Hawaii's dramatic surf-to-volcano golf courses

Not for nothing is this called the Big Island! Four thousand square miles. With eight widely spaced golf courses, six of them super in anyone's book. During a three-day convention break here recently, 25 of us circled Hawaii from Hilo to Kona, sampling golf all the while. Turned out to be an exercise in frustration, a race against the clock. For what with four hours minimum for a game, a pause for refreshment, an hour (at least) to move on to the next course, let alone the time consumed in checking in and out of hotels, pro shops, etc., we ran out of daylight day after day.

To attempt what we did in three days is ridiculous. Allow yourself a week and you will love it.

Out highway 11 from Hilo we began, nodding hello to the absolutely flat (but more fun than a driving range) 9-hole banyan Golf Center, 2,948 yards, par 35, and the hilly 18-hole Hilo Muni, 6,476 yards, par 72 for men, 74 for women.

For 30 miles the road steadily climbs through Volcanoes National Park, ultimately reaching a chilly 4,200-foot altitude, passing the always steaming pit of the Halemaumau Crater (legendary home of the volcano goddess, Madame Pele), passing, too, the rip-roaringly rugged 18-hole Volcano Golf Course, 6,219 yards, par 72.

Thirty minutes more driving down the back side of the mountain and you reach a scene that is far more the image of Hawaii: crashing surf, swaying palms, velvety fairways. Here at Punalu'u is the SeaMountain course all by itself in splendid isolation: 6,492 yards, par 72.

If you had time to play only one golf game on this island, perhaps it should be here. For SeaMountain has everything: eye-boggling scenery (its name is apt) , devilish trade winds that make every single shot challenging, an imaginative layout (several double doglegs), and it's never crowded. Price is right, too: $ 10 green fees, the same for carts.

Our second game was at the plantation town of Honokaa, on the novel, nutty nine-hole Hamakua course, par 33, 2,505 yards. It's on the north side of the island. To get there we back-tracked through Hilo, overnighting again. The leading (actually the only) employer in town, the Hawaiian Holiday Macadamia Nut Company, sponsors an annual tournament there, played with nuts instead of balls. Naturally, you must try it (ball/nuts for sale at the factory store), but expect to be frustrated. (Tip: Carry a regular ball with which to finish the round).

Pushing on along Highway 19 brings you to lush high-grass country, the roaming range-lands of the Parker Ranch. Take route 190 past the New England-like town to Kamuela to reach the island's sixth course, Waikoloa. Lying at a 1,000-foot altitude in an enormous saddle of land between the mountains Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, it's a stunner.

Drive six miles downhill, then five more miles up the coast to arrive at Hawaii's show-place, the incomparably plush Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Its course is the longest on the island: 7,000 yards, par 72. To get around fast you must start at dawn.

Only one course remained for us now: Keauhou-Kona Country Club, in the Keauhou resort area, an hour's drive south of the Mauna Kea, eight miles past the lively little town of Kailua/Kona. Starting high on a hill above the Kona Surf Hotel, the course is a par 72 with 6,800 yards. Traps galore, small greens , tight fairways, chasms of lava. Mourning doves flutter about, moaning their sympathy.Six to nine balls is the average loss per round, pro Joe Spencer told me. Console yourself with the scenery.

So there we had it. Desert, mountains, sea, plus a live volcano, Climates ranging from summer-warm to sweater weather. An air of mystery, adventure, romance.

Big Island golf is all that. A great experience -- but not to be rushed!

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