KOHALA COAST, Hawaii -- When you get to the 15th hole on the South Course at Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island, it's not uncommon to find a group or two waiting at the tee. It's not because the hole is overly difficult; it's because it's overly beautiful.
It's not enough just to hit a tee shot over the ocean at this magnificent par 3; you have to savor it. And that means bring your camera, or at least your camera phone.
"Would you mind taking our picture," a couple from Alabama asked after they both hit the green with their tee shots.
It's a scene that repeats itself over and over on the South Course at Mauna Lani, but the signature hole is hardly the only highlight on this Hawaii favorite, a par 72 that measures more than 6,900 yards from the tips. There are other ocean holes as well, and the inland holes are fairly memorable, too. One thing all the holes have in common is the stark contrast between well manicured green turf and black lava rock.
Mauna Lani's history
The land on which Mauna Lani sits has only been around for a few hundred years. More specifically, the course is built on a 16th century lava flow, so the rocks that surround the fairways are very porous, very rough -- not a good spot to hit a golf ball.
In fact, if you do hit one into the lava between fairways or near the coast, it's not advisable to try to find your ball. You risk spraining an ankle. Besides, most of the golf balls hit in there tend to sink into the crevices anyway.
Fortunately, the fairways are plenty generous, so if you hit if pretty straight, you'll be in business to attack the large greens.
The South Course, which opened in 1981, is one of two championship courses at the Mauna Lani Resort. They are a collaboration among architects Homer Flint, R.F. Cain and prolific Hawaii designer Robin Nelson.
The full name of the course, the Francis H I'i Brown South Course, still honors the man who acquired and developed the property back in the 1930s. Though Brown didn't build the courses, it's fitting since he was an extraordinary golfer and sportsman. At one time, Brown was the amateur champion of Hawaii, Japan and California. The property was sold to Mauna Lani Resort Inc., in 1972, and Brown's nephew, Kenny Brown, remains chairman of the Mauna Lani Resort and descendant guardian.
The South Course was also the home to the Senior Skins Game from 1990-2000, hosting such golf legends as Raymond Floyd, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriquez, Gary Player, Hale Irwin and Jim Colbert.
Mauna Lani: A Big Island favorite
Today, Mauna Lani still remains one of Hawaii's favorite courses. Looking out from the massive clubhouse, there's a vast putting green and the first tee of the South Course, which eases golfers into the round with a fairly tame par 5 and a good birdie opportunity.
What becomes evident right away is how you have to steer clear of the rocks, because not only do they surround many of the fairways and greens, but there are also outcroppings in the fairway.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait until the 15th to see the ocean. It comes up rather quickly on the front nine, and by the time you get to the seventh, a 214-yard par 3 from the tips, you might be wondering what all the fuss over 15 is about. The seventh is certainly harder than 15 and pretty spectacular in its own right with plenty of water and black lava to cover.
Truth is that all the par 3s are pretty good on the South Course at Mauna Lani. The 12th also carries water, a pond, and the third also plays more than 200 yards.
Before you get to the 15th, though, comes another memorable ocean hole, the 380-yard par-4 13th. It, too, backs up against the ocean, and from the green you get a great view of the 15th tee.
Then there's the 15th, one of the most photographed holes in the world. It has a large green, and depending on the pin placement, it can be difference of two or three clubs.
South Course at Mauna Lani Resort: The verdict
The kind of views you get at the South Course at Mauna Lani Resort don't come cheap, so you can expect to pay more than $200 for green fees most days. It's all relative, however, as no trip to the Big Island, especially if it's your only trip, would be complete without playing the South Course.
Practice facilities at Mauna Lani are also first rate with a large putting green, short game area and expansive grass range. The clubhouse also features a well-stocked golf shop and a good restaurant for lunch with views that overlook the practice green and much of the course. All in all, it's a memorable golf experience.