My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
When most people think of Hawaii, they probably think of luaus, mai tais, and flower leis. Others might think of surfboards, beaches, and pineapples. However, often times, golf is overlooked. Since the Hawaiian islands are the most isolated location on the planet Earth, and they're quite expensive (both to get to, and to vacation in), they don't get the buddy trip or golf vacation traffic or other spots. Most visitors are honeymooners or retirees, where golf isn't always the focus. However, there are a quite a number of solid golf courses on each of the Hawaiian islands, and the crown jewel of them all is Nanea.
Nanea was the brainchild of two billionaires, so immediately the bar was set pretty high from an expectations standpoint. While I didn't know much about George Roberts from a golf perspective, I knew quite well that Charles Schwab is a member of many of the best clubs in America, including Cypress Point and Shinnecock, so I knew "Chuck" knew a little something about good golf. Schwab and Roberts both have properties at Kuki'o, a community of billionaires and multi-million dollar mansions with unbeatable views of the Pacific Ocean. However, when it came to building their own club, Schwab and Roberts decided on land away from the water, or toward the mountain; mauka as native Hawaiians call it. The Big Island of Hawaii has several gorgeous golf courses, but the volcanic rock that enccompasses much of the island's land and soil makes it difficult and costly to gross grass. Therefore, many holes are of a target nature where you hit from one section of grass to another. Schwab and Roberts wanted to create a links course on The Big Island, and when you're going to create a links course, who better to hire than a native Scot to do the work--David Mclay Kidd!
"Our clients, Charles Schwab and George Roberts, demanded a challenging course in the style of their favorite courses in the U.K. and Ireland. Set on the slopes of Mount Hualalai, the course incorporates strategies inherent in any fine links course. Add to that firm Paspalum turf grown atop sand and stiff sea breezes, and Nanea plays like a links course, too.
On the heels of Bandon Dunes, I was intruqued 'sic' to see what talents and skills I might have on a barren lava strewn mountainside rather than Coastal Sand Dunes perfectly suited to golf.
Nanea was my retort to those that enviously postulated that anyone could have designed Bandon Dunes.
This was the first course in North America to use Paspalum from tee to green, across the entire course. Jimmy Kidd pioneered the use of this grass in the Middle East years earlier and Nanea offered the perfect opportunity to unveil the benefits of this grass to the drought-ridden parts of North America."
When my wife and I headed out to the course on this particular morning, we knew we were in for a treat, but also a bit of a challenge to even find the course! With our tee time came instructions on how to find the course, which definitely eased our minds, as we knew that there was no entrance sign and were told that Google Maps can lead you to the wrong place. Heading away from Kailua-Kona, we made our way North through beautiful lava fields in an open-air Jeep Wrangler. The road to Nanea is immediately across the street from the entrance to the Four Seasons at Hualalai, where the Champions Tour plays their annual Mitsubishi Electric Championship. After you make a right on that road (Kaupulehu Rd), you'll head up the mountain and will eventually run into an unmarked gate with an audio box that will connect you with the clubhouse. If you're welcome that day (as we were lucky enough to be), you'll get past the gate and continue up Mount Hualalai. There is nothing else on this 8,000 acre property other than the golf course. Kidd was able to choose the best piece of land for the course, though he probably couldn't have done wrong on any of these available acres. Perched up around 1,000 feet above sea level (sometimes more, sometimes less), there is a view of the Ocean from essentially every spot.
Upon reaching the clubhouse, you get your first unique vision. The clubhouse is designed to mimic the peaks of the five volcanoes on The Big Island. I wish I had gotten a better picture, but this gives a bit of a feel for its look:
#10, Par 4, 379 Yards
As I mentioned on the last hole, after nine holes at Nanea, guests of members will get a chance to take a break in the clubhouse and sample some gourmet cuisine. However, as unaccompanied guests, we didn't get this privilege, though we did get to have some fresh baked cookies that were delicious! The second nine is on the higher side of the property, toward the mountain, or "mauka" in Hawaiian. The hole bends to the left, with three bunkers on the inside corner and one on the outside. A draw off the tee for a right-handed player would match the shape of the hole. The shot from the left side of the fairway will have the best angle into the hole.
#2, Par 4, 379 Yards
Turning toward the water, this was our first view of Maui. On a clear day (which most of them are) you can definitely see the east side of Maui and Mount Haleakala. The hole itself tumbles down the hill and bends to the left with a fairly wide open landing area that lays over a bunker on the left. The greens at Nanea have lots of contour, and the second is no exception.
#3, Par 4, 425 Yards
The first nine at Nanea plays to a par of 37 with only one par three. It lays on the lower half of the property, below the clubhouse, with the back nine on the higher side. However, the course changes direction constantly, going up, down, and across the tilted property. With that said, the third goes roughly parallel to the water and is on fairly flat land. There is only one bunker on the hole, which lays on the left side of the fairway. Expansive lava fields on the on the right, but it takes a big slice to put them in play. The primary obstacle to this hole is its length, so there isn't much need to have additional hazards to make it even tougher. From the back tees, it plays 477 yards, and is the longest par four on the course.
#14, Par 4, 271 Yards
From the back tees, this short par four measures 350 but from every other tee, it's basically 300 yards or less. Lava and tall grass splits the fairway. Only the left portion of the fairway is visible, but a well struck drive over the mound on the right can carry to a fairly wide landing area. Only one bunker lays in front of the green between the tee and the hole. If you prefer to play it safe and hit to what you can see, a layup with a mid-iron into the fairway will leave an easy wedge into the green and a fairly easy par.
#11, Par 3, 176 Yards
A cavernous bunker guards the left half of the green, but with just a mid-iron, this is a chance for a easy par or even a birdie with a good tee ball.
#18, Par 5, 536 Yards
The final hole at Nanea completes the descent back to the clubhouse. Again, the view is breathtaking from this tee with miles and miles of gorgeous landscapes and vistas in front of you. The hole stretches all the way to 639 yards from the back tees, but tumbling downhill, it plays shorter than the distance on the scorecard. After getting out into the fairway on the first shot, the second shot is actually quite strategic. It must carry cross-bunkers and also avoid a single tree in the middle of the fairway for a good angle into the green.
#8, Par 3, 146 Yards
After a long line of par fours and fives, it's finally time for a short hole, and this one is worth the wait. Laying immediately in front mounds of lava rock, this one is in a beautiful natural setting. Hole locations on the left side are accessible with pin positions on the right side definitely tougher to get to.
#12, Par 4, 400 Yards
The 12th hole takes a pretty hard bend to the right with only one bunker that lays on the inside corner of the dogleg. A drive over the bunker will land in a fairly generous fairway area, though humps and bumps in the fairway may present a lie that is not level. The green lays in a bit of a shelf of land with high ground to the left and low ground to the right.
#9, Par 4, 334 Yards
This last hole goes back to 414 yards from the Back Tees, but the member tees give you a bit of a break. The volcanic peaks of the clubhouse overlook the hole, which heads back uphill. If you're a guest of a member, you'll get to sample the fine food and drink in the clubhouse after this one. However, unaccompanied guests don't have food and drink privileges, so unfortunately, we missed out on that part of the experience. Oh well.
#6, Par 5, 490 Yards
This is another scoreable hole as it's fairly short as par fives go. However, after the drive, the remainder of the hole plays uphill the rest of the way so it plays longer than the yardage on the scorecard.
We were immediately greeted at the bag drop by our caddy, and the professionals who were on site at the time. Our tee time was 7:30 AM, so there was actually a chill in the air when we arrived, but that wouldn't last for long. Nanea gets very little play, and we definitely had the feel that we had the club for the day when we were there. There was one single that would be going out in front of us, but after that we were free to go at our own pace. I had heard about the outdoor showers in the locker room, so I had to check that out before heading out. I changed my shoes and took a quick look. Definitely cool, unique, and decidedly appropriate for Hawaii:
#17, Par 3, 191 Yards
The view from the tee of the 17th is incredible. You can look out over miles of lava fields in one direction, volcanoes in another, or out over the Pacific Ocean and all the way to Maui. However, don't let the view distract you from the daunting shot that you'll need to play on this penultimate hole. It's about one club downhill, so judge carefully. Hole locations on the right side are accessible, the the pin position we faced this day required guys to get close to!
#7, Par 4, 390 Yards
Avoiding the centerline bunker off the tee is the primary issue on this one. There is more room to the left of it. The view and angle into the hole from the right might be a little better, but it's a really tight landing area on that side, so I'd say hitting a drive left of the bunker is a safer play.
#16, Par 4, 355 Yards
While there are a small smattering of trees that surround the holes at Nanea, none are even close to being in play--that is until you reach the 16th hole. The landing area is fairly tight, but a light right at the middle of the green is best, and will avoid any chance of being blocked by the trees that are on the right side of the fairway.
#13, Par 5, 490 Yards
This par five isn't terribly long, but it being uphill, it plays longer than the yardages suggests. If you choose to lay up on your second shot, the landing area is fairly narrow. Trying to carry the two bunkers that straddle the fairway a little less than 100 yards from the hole provides a generous landing area with no bunkers guarding the front of the putting surface. Therefore, when in doubt, it's probably worth going for it in two for most players.
As far as the name of the club goes, Nanea is a Hawaiian word that perfectly describes the culture of the club. Nothing stuffy or pretentious. Just a place where you can relax and enjoy the course and its gorgeous surroundings and vistas while having a great time.
#1, Par 4, 382 Yards
Taking it straight over the right-hand bunker is the play on your opening tee ball. Going left of that and straight at the pin might be a good line for some of today's bombers, but the fairway tightens on that line, and I can't hit it nearly that long. The appoach into the green needs to favor the left to avoid a bunker that guards the entry on the right side. Most greens at Nanea will allow a run-up approach shot played on the ground, which makes the course fairly playable for the lesser player. There are no water hazards.
#5, Par 4, 294 Yards
After a couple long holes, Kidd gives you a break with a short par four. There isn't a single bunker on the hole, just crooked terrain here and there. It is definitely the best scoring opportunity on the front nine.
#15, Par 4, 372 Yards
Tumbling back toward the Ocean, a left-to-right shot that starts at the left bunker is a perfect ball-flight on this one. There is tons of room on the right, but it will put you either in the bunker or a large swath of rough. The fairway, like most at Nanea, have many humps and bumps, so it's very fairway to expect a lie that isn't perfectly level, even if you hit a perfect drive. A bunker lays before the front right of the green but a fade, or a shot to the left that caroms off the bank will feed to the middle of the green.
After tapping in on the 18th, it was over to the locker room to change shoes and clean up before heading out. Unfortunately, our round at Nanea was one of our last stops on a nearly two-week Hawaiian adventure. We'd grab lunch, but then would have to head to the airport later in the afternoon to begin a long journey back home. Nanea was an awesome way to cap it all off. The course is quite playable and forgiving, but also offers tons of challenge around the greens to keep you honest. It's a really fun experience and one that you can't say no to if the invite comes. Thanks so much to all who helped to make this happen, especially MQ.
After loosening up a bit on the range (below), it was time to go. Nanea is primarily a riding golf course, but we had a forecaddie to show us around and help us find our way. The Back Tees actually go all the way to 7,464 yards, with a rating and slope of 75.7 and 133. Even though the course plays to a par of 73, has some good roll, and plays at a small amount of elevation, that was way too long. The Championship Tees come next, and 7,061 yards, and then the Member Tees, which I chose, that measure 6,519 yards. There is a composite set that combines the Championship and Member Tees that also were an option, but I decided to just play the member tees all the way around. I'll quote those below:
#4, Par 5, 518 Yards
The first three-shot hole at Nanea heads back up the hill. Five fairways bunkers straddle the fairway the entire way and must be avoided on the tee ball and the second shots. Big hitters can definitely get there in two with a wide open area in front of the green that will allow for a run-up shot.