The Scariest Golf Course in America


Editor’s Note: On the eve of Halloween 2004, an appropriate article would be this one written by Don Chapman in the mid-1990s. The article originally appeared in Hotspots.Hawaii.com. Chapman is one of Hawaii's most well known and best-loved writers. His glimpse at Ko`olau Golf Course in Kaneohe, Oahu, is a terrifying tale that captures the fear expressed by anyone – including several Tour pros – who’ve had their nerves frayed by this daunting layout.

by Don Chapman

The first time that former U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson played Ko`olau Golf Course, he shot 80. On Chi Chi Rodriguez's first time around Ko`olau, he managed an 88. Par is 72. And neither pro was playing from the back tees!

The correct pronunciation is Ko-oh-lau, but you'd be forgiven for calling it Ko-oh-oh-lau. The United State Golf Association calls it the toughest golf course in America. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has played the course, tucked against the base of the steep, green Ko`olau Mountains just below the Pali Lookout. In Hawaiian, ko`olau means "windward." Every golfer who has played there adds their own adjectives and even some adverbs: “Beautiful, (bleep), a fabulous course, a (bleep) course, breath-taking, (bleep-bleeping).”

"But no matter how you play," says head PGA professional Parris Ernst, "you can always say ‘I played the toughest golf course in America.’ "

Let's put it this way: Playing Ko`olau is as close as golf gets to "adventure sports." Or as Ernst advises: "Especially the first time around, bring at least as many balls as you have strokes in your handicap, just to make sure you can get all the way around. Higher handicappers may want to bring a few more. Oh, and leave your ego at home."

It's hard to tell if he's joking when Ernst adds that he's "looking into putting golf ball vending machines on every other hole." But he is serious when he says: "If you want to know the truth, this is the toughest golf course in the universe."

Ko`olau is the country's toughest course by a long shot. Which is appropriate. You need a lot of long shots to play Ko`olau. From the white tees, you face 10 forced carries of at least 115 yards. On the 18th hole, you need to carry the ball 150 yards from the white tees, 200 from the blues, and then face another carry of 200 yards over another section of that same ravine to the green.

"It's the ravines that make it tough," says Dick Nugent, the architect who created this stunning green monster. "It's not like we could fill them in or anything."

One of the first obstacles that Nugent found was the topographical maps. "The topo maps were all wrong," he says. "I called the company that made them and told the president that what he showed as little gullies of 20 or 30 feet were actually huge ravines that went down 100 feet or more. He told me: `Oh, yeah, we didn't have any way of getting down there, so we just measured from the tops of the trees.' So we were doing new topos as we built the course."

From the first tee time in the spring of 1992, everybody knew that this was a monster. But it took a while to realize just how tough it is. The course's new Slope handicap rating has created some controversy. The story, you could say, is a tempest in a tee plot.

A USGA handicap team spent a couple of days at Ko`olau in January `94 and came up with a stratospheric 162 rating from the gold tees, 158 from the blue, 154 from the whites and 143 from the reds.

The previously acknowledged toughest course (at that time) in America, the International Country Club in Bolton, Mass., has a Slope rating of 155 from the "tiger tees," which plays 8,350 yards and features six carries of 250 yards over water. The third toughest course is the legendary Pine Valley (N.J.), which carries a Slope of 153 from the back tees and has been called America's best course. Lagoon Legend in Florida is next at 152. Three courses are rated 151 from the back tees – Hallbrook CC in Kansas City, the Honors Course in Memphis and the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West in Palm Springs.

Hawaii's second-toughest test, Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s Prince Course on Kauai, is rated 145 from the back tees.

The January rating was actually the second for Ko`olau. When it opened, a rating team gave Ko`olau a Slope of 152 from the gold tees. Dean Knuth, the USGA's senior director of handicapping and the guy who created the Slope system, saw that figure and admits: "I just didn't believe it. I've played all of the highest rated courses in the country. A 152 didn't seem possible."

So Knuth flew over from USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., and played Ko`olau himself. A 6 handicap, Knuth shot 89 – from the white tees. "The rating team was wrong – they underestimated how difficult it is!" Knuth said after his round and ordered the second rating.

But handicap ratings on the scorecard do not reflect how tough the course really plays. The USGA does not recognize anything more difficult than 155. So the gold's 162 and the blue's 158 were both altered to 155, just one point tougher than the whites.

"Excuse me," says a Ernst, a common-sense native of Texas. "How can the gold tees not be more difficult than the blues? And how can they not be a lot tougher than the whites?"

Knuth readily admits that they are more difficult: "But 155 is as high as the system allows us to go. After that, it ceases to be a linear equation, and that's what Slope is."

In other words, Knuth never in his life expected to see a course as difficult as Ko`olau. No matter what number you put on it, Ko`olau is all the challenge you'll want and requires hitting every club in your bag. Repeatedly.

There isn't an easy hole, but 18th in particular made an impression on Knuth. A par-4 dogleg right, it plays 476 yards from the tips. It involves those two forced carries. The cheat sheet that gives golfers strategic tips calls it, "the most difficult closing hole you will ever play." The problem, as Tom Watson once described the par-4 17th at St. Andrews' Old Course, the infamous Road Hole: "It's really a par 5."

Knuth, who includes an aerial photograph of the 18th in handicapping seminars he gives around the country, says: "It would be a tough hole even if you played it as a par-6."

Asked if he's ever designed a tougher hole, Nugent, whose creations in 45 years of building golf courses include Kemper Lakes, where Payne Stuart won the PGA Championship, and Makalei on the Big Island, just chuckles: "How could I? Actually, at first I didn't think this one was build-able. When we were designing the course, I was up by where the 10th tee is now. One of my assistants was yelling up at me from this ravine. I couldn't see him through the tangle of jungle. I called: `Where are you?' And he answered: `In the middle of the 18th fairway.' And I thought, uh-oh, I don't know if we can do this."

But they did, with the aid of rock walls that allowed a severe grade to be filled in and softened. Nugent only built 80 bunkers, but that is a misleading statistic. Several holes have long waste bunkers. On the 18th, he placed 100-yard-long bunkers on both sides of the ravine. "There's more sand on this course than there is on Waikiki beach at low tide," said Ernst.

"Bunkers require a lot of maintenance and every once in a while we think about filling one of them in," said course superintendent Sean Hoolihan. "But then we always say `Naw, that would only make it easier.' If it's not busted, don't fix it. I know this much: You don't do things to the toughest course in the country that will make it easier."

Ko`olau's difficulty is surpassed only by the natural splendor of playing through a tropical rainforest where orchids bloom in the rough and 500-foot ribbons of waterfall tumble down fluted mountains that tower overhead. No matter where you look, natural beauty surrounds you. Nearly every hole provides views of blue Kaneohe Bay. The primary sound is birds. The shama thrush, Hawaii's best singer, is plentiful here. The air is clean and fresh, scented with ginger blossoms.

"It's a special site," says Nugent, the guy who created the toughest course in America. "There's an aura there."

For more information about Don Chapman, visit www.hotspots.hawaii.com/Chaphome.html. For more information about Ko`olau Golf Course, now owned by American Golf, call 808/247-7088 or visit www.koolaugolfclub.com.


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