 1962. Mauna Kea originated some of the most distinctive traits of Hawaiian golf resorts, such as the massive multi-leveled open-air atrium and the emphasis on native Hawaiian art and sculpture (Rockefeller was a major collector of South Sea island art), which is why Mauna Kea is referred to as the grandaddy of Hawaiian golf resorts. A few hundred yards across the highway is her younger sister, Hapuna Beach hotel, opened in 1994 by the present owner of both resorts, the Japanese Prince Hotels chain. Mauna Kea's Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed golf course has aged gracefully, with comfortably laid-back facilities that belie a courteous and efficient staff. Old-fashioned? Maybe, but in these days of gargantuan pro shops-cum-health-clubs-cum-meeting facilities in resort golf courses, you may find something reassuring about a golf clubhouse which functions as just that: a quite serviceable pro shop that leads you straight onto the first tee with adjoining cart garage and locker facilities. (At Mauna Kea, it'd take less time to walk from your room to the clubhouse to the practice range to the first tee than the shuttle-bus ride to the golf course takes at many resorts.) It's also pleasant to start your round on a hole that puts you at ease off the tee, the way golf courses traditionally used to, offering a generous landing area (big hitters: use a fairway wood here), whence your mid-iron approach plays to an elevated green with a right-to-left wind and bunkers around all sides. Number 2, laid out against a glimmering ocean view to the right, plays a driveable 358-yards downhill -- Mauna Kea doesn't start to show its teeth until the famous par-3 third hole, 200 oceangoing yards to a two-tiered green which make for a brain-teasing exercise in club selection: a middle or long iron may do well here -- if you catch it just right. The next hole, the uphill 396-yard fourth, plays into the wind: reaching this green is one thing but holding the crowned putting surface with a fairway wood is another. A few more tips: the downhill 372-yard ninth plays much longer than it looks, so bring a driver up to the tee. The 14th, like many of Mauna Kea's holes, plays to a multileveled fairway presenting different routes to the green -- more the kind of hole you'd expect to find in New England than the tropics, and indeed part of Mauna Kea's charm is just this odd mixture of parkland and links course, with the sculpted, rolling landing areas and wall-to-wall greenery of an earlier era. The Hapuna Beach resort complements Mauna Kea in every way. Where Mauna Kea's hotel is ornate, Hapuna is minimalist, but simply engaging, from the big, quiet lobby, to the bright rooms. Golf at Hapuna is nothing less than spectacular. The Palmer/Seay course combines a fiendish challenge with stark and varied scenery which seems to change constantly, and conditions are immaculate. (One reason, says head pro Ron Castillo, is that the course was finished for two years before play began, thanks to an uncompleted highway nearby, which allowed the grass and vegetation to take full root before play. As a result, Hapuna has none of the defects golfers have come to accept at even the priciest name resorts -- bald spots near cart pulloffs, poorly defined bunkers, burnt-out or poorly-leveled tees.) More importantly, the Hapuna course offers a round of enchanting isolation, diabolical charm -- and fiendish difficulty, especially when the offshore wind is up, as it was for our round. The front plays primarily into the wind, and gradually uphill. Hapuna has perhaps the best collection of par-5s in all of Hawaii, beginning with the 536-yard 3rd hole, with its blind layup shot (the small pondside green is unreachable in two unless you can crank your drive better than 280). If Hapuna has a weakness -- and this course happens to be one of my personal all-time favorites -- it's the par-3s, which are are short even from the championship tees, and seem to depend on the wind for their difficulty. And when the wind is up at Hapuna, -- well, watch out. Our threesome happened into the season's worst, which exasperated Dallas native Earl Phipps. ("They'll never believe me," he said of the fifty-mile-an-hour winds that blew putts ten yards uphill, and sent one of his wedges sailing 200 yards.) Pro Castillo was almost apologetic about the it. "We keep track of everything here, and 300 out of 365 days, there's no wind. If a golfer is on the practice tee and gets discouraged by the conditions, or if he plays three holes and isn't enjoying himself, he can come back and we'll happily refund him or offer him another tee time." But golf's Scottish, windswept tradition dictates: "forbear." Or, to put it another way -- if you can't beat it -- forget about it, and enjoy the challenge, and the views: a myriad of varying panoramas. Early on, it's hilly, rich vegetation and trees, until you move to the western periphery of the course, which looks out out on an arid valley, not much different than what you might find in Arizona. The turn brings you down towards Kawaihae Harbor, and ocean panaromas prevail over the back nine -- except for the the magnificent 14th, a relatively short par-5 beast that plays uphill and into the wind. If you can manage to keep your drive in the fairway -- not easy, since the wind hurts from your left and the fairway is canted to the right -- you must place your second shot real carefully, 'cause your approach had better fly the no-man's land of tangled brush and lava to reach a steeply elevated, shallow green. As for that @##$%$ wind: the third of our threesome, a fellow from Washington State, somehow managed to finish 1-over for the last six holes.