For golfers, the Big Island is a big deal—starting with the Mauna Kea Golf Course, which opened in 1964 and remains one of the state's top courses. Black lava and deep blue sea are the predominant themes on the island. In the roughly 40 miles from the Kona Country Club to the Mauna Kea resort, nine courses are carved into sunny seaside lava plains, with four more in the hills above. Indeed, most of the Big Island's best courses are concentrated along the Kohala Coast, statistically the sunniest spot in Hawaii. Vertically speaking, although the majority of courses are seaside or at least near sea level, three are located above 2,000 feet, another one at 4,200 feet. This is significant because in Hawaii temperatures drop 3°F for every 1,000 feet of elevation gained.
Greens Fee: Greens fees listed here are the highest course rates per round on weekdays for U.S. residents. Courses with varying weekend rates are noted in the individual listings. (Some courses charge non–U.S. residents higher prices.) Discounts are often available for resort guests and for those who book tee times on the web, as well as for those willing to play in the afternoon. Twilight fees are also usually offered.
Big Island Country Club. Set 2,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Mauna Kea, this course is out of the way but well worth the drive. In 1997, Pete and Perry Dye created a gem that plays through upland woodlands—more than 2,500 trees line the fairways. On the par-5 15th, a giant tree in the middle of the fairway must be avoided with the second shot. Five lakes and a meandering natural mountain stream bring water into play on nine holes. The most dramatic is the par-3 17th, where Dye created a knockoff of his infamous 17th at the TPC at Sawgrass. 71-1420 Hawaii Belt Rd., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/325–5044. www.bigislandcountryclub.com. $95 with cart, $79 after noon. 18 holes, 7075 yards, par 72.
Hamakua Country Club. While the typical, modern 18-hole golf course requires at least 250 acres, this 9-hole, par-33 public course fits into just 19. Compact is the word, and with several holes crisscrossing, this is BYO hard hat. Holes run up and down a fairly steep slope overlooking the ocean. Cheerfully billed as an Old World golf experience, the course has no clubhouse or other amenities, and the 9th green is square, but for 15 bucks, whaddaya expect? Hwy. 19, at mile marker 41, 43 miles north of Hilo, Honokaa, HI, 96727. 808/775–7244. 9 holes. 2520 yds. Par 33. Green fee: $15. Facilities: Putting green, golf carts, pull carts.
Hapuna Golf Course. Hapuna's challenging play and environmental sensitivity make it one of the island's most unusual courses. Designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, it is nestled into the natural contours of the land from the shoreline to about 700 feet above sea level. There are spectacular views of mountains and sea (Maui is often visible in the distance). Holes wind through kiawe scrub, beds of jagged lava, and tall fountain grasses. Hole 12 is favored for its beautiful views and challenging play. 62-100 Kanunaoa Dr., Waimea (Hawaii County), HI, 96743. 808/880–3000. www.princeresortshawaii.com/hapuna-golf. $125, $75 after 1 pm. 18 holes, 6875 yards, par 72.
Hilo Municipal Golf Course. Hilo Muni is proof that you don't need sand bunkers to create a challenging course. Trees and several meandering creeks are the danger here. The course, which offers views of Hilo Bay from most holes, has produced many of the island's top players over the years. Taking a divot reminds you that you're playing on a volcano—the soil is dark black crushed lava. 340 Haihai St., Hilo, HI, 96720. 808/959–7711. www.hawaiicounty.gov/pr-golf/. $35 weekdays, $40 weekends. Carts: $20 for 18; $9 for 9. 18 holes, 6325 yds, par 71.
Hualalai Resort. Named for the volcanic peak that is the target off the first tee, the Nicklaus Course at Hualalai is semiprivate, open only to guests of the adjacent Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. From the forward and resort tees, this is perhaps Jack Nicklaus's most friendly course in Hawaii, but the back tees play a full mile longer. The par-3 17th plays across convoluted lava to a seaside green, and the view from the tee is so lovely, you may be tempted to just relax on the koa bench and enjoy the scenery. 100 Kaupulehu Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96745. 808/325–8480. www.fourseasons.com/hualalai. 18 holes. 7117 yds. Par 72. Greens fee: $250 for all-day access. Facilities: Driving range, putting green, golf carts, pull carts, rental clubs, pro shop, lessons, restaurant, bar.
Makalei Country Club. Set on the slopes of Hualalai, at an elevation of 2,900 feet, Makalei is one of the rare Hawaii courses with bent-grass putting greens, which means they're quick and without the grain associated with Bermuda greens. Former PGA Tour official Dick Nugent (1992) designed holes that play through thick forest and open to wide ocean views. Elevation change is a factor on many holes, especially the par-3 15th, whose tee is 80 feet above the green. In addition to fixed natural obstacles, wild peacocks and turkeys can make for an entertaining game. After noon, greens fees dip drastically. 72-3890 Hawaii Belt Rd., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/325–6625. www.makalei.com. 18 holes. 7091 yds. Par 72. Greens fee: $85. Facilities: Driving range, putting green, golf carts, rental clubs, pro shop, lessons, restaurant.
Mauna Kea Golf Course. Originally opened in 1964, this golf course is one of the most revered in the state. It underwent a tee-to-green renovation by Rees Jones, son of the original architect, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Hybrid grasses were planted, the number of bunkers increased, and the overall yardage was expanded. The par-3 3rd is one of the world's most famous holes—and one of the most photographed. You play from a cliff-side tee across a bay to a cliff-side green. Getting across the ocean is just half the battle because the green is surrounded by seven bunkers, each one large and undulated. The course is a shot-maker's paradise and follows Jones's "easy bogey, tough par" philosophy. 62-100 Kaunaoe Dr., Waimea (Hawaii County), HI, 96743. 808/882–5400. www.maunakeagolf.com. $255, $180 after 11, $160 after 1:30. 18 holes, 7250 yards, par 72.
Mauna Lani Resort. Black lava flows, lush green turf, white sand, and the Pacific's multihues of blue define the 36 holes at Mauna Lani. The South Course includes the par-3 15th across a turquoise bay, one of the most photographed holes in Hawaii. But it shares "signature hole" honors with the 7th, a long par 3, which plays downhill over convoluted patches of black lava, with the Pacific immediately to the left and a dune to the right. The North Course plays a couple of shots tougher. Its most distinctive hole is the 17th, a par 3 with the green set in a lava pit 50 feet deep. The shot from an elevated tee must carry a pillar of lava that rises from the pit and partially blocks a view of the green. 68-1310 Mauna Lani Dr., Waimea (Hawaii County), HI, 96743. 808/885–6655. www.maunalani.com. $225; 9:30–11:57 $195, twilight: $145. North Course: 18 holes, 6057 yards, par 72. South Course: 18 holes, 6025 yards, par 72.
Volcano Golf & Country Club. Just outside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—and barely a stone's throw from Halemaumau Crater—this is by far Hawaii's highest course. At 4,200-feet elevation, shots tend to fly a bit farther than at sea level, even in the often cool, misty air. Because of the elevation and climate, it's one of the few Hawaii courses with bent-grass putting greens. The course is mostly flat, and holes play through stands of Norfolk pines, flowering lehua trees, and multitrunk hau trees. The uphill par-4 15th doglegs through a tangle of hau. Pii Mauna Dr., off Hwy. 11, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI, 96718. 808/967–7331. www.volcanogolfshop.com. $56. 18 holes, 6106 yards, par 72.
Waikoloa Beach Resort. Robert Trent Jones Jr. built the Beach Course at Waikoloa (1981) on an old flow of crinkly aa lava, which he used to create holes that are as artful as they are challenging. The par-5 12th hole is one of Hawaii's most picturesque and plays through a chute of black lava to a seaside green. At the Kings' Course (1990), Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish built a links-esque track. It turns out lava's natural humps and declivities replicate the contours of seaside Scotland. But there are a few island twists—such as seven lakes. This is "option golf," as Weiskopf and Morrish provide different risk-reward tactics on each hole. 600 Waikoloa Beach Dr., Waikoloa, HI. 808/886–7888. www.waikoloagolf.com. Beach Course: $140 for guests, $180 for nonguests; Kings' Course: $140 for guests, $180 for nonguests, twilight rate $90. Beach Course: 18 holes, 6566 yards, par 70; Kings' Course: 18 holes, 7074 yards, par 72.
Waikoloa Village Golf Course. Robert Trent Jones, Jr., who created some of the most expensive courses on the Kohala Coast, also designed this little gem 20 minutes from the coast. At a 450-foot elevation, it offers ideal playing conditions year-round. Holes run across rolling hills with sweeping mountain and ocean views. 68-1792 Melia St., Waikoloa, HI, 96738. 808/883–9621. www.waikoloavillage.org. 18 holes. 6230 yds. Par 72. Greens fee: $83.50. Facilities: Driving range, putting green, golf carts, rental clubs, lessons, restaurant, bar.