I’ve shaken hands with many a starter on many a first tee box over the years. Most names slide out of my memory quicker than a downhill putt on Augusta National greens, but I’ll be hard-pressed to forget “Brown Bear,” the wide-smiling Native Hawaiian who greets me prior to my round at Hualalai Golf Course, an immaculate Jack Nicklaus layout on the western side of Hawaii Island (commonly called the Big Island). “I’m a big Nicklaus fan,” he tells me. “He’s the Golden Bear, so I said call me Brown Bear and the name just stuck.”
A fixture at Hualalai since its debut in 1996, Brown Bear has been welcoming players to one of Hawaii’s premier golf courses prior to the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai even opening its doors. “I’m like the OG here,” he says, adding that the course, in its current condition, is “the best I’ve ever seen it.” It’s a tall testimony for the annual host course of the PGA Tour Champions’ Mitsubishi Electric Championship in January, and one I’m stoked to test-drive. With my ball officially in play, I swap shaka signs with Brown Bear and bid him mahalo as I cruise up the first fairway.
Piggybacking on his Aloha vibes, I stuff a 60-degree wedge to three feet on Hole 1—a straight forward par 4—one-hopping the flagstick, and brush in my putt for a rare, and auspicious, opening birdie. As an amateur player, any time you’re under par for a round, even if there are 17 holes to go, you bask in that feeling of being better than you are—even more so when you’re playing a championship caliber track in a lush Hawaiian dreamscape.
Scorecard aside, by the time I reach Hole 2, I’m already head over heels for this golf course. Despite minimal ocean frontage, it more than makes up for in spades—and leis—with its rugged routing through a maze of otherworldly black lava, each fairway shaped and framed by the crusty spilloff from Hualalai volcano’s last eruption in 1801. From the right side of the wide second fairway, my view of the green might be completely blocked, but it treats me to one of the most fun approaches I’ve ever had the fortune of playing—a blind shot over a fortress of inky lava, backdropped by swaying palms and Hualalai’s looming shadow.
Save for the backyard infinity pools of this 865-acre development’s surplus of multi-million-dollar vacation homes, at times, the course feels like a cart ride through some kind of a golfing national park. No more apparent is that visual than the eastbound view (to the right) of Hole 12, where a barren and seemingly endless moonscape of weathered lava—the two-century-year-old vestige of what a moody and active volcano can do—stretches as far as the eye can see. The dichotomy of the wild topography is that it twists and turns through and around some of the greenest, most manicured turf you’ll ever play on.
Starting with the driving range and continuing one through 18, Hualalai Golf Course is next-level pristine. While shutdown for eight months during the first year of the pandemic, the resort decided to renovate the course, replacing its Bermuda grass with paspalum, a breed better suited to handle the punishing salty air. Bunkers were refreshed, greens made over, and hazards reshaped during the $5.25 million upgrade. When the pros returned in January of 2021, praise was high—and scores were low.
The shiniest amenity is the Hualalai Golf Hale, a high-tech luxury practice facility adjacent the driving range. If you’re looking to improve your game in Hawaii, this is the place to do it. Matter of fact, this is the place to improve your game anywhere. Hawaiian for “house,” the 3,000-sq. ft. Golf Hale features three indoor hitting bays (which play to the driving range), a putting lab, TrackMan launch monitors, and top-shelf game instruction from PGA professionals. I sure don’t want to see my swing broken down frame by frame, but if that’s your cup of tea, guests can track their progress and have a recording of their swing emailed to them.
Personally, if not on the course, I’m more inclined to skip the game-improvement, grab a snack and cold refreshment from the fully stocked indoor comfort station, and play a round at St. Andrews or Pebble Beach in the Golf Hale’s Topgolf Swing Suite, which many resort guests do alongside their family and friends.
To play Hualalai Golf Course, you need to stay at the family friendly Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, and trust me, you’ll want to. It, too, underwent a recent renovation ($100 million worth of upgrades, for that matter), highlighted by a string of redesigned villas, a sleek new infinity pool at King’s Pond—Hualalai’s 1.8-million-gallon swimmable aquarium—and boosts to all its suites and guestrooms.
Whether you’re on your way to a hot-stone massage at the idyllic tropical spa, an enlightening lecture by Uncle Earl Regidor at the Ka’upulehu Cultural Center, or a sunset sushi dinner at the oceanside Ulu Ocean Grill, where a Hawaiian warrior blows a war horn each night while lighting the resort’s torches, every step of the way, you’ll feel as though you’re walking through a lavish botanical garden.
Though I’m far from under par as I make my way through the back nine, it’s always enjoyable when you have three circles on the scorecard. One of the thrills of playing what I dub “lava” golf is the unpredictable bounce you may or may not get following a poor shot. In my case, I snap hook my drive some 35 yards left into the rock on Hole 14, a beautiful par 5, which slingshots me 50 yards right into the heart of the fairway. Out of respect and gratitude, I capitalize on the break, thanking the Hawaiian golf gods with a birdie.
The Pacific Ocean comes into full view at the signature par 3 Hole 17, one of the most jaw-dropping short holes in the world, and the moment I’ve been eagerly awaiting the entire day. While I longed for a look at a “two,” like most bogies, I’m especially unfazed by this one. Wrapped by lava, surf, and sand, I’m playing a game I love inside of a living, breathing, ocean-crashing golf portrait. Not every top-billed course lives up to expectations—for me, Hualalai delivered one of the best times I’ve had on a golf course, gifting that Aloha Spirit from beginning to end.