Mixing religion and the golf gods works well for Ko'olau Golf Club on Oahu, Hawaii

KANEOHE, Oahu Hawaii -- It's a typical Sunday morning at Ko'olau Golf Club.

The parking lot is packed. There are cars and people everywhere.

The chaotic scene tells a story of revival, not just for a golf club that has struggled since opening in 1992 but for a church searching for a home. The First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu overcame improbable odds in 2006 to become the only church in the world to own a golf course on-site.

The Sunday I visited in January of 2013, few of the cars were driven by golfers. Sunday morning tee times are restricted to just four groups per hour. While the rest of the golf world counts on the Sabbath to make money, Ko'olau actually trims back access to save parking spaces for members of a massive congregation that numbers 1,200 members and continues to grow. The arrangement signifies the unique cooperation between its church owners and the course operator. After nearly a decade of being run by American Golf, Ko'olau signed a 10-year lease to be operated by the YHB Hospitality Group, a subsidiary of L.A. Koreana Inc., which is owned by Koreana Hotels & Resorts in Seoul. The company also owns several other golf courses on Oahu and runs the operations of the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club in Kailua.

Church Executive Coordinator Ron Mathieu -- who was intimately involved in the purchase of the course -- likes to call this symbiotic relationship the "miracle at Ko'olau."

"We (the course and the church) bump into each other from time to time, but it is a really good relationship," Mathieu said in a wide-ranging interview in 2013.

A partnership is born

Built for $82 million, Ko'olau Golf Club sits on heavenly land roughly 45 minutes from downtown Honolulu. The course was carved from 242 acres of a tropical rain forest designated as a nature conservancy in the shadow of the Ko'olau Mountains.

Originally a private club, Ko'olau never thrived, hindered by a wet climate and a penal layout once regarded as the toughest course in the country from the tips. Stuck on the windward side of the mountains, Ko'olau averages nearly 78 inches of rain per year, according to General Manager Ken Terao. Soggy conditions and rainy days -- along with the threat of high scores -- certainly don't attract golfers.

Mathieu said it took a series of extraordinary events for the church to take control of an ailing property. He gets excited telling the tale, how a new federal law ultimately trumped a state law to allow the church to operate on conservancy land and how the involvement of a Catholic bishop helped the church sell its former Honolulu home.

Ko'olau operates a spacious pro shop and restaurant out of the basement of the beautiful 110,000-square-foot church rent free. The setting is so popular for weddings and banquets the non-profit church created a for-profit business to host the celebrations. "It's pretty complicated with three entities," Mathieu admitted.

But the cost-sharing benefits everybody. The course restaurant can deliver church members and staff a convenient meal throughout the week. They also get discounts on tee times and memberships. Some groups play right after their service. In return, the church sometimes attracts new members through the course.

"It's a great way to expose the church to the general public," Mathieu said. "We are not in their face about our church, but a number of people have joined our church because of golf."

Senior pastor Dan Chun has said: "Now there is no excuse to skip church for golf; people can come to church and still golf."

Playing Ko'olau Golf Club

Despite attempts to soften a ball-gobbling beast, it still takes an act of the golf gods to shoot a low score at Ko'olau.

A Jurassic Park jungle lines the fairways. Deep ravines dissect many holes. In 2012, Golf Digest ranked Ko'olau No. 25 on its list of the toughest courses in America, down from third in 2007.

In a recent article in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Terao indicated that a massive tree clearing has greatly improved course conditions in 2017.

The maintenance staff has hacked back the jungle, removing some blind shots over ravines and filled in bunkers to make it more forgiving. Another set of tees has also been added to make several forced carries more manageable.

Terao still recommends players bring as many balls as the number of their handicap. Hawaiian-born PGA Tour pro Dean Wilson owns the course record with a 67, a score some high handicappers might threaten in nine holes.

The first hole -- a tight-and-winding downhill par 5 -- and the demanding 18th hole -- a par 4 highlighted by epic carries on the tee and approach shots -- form arguably the toughest bookends in golf. Players will be rewarded by putting the driver away on the quirkiest holes -- par 4s at No. 5, No. 6 and No. 10 and the par-5 16th hole. It's highly recommended to tee off from the back tee of the 15th hole, a relatively short par 4. The panoramic views stretch for miles.

Robert Thue, a resident of Greenwich, Conn., who has been visiting Oahu for 20 years, recommends people enjoy the setting, not worry about their score. Ko'olau ranked among the top 100 public courses in the country by Golf Digest from 2003-2009. "I come here for the solitude and scenery," he said in 2013.

Ko'olau Golf Club: The verdict

The best advice I can give is to call ahead before you play Ko'olau Golf Club and ask about course conditions.

The day I played, it was so wet I lost two balls plugged in the fairways. On a clear day with dry fairways, however, it is one of the best golf experiences in the Hawaiian islands.

I like Terao's advice as well. As a 10-handicap, I lost eight balls and still played pretty well. Those who play it safe will be rewarded with a decent score.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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Carved from a tropical rain forest in the shadow of majestic mountains, Ko'olau Golf Club on Oahu remains one of the most difficult golf courses in the world. Losing balls in the ravines and thick jungle lining many fairways will frustrate first-timers who think they can slay one of golf's Goliaths. To enjoy the day, come for the scenery -- not a score.
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Mixing religion and the golf gods works well for Ko'olau Golf Club on Oahu, Hawaii