It's been 50 magical years of "lava golf" on Hawaii Island.
It took the money of a Rockefeller and the vision of golf's first celebrity architect, Robert Trent Jones Sr., to prove that a world-class golf course could be carved out of the volcanic black lava rock fields of the "Big Island."
Mauna Kea Golf Course celebrated its 50th anniversary last December, 50 years after golf's big three -- Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player -- played together on Dec. 8, 1964, during the course's official grand opening. When the match aired on TV in March 1965, it was the world's first introduction to the third hole, a majestic par 3 playing over an ocean cove to a clifftop green. It was immediately celebrated as the world's most beautiful golf hole.
Many other gorgeous holes now populate the island. More than 15 courses call the dry climate of the Kohala Coast home.
The best way to trace the history of lava golf is a decade by decade approach. Each one contributed mightily to create one of the world's best golf destinations:
Mauna Kea still ranks among the great resort courses in the game thanks to a restoration by Rees Jones in 2008. Its elevated greens play even more menacing now that deeper bunkers protect almost every angle of approach. Mauna Kea will bust your chops and leave you wanting a rematch.
The biggest additions to lava golf in this decade came from runways and a highway, not fairways. The Kona International Airport opened in 1970, opening the door of this island paradise to mainlanders. Three years later, the Queen Ka'ahamanu Highway, stretching from the airport to the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, was completed.
The two courses that did open in the 1970s -- the Ocean Course at Kona Country Club in 1972 and the Waikoloa Village Golf Club in 1978 -- aren't currently major players in the island's golf scene. The Ocean course, closed for renovation, is scheduled to reopen in June 2015 according to its website. (Its Mountain Course, built in the 1990s, might be forever lost given its current state of overgrowth.) The Village Course by Robert Trent Jones Jr. continues to be a local favorite charging modest green fees.
The addition of Mauna Lani's original 18 holes and the Waikoloa Beach Course, both in 1981, really created a true golf destination. Finally, there was variety and competition. Mauna Lani's spectacular ocean holes and the more gentle Beach course team paired well with the brutality of Mauna Kea.
The most successful project of the golf boom times in the 1990s might be the Jack Nicklaus Course at Hualalai, the current host of a Champions Tour event. The final three holes feature a tee or green sitting right on the ocean. Only guests of the Four Seasons have access to such a scenic climax.
Not to be outdone, an 18-hole addition at Mauna Lani Resort in 1992 created the North and South Courses golfers still love to this day. Both resort tracks are well maintained and worth playing. The ocean holes on the South Course look spectacular. Mauna Lani North, while a bit tougher, sports a few ocean views, too.
The Waikoloa Resort (home to a Marriott and Hilton hotel) and Mauna Kea added second courses as well -- the Waikoloa Kings Course in 1991 and Hapuna Golf Course by Arnold Palmer in 1994. Hapuna, owned by the same Japanese company as Mauna Kea, Prince Hotels and Resorts, sits on higher ground above the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, offering some interesting terrain and cool panoramic vistas. A pair of Tom Weiskopf's signature short par 4s highlight the Kings Course, which unfortunately has no views of the water.
Two golf developments built higher in the hills above the beach and out of reach for most tourists haven't really blossomed into their full potential. The Dick Nugent-designed Makalei Golf Club (built in 1992) and the Perry Dye-designed Big Island Country Club (built in 1997) were meant to be high-end private clubs. Both still allow anybody to play.
They're more affordable options in cooler temperatures than the resort courses a half-hour away. Big Island Country Club is best known for its bentgrass greens, including an island green at no. 17. Makalei rises and falls dramatically across more than 950 feet of elevation changes. Bye bye, flat lies.
The new millennium ushered in a decade of excess. Posh private clubs with immaculately conditioned courses by "name" architects became all the rage. At Hualalai, Weiskopf designed a second course, Ke'olu, that is only available to Hualalai Club Premier members. It cuts through the dramatic lava fields of Ka'upulehu.
Lawsuits and a bankruptcy filing have plagued the real estate development at The Club at Hokuli'a, although the Nicklaus course that opened in 2002 continues to rank among the top golf playgrounds in all of Hawaii. It's a stunner.
Tom Fazio landed his first Hawaiian project, building an 18-hole championship course and 10-hole short course at Kukio Golf and Beach Club in 2002. Architect David McLay Kidd of Bandon Dunes fame designed Nanea Golf Club in 2003 to be an exclusive haven for Charles Schwab and friends. Many consider it a world top 100 club.
If you can land an invitation to any of these four fantastic places, change your schedule immediately.
Kohanaiki Club is the latest exclusive golf community near Kona that's wowing guests. The course designed by Rees Jones could have opened in 2008, but when the real estate market collapsed during the recession, it sat fallow until 2013, revived by new owners, a partnership between Kennedy Wilson and IHP Capital Partners. Now construction is booming, building homes and a massive 62,000-square-foot clubhouse. Tennis great Lindsay Davenport and golf architect Ben Crenshaw have bought in as members.
Jones routed an interesting layout through an environmentally sensitive area. Six oceanfront holes are separated from the beach by roughly 200 anchialine ponds. Historically, Hawaiians used these ponds framed by lava rock to raise fish and shrimp. Multiple comfort stations encourage golfers to relax on outdoor rocking chairs and savor free gourmet snacks and drinks.