I have always dreamed of playing golf on the Big Island of Hawaii. I think the contrast between the black volcanic rock and the lush green fairways is visually stunning, and I am fascinated about how these courses even game to be … but I imagine it involved a lot of work!
One such course built on a lava field is Mauna Lani South, located on the Koloa Coast of Hawaii. The full Mauna Lani experience also includes a North course and a kids course. To add to the confusion, at times, the resort will also put in place a ‘classic’ course which is a combination of both North and South and is the original course on site. But for the sake of this review, we will focus on the South track.
In a minute …
Opened originally in 1981, Mauna Lani has hosted many of golf’s biggest names, including the Seniors Skins game, for many years. Do not confuse Mauna Lani with Mauna Kea, which will be a focus on a future review. Whilst not designed by instantly recognizable names, Homer Flint and Raymond Cain, Mauna Lani does not lack drama or visual appeal. In fact, the par 3 15th may be one of the most photographed holes in all of Hawaii.
Mauna Lani is located 45 mins drive from Kailua-Kona, and like everything on the Big Island, a rental car does make things easier.
How do I play Mauna Lani?
Mauna Lani is a resort-style facility that the public can play. Rates are dynamic based on available space but expect to pay $200 to $250 generally, with discounts available in off-peak times. Mauna Lani also offers some exceptional package rates with unlimited play over a 2 or 3 day period so check that out. Club rentals start at $69.
Having longed to play volcanic golf for years, I was not let down by my first impressions upon arrival. Friendly staff and a pristine driving range was the perfect way to start the day, and the views as we approached the ocean holes were as good as the postcards made them look.
The primary challenge at Mauna Lani is to hit the bright green fairways, avoiding the lava formations in the landing areas and on both sides of the fairways. Do that, and you will score well. Recovery is not normally an option, however.
The course starts reasonably easily, if you can block out the lava, but heats up when you hit the 7th and see the ocean for the first time. Hole 15th is the most famous of all, and for a good reason. A par 3 can measure close to 200 yards, and you must often hit into a breeze, over the ocean, and land your ball on what looks like a very distant green. Take your time on this hole and take lots of photos. This is your Mauna Lani profile picture.
Overall the course is what good resort golf should be—fun and enjoyable to the eye. Mauna Lani can still bite back with its rocks, bunkering, water, and ocean, so don’t think it is a pushover. Especially if the wind is up, you will have your work cut out for you.
Everything else ….
Even though we were not guests of Mauni Lani resort, we made ourselves at home post-round for a swim, play on the beach, and some great food and cocktails. Give this a look before you leave the site.
If you happen to be with some non-golfers, a great way to show them the beauty of the course is to suggest a sunset golf cart tour.
- It is tempting to venture onto the volcanic rocks to retrieve a ball when you inevitably hit one into trouble. In fact it is hard to imagine seeing so many bright white balls sitting so close to hand. But in truth, and I know this from retriveing some balls myself, it is both dangerous and kind of pointless as the balls you find will be very cut up once you find them.
- But equally there may be a time in your rounds when the rocks provide a very friendly bounce out of trouble. So take the good with the bad. I personally struggled for the first 6 holes and the fear of hitting a ball into what seemed like endless trouble. But eventually I turned the rocks into a way to focus on the fairway, took a bit of heat out of swing, and ended up playing a level par back nine. There is plenty of room if you play smart.
If you plan to play a lot of golf on your Big island adventure, stay up north of Koloa-Kona, as many of the best courses are located here. If you stay south, where many of the cheaper accommodation options are, you will have a lot of travel to complete daily.
7.90 out of 10. The abundance of real estate on-site does take away a bit from the beauty of the course. And the inland holes can be a bit repetitive. But anyone by the ocean is stunning.