When you visit the Hawaiian island of Oahu your experience is only limited by your imagination.


Growing up, Hawaii always seemed to me like a place of fantasy. Where Elvis crooned, Magnum P.I.’d and Tattoo screamed “De plane! De plane!” whenever new arrivals emerged on the horizon.

It was the birthplace of surfing and where the world’s best went to get ‘barrelled’ in monstrosities conjured by Mother Nature, but in recent years it has become a favourite holiday playground not just of the rich and famous but for a growing number of Australians. Australia is now regularly ranked the No.2 nation for providing visitors to Hawaii, a position they vie for along with the Canadians and Japanese.

With a climate as temperate as our own it should come as little surprise that the home of the US PGA Tour’s opening two tournaments of the calendar year is a magnet for golfers, with 41 courses on the main island of Oahu alone.

The family-owned Outrigger Resort group has 32 properties littered throughout the Hawaiian Islands and its CEO, David Carey, is an alumnus of the same American college as Tiger Woods, Stanford University. Like Tiger, Carey was set to play on the Stanford golf team, but despite an impressive junior golf resume was forced by his academic adviser to choose between golf and his maths/science/engineering major. After college Carey moved to Hawaii where his love affair with golf was soon reignited.

“I was working at a law firm in Waikiki and one of the senior partners found out that I played golf,” Carey told Australian Golf Digest. “He came into my office on a Friday afternoon and said, ‘Carey, you need to be at Oahu Country Club tomorrow at 8.42. We need a fourth and I understand you play golf.’

“The thing about playing golf in Hawaii which is cool is that, with the weather, there are a lot more days when you can play and be comfortable than almost any other place in the world. It never gets too hot, it never ever gets cold, it might get a little rainy and maybe a little windy but that’s about it.

“The good news is that there are plenty of places for visitors to play. Kapolei is a decent resort course and there are probably more public courses for people to play than a lot of places. There are four or five courses in and around the Ewa Beach area alone – Hawaii Prince, Ewa Beach, Hoakalei, Coral Creek and West Loch.”

There are two very distinct styles of golf course on Oahu; the traditional resort-style layout framed by palm trees such as we’ll see at the Sony Open held at Waialae Country Club next week, and those courses carved out of jungle with the towering volcanic mountains as the backdrop.

At Royal Hawaiian Golf Club you feel as though you have been dropped onto the set of the latest ‘Jurassic Park’ movie as the front nine weaves its way through the jungle before opening up across fairways laid out across volcanic rock. Just 25 minutes from the heart of Waikiki, it took less than five minutes driving in our rented red Chevy Camaro convertible before the scenery changed considerably and the temperature dropped a couple of degrees in the shadows of the mountains.

Originally named Luana Hills Country Club and from the Pete Dye design team, Royal Hawaiian was the last course in Hawaii with bentgrass greens, a title they relinquished last July when the greens were converted to the more manageable paspalum.

We were welcomed warmly in the pro shop by California Mike – complete with Owen Wilson twang – and then set out to discover whether the warning of an average of eight lost balls per round would hold up.

It was a less than auspicious start with the brother-in-law and me down three balls before one of us – me, thank God – finally found the fairway at the first hole. To be fair, with the out-of-bounds driving range to your left and jungle to your right, the tee shot at the 379-yard par-4 first is intimidating to say the least. When we were greeted by a green more than two-thirds surrounded by water at the 187-yard par-3 second we really started to worry. If you can keep your head down long enough to not be distracted by the stunning setting there is plenty of room to thread your golf ball but your breath will be taken away on almost every tee.

A regular haunt of US President Barack Obama, Royal Hawaiian is a golf experience like few others and while it may rankle the purists, it is a quality layout that doesn’t try to take away from your surroundings by imposing over-the-top design features.

Holes two to eight are carved out of dense jungle and as you head towards the back nine the trademark Hawaiian trade winds start to whip through the more open expanses. The two highlights for me were the downhill par-3 seventh that feels as though your ball will never come down and the driveable par-4 17th that at 317 yards – and with the right wind – is well within reach for the big hitters able to shape the ball left to right.

And because you have gotten away from the tourist strip for just a few hours you must head down the road to Kailua and have a burger and beer at the famous Buzz’s Steakhouse that specialises in a Jack Daniel’s Burger complemented by a couple of Big Swell pale ales.


Fun for the whole family

Because this family holiday incorporated four members under the age of 10 – and, well, because technically we were in America – we spent three nights at Aulani Disney Resort on the south-west corner of Oahu, which just so happened to sit adjacent to Ko Olina Golf Club. (Funny that.)

Home to the LPGA Tour’s Lotte Championship each April and with a roll call of winners that includes Ai Miyazato, Suzann Pettersen and Michelle Wie, Ko Olina is also something of a playground for American celebrities including Hollywood’s most famous golfer, Happy Gilmore himself, Adam Sandler. Measuring a tick over 6,800 yards (6,218 metres) from the back tees, Ko Olina is everything that you would expect from a high-end resort course but at a standard that sets it apart from most others.

Our hire clubs were the latest from TaylorMade, the conditioning was perhaps the best I have ever seen at a course of its nature and there were enough elevation changes to make club selection tricky. Where Royal Hawaiian tightened us up from the very first tee shot, Ko Olina – and other such courses exposed to the Hawaiian elements – relies largely on the winds for its defence but its wide-open spaces can cause you to drop your guard.

With water flanking the entire right side, the 412-yard second is rated as the toughest on the golf course but the 195-yard par-3 eighth and picturesque 428-yard par-4 finishing hole are also pars well made.

“The challenge gets tougher the closer you get to the hole,” says Ko Olina head professional Marcus Judge. “Nearly all of our greens are raised, so running the ball into a green is difficult. Our greens also have plenty of slope to them with most having at least two distinct levels.

“We try to keep our green speeds in the 9.5 to 10 feet range on the Stimpmeter, specifically for the wind/slope reason. This all means that on windy days, just finding the putting surface with an approach shot can be challenging, and then finding the correct tier on the green with a chip or putt is even more difficult.”

A popular holiday spot for locals and international visitors alike, Ko Olina is also home to the famous Palm Cove luau, which provided the perfect conclusion to our visit to this island paradise that is now more accessible than ever.

Golf for me, breakfast with Mickey and Minnie Mouse for the kids and some quality time for the wife at a day spa to die for; the only thing missing from this fantasy was Tattoo.



Australian Golf Digest stayed at…

Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort (below): One of two Outrigger properties fronting Waikiki Beach where guests can take part in the free wedding vow renewal ceremony. Web: www.outrigger.com

Aulani Disney Resort and Spa: Fun for the whole family with Disney character breakfasts, pool parties, water slides, Disney movie night under the stars and complementary kids club. Web: www.resorts.disney.go.com/aulani-hawaii-resort/


Australian Golf Digest played at…

Royal Hawaiian Golf Club: A regular haunt of US President Barack Obama, a Pete Dye design set amid a dramatic landscape with an excellent variety of holes. Web: www.pacificlinks.com/royalhawaiian

Ko Olina Golf Club: Superbly presented resort course that is a regular tour stop for both the LPGA and Champions tours. Web: www.koolinagolf.com


Keep it in play

It’s unanimous; Ko’olau Golf Club is the toughest golf course on Oahu.

“It’s cut out of the jungle and there’s no room between the edge of the fairway and the jungle,” says Outrigger Resorts CEO David Carey. “A lot of the amateurs will go there and have a contest to see how few balls they can lose. It’s a target golf course, not long, and exceptionally beautiful to play on a good day.”

Here are the top 10 hardest golf courses on Oahu, according to Aloha Golf Tours:

  1. Ko’olau – average of 10 lost balls
  2. Royal Hawaiian – eight lost balls
  3. Turtle Bay (Arnold Palmer course) – five lost balls
  4. Ewa Beach – five lost balls
  5. Kapolei – five lost balls
  6. Turtle Bay (George Fazio course) – four lost balls
  7. Pearl – four lost balls
  8. Royal Kunia – two lost balls
  9. Makaha Valley – two lost balls
  10. Hawaii Kai – two lost balls


6 things I learned in Waikiki

  1. Dining at American staple, the Cheesecake Factory, and hearing Angus and Julia Stone playing in the background was a soothing reminder that music is now truly global. As was hearing Vance Joy through the PA system of a department store. And a tip for new players: nothing is small at the Cheesecake Factory, not even the ‘Chicken Littles’ that I ordered.
  2. Ross could be the greatest clothing store known to golfers. Think of it as Big W but with all the top brands at drastically reduced prices. Rather than paying anything up to $100 for a golf shirt at home, I walked to the fitting rooms with two adidas shirts, two Callaway shirts, Nike shirt and shorts, a Tommy Hilfiger shirt, Greg Norman shorts, a Calvin Klein belt and a couple of dress shirts before I was told there was an eight garment minimum. And this was at 11pm at night!
  3. Jump on a trolley (above). They are a great way to get your bearings in Waikiki (which to be honest is centred largely on Kalakaua Avenue that fronts Waikiki Beach) and also a handy way to get around if your feet need a rest. It’s also a good way to gauge some dining options that the less inquisitive tourists may not venture towards or head off on a day tour that takes in Diamond Head Crater.
  4. You will never be more than 150 metres from an ABC Store. If you’ve been to Waikiki you will know what I mean, but for the uninitiated they are everywhere and have everything from groceries, snacks, alcohol and gifts – everything from a snow globe to the loudest Hawaiian shirt you can imagine. And ukuleles. Lots of ukuleles.
  5. The service is something else. I’m not a person who likes overly attentive service – more often than not I’ll skip the bag drop and carry my clubs from the car myself. But the relaxed Hawaiian lifestyle mixed with America’s service industry makes for a feeling of being spoiled and not someone simply looking for a tip. One evening, our party of 10 went for dinner at the famed Duke’s Restaurant at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort and when we had polished off the signature Hula Pie for dessert we asked whether it would be possible for the bill to be split three ways. “Of course,” was the polite response. Not two minutes later three bills were brought to our table without us having to once recount what we had each ordered. What an absolute delight.
  6. Avoid ‘Grad Week’ if you can. The American version of ‘Schoolies’ kicks off the American summer with Californian kids flooding the resorts. At one point as we swam off the beach I looked around and thought I was caught in every American teen spring break movie ever made. To be fair, most of the kids I came across were quite polite but there were heaps of them.