The Big Island in Hawaii, scenic and challenging

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Updated: December 1, 2021

By Steve Turcotte, Inside Golf Editor

You know that you are flying into something special just by looking out the window of the airplane as you land at the Kona International Airport on Hawaii, the Big Island. From those brief seconds upon landing, you see golf courses, lava fields, mountains, ocean waves and long endless miles of roads.

Welcome to the Island of Hawaii, also called the Big Island, a paradise that has just about everything you would want in a golf vacation. Terrific resort golf courses? Check. Some great public courses? Check. Plenty of beaches to enjoy the Pacific Ocean and its surfing and snorkeling? Check and check. The chance to tee off in the shadow of one of the tallest mountains – Mauna Kea? Check. 

Other islands like Oahu, Maui and Kauai might get more headlines, but Hawaii Island is a place where you get everything the islands have to offer – and less crowds. 

Here’s a look at the golf on the Big Island:

• It all started in 1964 when Mauna Kea was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and opened for play. In fact, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player came over for an exhibition. Rumor has it during the round on the par-3 third hole, the three stood at the 272-yard tee box with the Pacific Ocean in front of them that Player told the other two he couldn’t carry his ball that far. There is a plaque on the tee box commemorating the exhibition that day. Right next door sits Hapuna Golf Course which features a dramatic course with plenty of holes up the hill and more down the hill toward the Pacific Ocean.

• Many of the resorts sit along the ocean and offer terrific views. Waikoloa Beach Resort has 27 holes to offer. The Kings’ Nine is embraced by natural lava formations so keeping the ball in the fairway is key. The Waikoloa Beach Resort is more than just golf as well. There are two shopping villages and two resorts – a Marriott and a Hilton. The Hilton is set on 62 acres and is so spacious that you can opt to take a tram or boat to get from one side of the resort to the other. The Marriott features a spectacular setting along the beach.

• A course that used to be called the Big Island Country Club has now changed its name to Makani. This is a course that sits on the hillside above Kona and features an excellent layout and some spectacular views. With wide fairways and water on half of the holes, a terrific island green par-3 17th hole, and a dramatic finishing 18th, this is a course that is worth the extra trip up the hill.

• Mauna Lani Resort is nestled between Waikoloa Beach Resort and Mauna Kea Resort and has two courses on site. Its signature 15th hole on the South Course is one of the most photographed holes in the world. In the winter, you might see humpback whales.          

• Hualālai Resort’s Jack Nicklaus designed course is also the home of the Champions Tour in January and features a Four Seasons Resort. The resort has two courses, with the Nicklaus course being used for the PGA Champions event every January. The 17th hole is dramatic, a par-3 which sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and has a tee shot which carries lava. A private course sits next door.

• Kona Country Club is another gem, having been closed for two years for an irrigation project but now opened and featuring some long par-3 holes and some terrific views along the ocean.

• Inland, golf is still a treat. Makalei Golf Club, up the hill from the Kona Airport, just might be one of the hilliest golf courses around. In fact, the cart drive from the clubhouse to the driving range takes you up 750 feet. And wildlife abounds, including peacocks and wild boars. 

• And Waikoloa Golf Village offers a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course with some scenic views of the ocean.