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.
Green Fee: Green 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 online, as well as for those willing to play in the afternoon. Twilight rates are also usually offered.
Big Island Country Club. Set 2,000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Hualalai, 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 16th, 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, Hawaii, 96740. 808/325–5044; www.bigislandcountryclub.com. $135 with cart, bottled water, range balls.
Hamakua Country Club. While the typical, modern 18-hole golf course requires at least 250 acres, this public course fits into just 19. Compact is the word, and with several holes crisscrossing, this place may require you to BYO hard hat. Holes run up and down a fairly steep slope overlooking the ocean—the views are spectacular. Cheerfully billed as an Old World golf experience, the course works on the honor system ("if no one is there, put your money in the slot") and the 9th green is square, but for 20 bucks (under 17 plays free), whaddaya expect? Most golfers prefer to walk, but there are carts available. Hwy. 19, at mile marker 41, Honokaa, Hawaii, 96727. 808/775–7244; hamakuagolf.com. $20.
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), Hawaii, 96743. 808/880–3000; www.hapunabeachresort.com/golf. $160, $100 after 1 pm.
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, Hawaii, 96720. 808/959–7711; www.hawaiicounty.gov/pr-golf. $35 weekdays, $40 weekends.
Makalei Golf 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 8th, whose tee is 80 feet above the green. In addition to fixed natural obstacles, wild peacocks and turkeys can make for an entertaining game. Ask about summer rates. 72-3890 Hawaii Belt Rd., Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, 96740. 808/325–6625; www.makalei.com. $109, $89 after 12, $69 after 2.
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 cliffside tee across a bay to a cliffside 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. Since you're in Hawaii, try the new Golfboard, a surf-inspired alternative to a golf cart. 62-100 Kaunaoe Dr., Waimea (Hawaii County), Hawaii, 96743. 808/882–5400; www.maunakeagolf.com. $285, $195 after 1:30 pm, add Golfboard for $35.
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), Hawaii, 96743. 808/885–6655; www.maunalani.com. $235 before 1, $155 after 1.
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, this Hawaii course features Bermuda and seashore Paspalum grass putting greens. The course is mostly flat, and holes play through stands of ohia lehua (flowering evergreen 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, Hawaii, 96718. 808/967–7331; www.volcanogolfshop.com. $61, including cart.
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. Fees vary depending on the time of day, the cheapest being a midday tee-time. 600 Waikoloa Beach Dr., Waikoloa, Hawaii. 808/886–7888; www.waikoloabeachgolf.com. From $125, including cart.
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; ask about summer rates. Holes run across rolling hills with sweeping mountain and ocean views. 68-1792 Melia St., Waikoloa, Hawaii, 96738. 808/883–9621; www.waikoloavillagegolf.com. $100, $66 twilight.
Kona Country Club. This recently renovated William F. Bell–designed golf course is perched high above historic Keauhou Bay with spectacular views of the sea from almost every hole. Stands of mature coco trees, several remarkable lava features, wide fairways, and challenging Bermuda greens make this course a classic Hawaii golf experience that's open to the public. The most prominent feature is the “blowhole” (puka in Hawaiian), fronting the par-4 13th tee, where seawater propelled through a lava tube formation erupts forcefully like a geyser—try timing your drive to penetrate the shooting water! In the winter months, golfers may also be treated to the sights of migrating humpback whales splashing and breaching within a tee shot of the shoreline. Amici’s, the onsite restaurant, and the Vista Bar—both favorites of locals, whether they golf or not—have some of the best sunset views on the Kona Coast. 78-7000 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, 96740. 808/322--2595; www.konacountryclub.com. $180.