Appeared in Spring 2013 LINKS
by Ann Miller
IT TOOK MORE THAN SEVEN YEARS to build Kohanaiki, the 450-acre private club on Hawaii’s Big Island, two miles from Kona International Airport. Besides dealing with the recession, and Hawaii’s historical and natural nuances, the site presented what Director of Agronomy Brian Tanner calls “a unique environmental challenge.” When Tanner first saw the property at the end of 2005, the third hole was being shaped “and everything else was a giant lava field.”
Tanner was hooked, but that meant living through the economic slowdown as well as years of designing delays and intense dialogue with cultural experts, archaeologists, and those dedicated to preserving the past and the unique ecosystem. Now, when he describes the golf course as “unbelievable,” he’s talking not only about Rees Jones’s spectacular layout—featuring six holes along the Pacific Ocean—but also what it took to get it open.
Stretching along a mile and a half of coastline on the Big Island’s western edge, with room for 500 homes, the site is dotted with more than 200 anchialine pools, ponds that range from the size of a fist to a swimming pool and lie mostly between the course and the sea. The sacred pools are a mix of salt and fresh water that connect to the ocean through lava tubes and fissures in the rock. The water in the ponds rises and falls with the tide and provides home for numerous plants and creatures, including fish.
Besides the ponds, Jones also had to design around Hawaiian cultural sites, historic trails, even an old donkey corral. Acres of the stark, black lava remain but only as backdrop, replaced by wide, friendly fairways planted with SeaDwarf paspalum grass.
Five sets of tees allow the course to play from 5,126 to 7,329 yards. Many of the fast, contoured greens are elevated and drop steeply off the sides. There are only 65 bunkers and a single sinuous lake linking holes 7 and 8, but panoramic views of the Pacific are everywhere.
Rarely is a course’s number-one handicap hole a par five, but it’s hard to argue against the 637-yard 12th, which demands a 240-yard carry to the fairway from the back tee and is the first hole to reach the ocean. Jones is partial to another three-shotter, the 17th, which plays along the Ala Kahakai Trail and above the sand-and-lava beach, while crossing over the old corral that once penned donkeys used to carry goods up and down a mountain hovering to the east. Hole 16 is a par three that sits so close to the Pacific that the beach serves as a bunker.
Clearly Kohanaiki took much longer than seven years to complete, requiring centuries of collaboration between land and water, nature and man, to create what its head professional Marty Keiter describes as “a golf course that is not only challenging to play but fun to see.”