2,699 Yards, 32.5/108 (Back Tees)
Most Americans visit the islands of Hawaii in search of a destination that feels more exotic and interesting than the beaches of the mainland United States. Ten million tourists visit each year infusing nearly $20 billion into the state’s economy, enough for tourism to be the primary industry for the once sleepy territory The financial benefits, however, can come at a cost to the 1.4 million that call Hawaii home. A quarter are Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders trying to preserve their heritage from an outside world getting larger at smaller at the same time. The cultivated Hawaii most visitors seek, a sort of Polynesian Disneyland, is quite different from the Hawaii that natives (and non-natives) have called home for generations. Golf in the islands reflects this divide.
Most of the eighty-four courses in Hawaii are of the modern variety, designed by celebrity architects for visitors willing to pay hundreds of dollars in greens fees for lush fairways, smooth greens, and the occasional water feature. Municipal golf is sparse. Kauai, Maui, and The Big Island each have one course offering affordable golf. Lanai and Molokai have none. Residents of Oahu enjoy six municipal courses, but all suffer from a limited operating budget and operate at a loss. Which brings us to the North Shore of Oahu, hours removed from the beaches of Waikiki, where nine holes in the town of Kahuku sit just down the road from the Turtle Bay Resort.
Turtle Bay, the only resort on the remote North Shore of Oahu, provides guests with the feeling of an authentic island experience. The North Shore is far less crowded than Waikiki and far less manufactured than Ko Olina and offers a natural beauty and character that has become increasingly difficult to find. Guests arriving at Turtle Bay are greeted by the valet as piped in island music fills the air and are adorned with leis before being ushered to their room (starting at $1,000 a night for a partial ocean view). Many will not leave the resort until after check-out. After all, when the resort produces a weekly luau ($235 per person including all the tiki cocktails you can drink) and offers private surf lessons ($199 for an hour and a half) it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re getting the authentic experience you were seeking. Golfers will find it just as easy to remain in the friendly confines of Turtle Bay with preferred tee times ($230 per round including cart and range balls) at the resort’s Arnold Palmer course, regarded as one of the better designs on the island.
Just a couple of miles down Kamehameha Highway, the town of Kahuku is home to four hundred families mostly of pacific island descent. One in six residents live below the poverty line. Heritage, family, and Kahuku High Football are held sacred. Kahuku is not unique; similar towns are found throughout the islands where residents live quietly amidst the buzz of tourists speeding past in their search for authenticity. Kahuku is also known locally for their nine-hole golf course, which, like the Palmer Course at Turtle Bay, reflects the world that surrounds it.
Golfers arriving at Kahuku change their shoes in the parking lot before checking in at the trailer that serves as the base of operations. A blue tarp over the roof keeps the rain out. The course is weathered and worn. Scruffy turf reflects a limited maintenance budget, where nature plays more of a role in conditioning than the superintendent. Modern luxuries such as golf carts and practice facilities are not found here. The only potable water comes from a vending machine and port-a-potties are placed (thankfully) upwind near the first tee. Locals pay $12 and juniors play for free. The scorecard kindly asks all golfers to wear shoes while walking the fifty ocean front acres where eight of the nine holes play alongside the Pacific. Representing the dichotomy of the Hawaiian Islands, Kahuku and Turtle Bay, separated by just two miles, are worlds apart.
Photos were taken over many visits to the course. Difference in color and conditioning reflects the season. Kahuku’s fairways are often brown during the drought of summer but can transform into a sea of green in the rainy winter. It should come as no surprise that Kahuku lacks centerline irrigation.
First Hole – 164 Yards
The opening mid-length par three plays slightly downhill from an uneven teeing area just a few paces from the trailer. I’m welcomed by panoramic views of the sparse fairways and the Pacific Ocean beyond. At nearby Turtle Bay I play sixteen holes before catching a glimpse of the ocean on the Seventeenth green. Today at Kahuku it will be a constant presence throughout my round. The view of the ocean and the prevailing wind coming off the ocean just two fairways away provide an immediate sense of place.
The small pushup green is crowned severely around the perimeter and is difficult to hold in the elements. Trees lining the adjacent fairway appear to be permanently leaning, a result of the consistent winds coming off the coast.
Second Hole – 457 Yards
As I walk down the fairway of the Second, wind blowing hard off the ocean to my left, I question whether Kahuku is built on linksland. Seaside location? Check. Sandy soil? Check. A course that seems to be more revealed by nature than built by man? Check. Any debate on whether there are any true links courses in America should include Kahuku.
A right fairway bunker (one of only two such on the course) is the only trouble in play from the tee. There is no delineation between fairway and rough at Kahuku. As someone who plays most of their golf in the Northeast, the lack of definition takes some getting used to. The green is well protected by rustic bunkers that modern designers would call “blowout” and go to great lengths to emulate the appearance of. The first of two graveyards to border Kahuku is hidden just off the Second green.
Third Hole – 149 Yards
A short walk to the Third tee reveals two things; the purpose of the second hole is to bring us to this point, and whoever laid out this course knew something about routing a golf course. The name of that individual is unknown, but the course was built in the 1930’s by the owners of a local sugar plantation as an employee amenity. After failed development attempts, the municipality purchased the property, and it remains in the public domain. For now.
The Third through Sixth holes play in and around a large dune ridge at the south end of the property. The unknown architect routed five of the nine holes in and around this singular feature, illustrating a profound understanding of how to maximize the site’s only significant land movement.
The hole plays across a small valley to a bold green perched on the edge of the dune. The green must be hit, since left is out-of-bounds and a steep run-off on the right leaves a blind pitch back up to the green. There is no “middle of the green” on this par-three, as the left and right sides are on two dramatically different tiers, effectively making the green play to half its actual size. I find this to be the most demanding hole on the course.
Fourth Hole – 110 Yards
It’s not often that I play a tee shot from astroturf laid over a concrete pad, but this is one such occasion. Since my personal belief is that golf is a secondary experience while at Kahuku, I accept the circumstance. The “tee box” is the highest point on the course, providing views of the Pacific and nearby Adams Point which easily distract from the occasional backup on the Fourth green.
The green itself is a forty-foot drop from the tee, surrounded by large, weathered bunkers that provide little room for error. If one was inclined to label things, the Third may be a Volcano and the Fourth could be a Short.
Fifth Hole – 310 Yards
The Fifth is the only inland hole on the course, protected by the dune over which the two previous holes play. At 310 yards, I’m tempted to hit a shorter club from the tee to avoid the road running down the left side of the fairway. After laying back in the fairway, however, I realize that the green is only visible if the approach shot is inside of 50 yards. The fairway rises and conceals the green for any tee shot less than 250 yards (a distance not difficult to achieve given the typical firmness of the fairways). It’s a simple yet effective use of the land that adds interest and thought to a short par four.
Sixth Hole – 119 Yards
Teeing off on the Sixth hole I realize that I’ve played four par-threes over the first six holes. It’s unconventional but I don’t mind since I consider three of the short holes among the more enjoyable I’ve played on Oahu. I would also note that each of these par threes plays in a different direction. Whether this was intentional or not, we’ll likely never know.
The Sixth is the last short hole on the course and plays to an elevated green atop the dune ridge. The hole plays considerably longer than the scorecard due to elevation and wind and is the only hole that plays towards the ocean.
The walk to the Sixth green slowly reveals the coastline as I reach the green at the top of the dune. I’m indifferent to the relatively flat green. The sense of place overshadows the architectural shortcoming. Architectural analysis is not what Kahuku is about.
Seventh Hole – 552 Yards
The second of two par-fives at Kahuku, the Seventh plays parallel to the second along the same flat section of the property. Any character the Second and Seventh fairways once had was leveled during World War II when the military turned these fairways into runways. While residents in the Continental United States were geographically removed from the War, those in Hawaii cannot say the same.
The Seventh plays along the ocean, and it’s not uncommon to see surfers running across the fairway to reach a local break, known as Seventh Hole, aptly named for the location relative to the course. The Hawaiians are nothing if not simple with the names of their surf breaks.
Eighth Hole – 364 Yards
The Eighth tee is practically on the beach and the fairway continues down the coast, picking up where the Seventh left off. If golf is on your mind during the 916-yard walk from the Seventh tee to the Eighth green, priorities should be evaluated.
A dirt road bisects the Eighth fairway 280-yards from the tee. The road accesses a plantation-era Japanese graveyard located between the Eighth green and the beach. Not a bad place to spend eternity.
The green requires a short pitch from a well hit drive. The approach can be blind, but the green is large and receptive as long as two greenside bunkers are avoided.
Ninth Hole – 474 Yards
The home hole is played over uncharacteristically interesting land compared to the Second and Seventh, perhaps confirming how much that land was altered during World War II. The fairway rolls gently down to a green situated in a hollow below the First tee. The green is guarded by bunkers, but there is room for a long running shot to feed from the fairway to the hole.
My own relationship with the islands is complicated. My wife is the sixth generation of her family to call Hawaii home, but no one in that lineage would call themselves Hawaiian. You can be Hawaiian, or you can from Hawaii. Native or non-native. The division between the two is complicated and the latter would never presume to understand the centuries of heartbreak and repression the former has experienced. Regardless of how much time I spend in Hawaii, I will always be an outsider.
During my first trips to Honolulu, my future wife would lovingly roll her eyes as I searched for secret hikes, local beaches, and the best shave ice in Honolulu. I drove to the North Shore for coconut pie, braved long lines in town for malasadas, and waited for spaces in busy parking lots of supposed secret beaches. I was (and still can be) an ignorant mainlander, and I think it was important to her that I find my own way.
As time passed, I began to understand that the Hawaii that I was seeking, which I believed to be authentic, was anything but. I’ve come to realize that the spirit of Hawaii lies with the people and what they hold sacred; their heritage, their family, and their island. All are held with high regard, but only heritage and family are held securely by a deeply committed people. The island has and will continue to be under constant threat of development.
Kahuku was nearly a victim itself, less than a decade ago, when a Florida development firm purchased the course with plans for luxury housing. The attempt failed after significant local opposition. Honolulu stepped in to acquire the course and surrounding land, ensuring the preservation and continued operation. Other locales have not been as fortunate.
Golf represents different things to different people. The first time I played Kahuku was in awe of the location. When I returned, the course’s future was uncertain and Kahuku represented the struggle of Hawaiians to preserve their island. The course now, safely preserved, symbolizes a rare triumph by Hawaiians to maintain control of their homeland. Kahuku is one of the relatively few places on the island that has no desire to attract tourists and maximize profit, remaining safe from outside influence. Most importantly for us outsiders, it provides a rare opportunity to experience a true representation of the islands that many seek but few put in the effort to find.