Big Island Country Club: Hawaii's under-the-radar scenic gem

Big Island Country Club: Hawaii's under-the-radar scenic gem

Reid Spencer Publisher
image (Photos by Lee Spencer and Reid Spencer)
The par-3 17th at Big Island Country Club should be familiar to golfers who have played other Dye Designs creations. That's the island of Maui in the background.

Forget the golf, for the time being.

If you’re simply looking for one of the garden spots on Planet Earth, Big Island Country Club is as good as it gets.

Perched on a bluff 2,500 feet above sea level and roughly 10 miles inland from the west coast of the Island of Hawaii, this Perry Dye gem features spectacular vistas in every direction. From the makeshift clubhouse—soon to be replaced by a permanent structure—you can look across the practice ground for a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, with the island of Maui across the channel, roughly 50 miles away.

Eminently visible from the property on the Belt Road (71-1420 Mamalahoa Highway) are four of the five volcanos that formed the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands. Mauna Kea, with its 13 prodigious observatories, rises to 13,803 feet due east of Big Island Country Club. Mauna Loa, which hasn’t erupted since 1984 but still is considered active, is nearly as tall at 13,679 feet.

When we played at the club on December 30, the snowcapped summit of Moana Loa was visible behind a ridge to the southeast.

Haulalai (in the background, looking back down the fairway from the 14th green) is due south of Big Island CC, with extinct volcano Kohala Mountain to the north. Collectively, the four volcanos form a scenic tapestry unrivaled anywhere else on the largest island in the chain. Nearby is the massive cinder cone Pu‘u Wa‘a Wa‘a which provides the backdrop for several holes.

Temperatures at Big Island CC are typically 10-15 degrees below what you’ll find at such seaside resort courses as Kona Country Club, Waikoloa, Mauna Lani and Mauna Kea. While temperatures on the more arid leeward side of the island reached the mid-80s in late December, Big Island CC featured very comfortable low 70s.

Because of the thinner air at elevation, the ball travels nearly a full club farther at Big island CC than it does on the coast. And that’s a good thing, given that the course features the most brutal collection of par-3s in the Hawaiian Islands.

After a relatively benign start that features a left-hand dogleg par-4, a reachable par-5 and two par-4s, all with magnificent scenery, Dye presents the golfer with a daunting 240-yard par-3 with a creek abutting the left side of a deep, firm green and a large bunker protecting the right side.

The better part of valor on this monster hole may be a safe shot short and right with the plan to pitch and putt for par. With the creek ready to swallow any shot that drifts left, “4” is not a bad score here.

From the back tees, the 235-yard par-3 eighth is even more intimidating. The lake that separates the seventh fairway from the eighth runs the entire length of the hole, which features a narrow green made all the more treacherous by the proximity of water to the putting surface.

Anything hit slightly left will be rejected by a severe slope that will propel the ball into a closely-mown chipping area five feet below the surface of the green. The small back-left bunker is a place you absolutely can’t go if you hope to escape with a par.

The par-3 13th reads 222 yards on the card but plays much shorter for two reasons. It’s a downhill short hole, and the green slopes from left to right and front to back, making a shot that lands short and runs onto the putting surface a viable option.

The trick here is stopping the approach shot close to the hole on a huge green that features a steep drop-off to a lower back level. The contours of the green are also likely to produce severely breaking putts from a variety of angles, making the tee shot merely the first stroke in a continuing challenge.

Then there’s the par-3 17th. You’ve seen this hole before. It’s a trademark of the Dye family. It’s the 17th at the TPC Sawgrass, complete with the right-hand front bunker that’s more window dressing than a formidable hazard.

With an elevated tee, and with lava rocks that surround the putting surface, it’s also reminiscent of the 17th at the Stadium Course at PGA West, a hole dubbed “Alcatraz.”

In reality, at 180 yards from the back tees, the 17th is perhaps the most accessible of the short holes at Big Island Country Club—if you can keep your mind off the lake that surrounds the green, save for a narrow walkway that provides access from the cart parking area.

You also have to tune out the distraction in the background, where the dormant volcano Haleakala rises to 10,023 feet on Maui.

If the 17th hole is a typical Dye creation, so it’s the 18th, a 472-yard par-4 with a railroad-tie-lined lake that separates the fairway from the green complex.

From the tips, Big Island Country Club plays to a formidable 7,116 yards, but, in our observation, most visitors opt for the far-more-accommodating white tees at 6,012 yards. The whites take much of the menace out of the par-3s, reducing the fifth to 183 yards and the other three to short-iron approaches.

Other notable holes at Big Island CC are the 14th—a wonderful rendition of the traditional “Alps” with a dramatic cross bunker that dares you to attempt a 265-yard carry from the tips—and the devilish par-4 15th (left) which, at 287 yards, invites a shot at the green that, most often, turns into a regrettable mistake.

Nine times out of 10, you’re better off hitting a 6-iron shot to the flat part of the fairway, short of a water hazard with a steep rock face, and attacking the pin with a lob wedge. But the seductive nature of the hole all but compels you to try driver or 3 wood in hopes of lining up an eagle putt.

Miss the narrow green to the left, however, and you’ll likely be faced with an awkward pitch from a scruffy lie with almost no chance to stop the ball close to the flag. The sheer genius of the hole is that it makes you play against your better judgment time after time.  

If you’re reasonably long off the tee, but don’t want to play from the tips, the blue markers at 6,582 yards may be preferable. And the course is quite female-friendly, giving women players a considerable edge where needed.

On my personal wish list would be the elimination of the tall native grass that lines the lake to the left of the par-5 12th. Though it might prevent a ball from falling into the hazard, it’s actually a detriment to pace of play. Cut the thick grass, and you’ll have a much cleaner look—with no uncertainty about the location of your shot.

That’s a minor criticism, however, of a course that has improved dramatically under new ownership over the past two years. It’s more expensive to play that it was in 2016, but that’s by design. By raising green fees (cart included) to a uniform $135 in season, roughly double what golfers used to pay through bargain tee time websites, the course has cut down on the 230 rounds per day that used to create excessive wear and tear on the course.

There has long been talk of taking the course fully private, but that decision has been delayed several times. For now, it’s available for public play, with a weekly membership available to visitors for $240 (plus $30 per round for a cart) for as much golf as you play in seven days. The idea is to acquaint prospective members with a course that isn’t as highly visible as the resort layouts closer to the ocean.

As enjoyable and challenging as the golf is, the real calling card of Big Island Country Club is the ambiance. If you can pry your eyes off the mountain views (that's snow-capped Mauna Kea in the photo above), you’ll find a habitat teeming with flora and fauna. On the long drive from the temporary pro shop to the first tee, you’ll encounter saffron finches, wild turkeys and likely a few goats.

Nene, sacred Hawaiian birds, are common at the course, and considerable attention to landscaping has only added to the natural beauty.

As much as we enjoy the golf and the setting, we won’t have a choice if the course does go private.

We’ll have to join.


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