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Paradise Discovered

Dermot Gilleece on the marvellous golf on offer in Hawaii

Posted Jan 18, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece


It would be difficult to imagine golfing contrasts more extreme than those I have encountered in Hawaii.  In between tournaments on three different islands, there was the sight of a group of elderly, oriental enthusiasts playing so-called Ground Golf in a public park near Waikiki Beach.  I was to discover that this Japanese-invented pursuit is highly organised in the Honolulu area.

The equipment is a wooden club in the shape of a putter but with a considerably larger head, which strikes an object about the size of a tennis ball.  Unlike croquet, the stroke is made in the conventional, golfing way and balls can be teed up and hit in the air. Holes range from 50 to more than 100 yards and the target is a wire contraption, not unlike a bird-cage sitting on the grass, with openings through which the ball is slotted and where the sound of chimes, signals success.

I have just returned from my third golfing trip to Hawaii and each had its own, special appeal.  Particularly memorable was a visit in 2006, when I travelled to the Hualalai Resort on the Big Island for the MasterCard Championship, the opening event of the Champions Tour season.

The course was every bit as spectacular as the sunshine.  Designed by Jack Nicklaus, it has been carved out of the black lava which dominates the landscape of the sparsely-populated Big Island. This particular area of the north-west coast was created by the lava-flow from a major volcanic eruption in 1801, a relatively recent happening in geological terms.  And in order to grow grass, extensive areas of lava were cleared away and replaced by countless tonnes of soil, shipped in from the other islands.

Nicklaus shaped the dramatic, 164-yard par-three 17th at Kumukea Point, an historical landmark overlooking the Pacific.  Lava as a backdrop to the green looks like furze from a distance, while to the left of the tee there is a little inlet where the turtles became a particular attraction for Arnold Palmer, when he played in this event. Further out to sea, hump-backed whales enhanced the spectacle.

Was it possible to retrieve a ball from the lava?  "Not much point," a local informed me. "By the time you reached it, having risked breaking a leg, you would probably discover it was cut beyond use."  As Nicklaus put it: "You want to keep the lava just out of play physically, but very much in play, visually.  It can be a pretty stiff mental hazard."

An earlier visit to Hawaii in 2004 was prompted by Darren Clarke’s appearance as the first Irishman to compete in the Tournament of Champions, then staged under the Mercedes banner on the enchanting island of Maui.  As it happened, Clarke made the effort very much a worthwhile, finishing third on the Plantation Course at Kapalua for a reward of $400,000. This is the spectacular venue where the island of Molokai dominates the skyline as you look down the first fairway and where the finishing hole is a stunning, downhill par-five which big hitters can reach in two.

From a spectator standpoint, however, the Plantation Course is most notable as a severe, physical challenge.  “The toughest walk on tour,” is how the sharply undulating terrain was described to me by Fluff Cowan, Jim Furyk’s caddie. Which is a pity, insofar as prospective trekkies are very often deterred from venturing onto its charming slopes, if they feel anything less than in the whole of their health.

The island of Oahi, which is home to Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu, is also home to Waialae Country Club which plays host to the Sony Open.  Situated on largely flat terrain beside Waikiki Beach, it was notable on my latest visit for the horrendous pasting it took from the elements.  Tropical storms which brought rainfall of more than four inches on one day alone caused the abandonment for the first time of this year’s pre-tournament pro-am.  And it was necessary to restructure the tournament proper when Thursday was also lost to the elements.

Still, the enduring image of Hawaii is captured in the slogan on the local tour buses. “Paradise Discovered”, they proclaim.  It is a unique experience, not least for the enthusiastic devotees of Ground Golf.

- Dermot Gilleece


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