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The Green Highway - Stories from Golf in America: Waimea Country Club
[Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles by George Fuller titled, "The Green Highway - Stories from Golf in America." In the series George will seek the back story behind the hidden gems, out-of-the-way finds, community layouts, mom-and-pop operations and other courses not usually covered in travel features. In his first installment, George writes about the lovely, challenging and affordable Waimea Country Club on Hawaii's Big Island.]
The 9th Hole at Waimea
Of the more than 15,000 golf courses in the U.S., there are precious few I've played where I've said to myself, 'Now that's a great bargain.'
When you're not paying $80 or more - not a "great bargain" in any economy - you're often stuck in a slow parade of fivesomes and invariably there's a group on the green and one in the fairway when you get to every tee. That kind of round is not a great bargain even at $20.
Waimea Country Club is a wonderful exception to the rule. Priced at $25 for 18 holes for kama'aina (locals) ($60 for out-of-state guests), it's rare to wait behind another group here. There are many days you will feel as though you're alone, playing in a tropical paradise. You are.
The 13th Hole at Waimea CC
Sited in the lush green ranchlands upcountry on Hawaii's Big Island, a few minutes from the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) hamlet of Waimea, one tees off here amidst tall eucalyptus forests with rafters of wild turkeys roaming the fairways and lowing cattle as the soundtrack. The great mountain, Mauna Kea, is the 13,796-foot-high backdrop on one side of play and, on clear days, the Pacific Ocean shimmers on the other.
The course - and all of Waimea - is in the heart of Parker Ranch territory, still one of the largest working cattle ranches in the United States with some 35,000 head of Black Angus and Charolais cattle grazing on many thousands of acres stretched across the island; cowboys still ride the range. An annual Pa'u Parade in September features horseback riders and their mounts draped in colorful flower leis. Indeed, if Waimea Country Club offered saddle horses instead of golf carts, it would be appropriate.
And though this all may sound a bit quaint, the course is actually a very good design by Florida-based golf architect John Sanford. It was originally built by a Japanese developer with the intent of being private back in the early 1990s when Hawaii was experiencing a "Yen Rush" and quite a few private clubs were being built around the islands with Japanese money.
Waimea Country Club's Closing Hole
"The developer is a friend and client from Japan," Sanford says. "We had already designed several courses for him when Waimea came up. The site was a natural for a links-style course with undulating terrain and thick field grasses, so we minimized the earthwork and tried to lay the course on the existing topography. We built the course 'in-house' with the owner's construction personnel and my brother shaping the course."
And though today everyone is welcome and the course is public, the design benefitted from an investment designed to be repaid by membership fees. Sanford's brother, Mark, after shaping the course, became general manager after the opening. "The course was built with members in mind," he says today. "The public was always invited, but it was not ideal for revenues to simply have daily-fee players alone as that income would always be less than operating costs.
"It has been 10 years since I have been back," he says, "and it's just nice to hear that the course still is open in today's economy. It would be a shame to see it go, as by now I am sure all of the locals have come to truly enjoy their time there."
The Wild Turkeys at Waimea CC
Even though it is tree-lined and upcountry - two characteristics not associated with a true links - that links-style flavor John Sanford describes is exactly what Waimea resident Steve Boyle enjoys about playing the course.
"As member of North Hawaii Rotary," he says, "we'd meet on Wednesdays at noon for lunch. We had a regular group from the club that would play our 18 on a weekly basis right after lunch. We'd often invite visiting Rotarians to join us at 'the greenest course this side of Killarney.' As those of us who had golfed in Ireland frequently said, 'If you haven't got the time or the money to play in Ireland, just visit the Waimea Country Club for a similar feeling.' "
Waimea draws its fair share of bargain-hunting golfing guests from the luxury resorts down on the Kohala Coast. But what I enjoy most about playing here is the locals you meet, like Steve Boyle. One recent Friday afternoon I got paired with a young man named Garrett Wong. He described himself as an electrician who lives in nearby Waikoloa Village who "works lots of overtime hours and then plays a lot of golf."
The Clubhouse at Waimea CC
The day we played, he was on his fourth round in two days. "I've only been playing a few months and I'm hooked," he told me. I'll say. His game was remarkably good for the short time he had been playing, even though we spent a decent amount of time tromping the tall grass that lines the fairways looking for his errant drives. Luckily there are no snakes in Hawaii!
"It rains more here," Garrett said when I asked him what he liked most about playing the course, "but it's greener and less crowded."
Hana White, Waimea CC's head professional, agrees. "The only thing that holds us back from being the most popular course on the island is the weather," he says. "But even that changes from one minute to the next."
There's an old saying in Hawaii, "If you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes." On the Big Island, add to that adage, "Drive 10 miles," because with 10 of the planet's 15 microclimates found within close proximity, it can be pouring as you drive through Waimea town and be sunny 10 minutes and 10 miles further east where Waimea Country Club is located.
Sanford's brother Mark sums it best. "Waimea is unique in many ways," he says, "with the enormous eucalyptus trees, lack of any visible development and just stunning natural beauty.
"Conditions at the course change dramatically from day to day, as weather on the top of Mauna Kea is ever changing, but when the weather breaks and there's a clear day, there are not many courses in Hawaii which can rival its natural beauty."
For more information or a tee time, visit www.waimeagolf.com.
This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on March 24, 2011.
Award-winning publisher, editor, writer and photographer George Fuller has been covering golf travel and lifestyle for more than 30 years. From 1992 to 1997 he was editor of LINKS-The Best of Golf, based in Hilton Head, S.C. In 2005, after having spent several years in the Pacific starting two magazines for Continental Micronesia Airlines and writing two books, Fuller launched GOLF LIVING Magazine for the Los Angeles Times, a "super-regional" magazine of travel, real estate and the lifestyle surrounding the game of golf. In 2009, he helped redesign and re-launch TEXAS GOLFER, a magazine with 25 years of history in the Lone Star State. Most recently, Fuller partnered with Troon Golf to launch TROON GOLF & TRAVEL, a monthly eMagazine with an annual print component. In addition, Fuller's newspapers and magazines credits include TIME, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, Robb Report, Coastal Living, Palm Springs Life, Estates West, GOLF Magazine, Golf Digest, Travel & Leisure Golf, LINKS, Successful Meetings, Honolulu and many others. He has reported for Reuters, United Press International (UPI), written for Copley News Service and is a regular on-line travel correspondent for Cybergolf. Based in Pacific Palisades, Calif., he can be contacted at email@example.com or 310/245-9550.