Big-time golf on the Big Island: Five must-play courses

As the largest of the Hawaiian islands, the Big Island of Hawaii has the most climate zones -- 11 of the world's 13 to be exact. But there's one climate, in particular, that seems made for golf.

That would be found on the Kohala Coast, parts of which get just a few inches of rain each year (compared to 300 inches in a couple of spots near Hilo). Naturally, the Kohala Coast is where the resorts are, which means it's also where the best golf courses are, for the most part. Here is a list of five must-play, public-access golf courses on the Big Island. All of them are on the west side.

Mauna Kea Golf Course

Mauna Kea Golf Course tops the list because of its incredible ocean vistas and great Robert Trent Jones Sr. design. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hit the first shots here in 1963 on the signature hole, the breathtaking par-3 third that can play as long as 272 yards over a section of the deep blue Pacific.

The course is about 300 yards longer than it used to be thanks to a renovation by Rees Jones in 2008. It got new greens, tees, bunkers and fairways. In short, it's nearly perfect.

But allow me to insert a 1-B option: Mauna Kea's sister course shouldn't be overlooked. Hapuna Golf Course, a Palmer-Ed Seay design, is near as scenic as Mauna Kea and can be played for much less. The course sits high above the ocean, which is viewable from just about every hole.

South Course at Mauna Lani Resort

There are two golf courses at Mauna Lani, and the North Course might actually be the better test of golf. But if this is your first time, you have to play the Francis H. I'i Brown South Course at the Mauna Lani Resort because of a few dramatic holes built up against the black lava rock jetting out of the sea. Specifically, the South's back nine is punctuated by the par-3 15th, an experience you don't want to miss. Like the third at Mauna Kea, the Pacific blue cuts in front of the tee box and wraps around the green. The bonus is that you get two good looks at the 15th. The par-4 13th green also overlooks the ocean and provides a great view from behind the 15th tee.

Makani Golf Club

If you've never been to Hawaii you might be surprised to learn that a couple of courses have bentgrass greens. The only one on the Big Island to offer them is Makani, the former Big Island Country Club, which, because it's set at an elevation of more than 2,000 feet, can grow the cool season grass. But that's really just the beginning of the appeal of this wonderful Perry Dye design. With elevation change, beautiful lakes, wildlife and great views of the 14,000-foot Mauna Kea Volcano and the Kona Coastline below, it is a joy to play. Water comes into play on nine holes, including the 17th, which just might remind you of his dad Pete Dye's famous island par 3 on the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

Kona Country Club

Located in scenic Keauhou just six miles from downtown Kona, Kona Country Club offers great views of the ocean, especially on signature holes no. 3 and no. 12. Designed by renowned architect William Bell, the Ocean Course used to play host to an LPGA Tour event, and while it doesn't get the hype of some of the high-end resort courses, it isn't as pricey either.

Waikoloa Beach Resort King's Course

The expansive Waikoloa Beach Resort has good courses, but my recommendation here is to play the King's Course if you can only play one. Designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, the King's is cut out of a lava field, making for a beautiful contrast against the green fairways and greens. But play the Beach Course, too, if you have time, just for the views on the par-5 seventh, which backs up into the Pacific.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Played Mauna Kea and Mauna Lani South this past March. I enjoyed both courses. Mauna Kea was my favorite of the two. Mauna Lani's club house staff were great. My wife rode both courses with me. In the past The Plantation course on Maui had been her favorite course. Mauna Kea now holds that title. Regardless you can't go wrong with either course.

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Today 8/18/2019 Makani Golf Club website says open to public play daily.

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Sadly, Big Island Country Club is now private, as of the end of 2017.

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Big-time golf on the Big Island: Five must-play courses