The sun hits Ko’olau

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - SPORTS - By Ann Miller Spe­cial to the Star-Ad­vertiser

If a golf course can have a New Year’s res­o­lu­tion, Ko’olau Golf Club’s would be to see the light in 2017.

Since it opened 25 years ago, Ko’olau has been known for its dras­tic dif­fi­culty as much as its as­ton­ish­ing beauty. Its views are to die for. So is its propen­sity for eat­ing golf balls and mak­ing mud.

It is cut into 242 acres of trop­i­cal rain for­est that is des­ig­nated a na­ture con­ser­vancy, home to three cli­mate zones next to the Ko’olau Moun­tains. There are steep el­e­va­tion changes, six mas­sive ravines, huge bunkers and lush growth that has over­whelmed the course in re­cent years.

It was a jun­gle out there. Early on, it was mar­keted as the tough­est course in the coun­try. Its first course rat­ing was 162 — so high the USGA re­jected it. It sent its own team out to rate it again, and it came back with a 172 de­gree of dif­fi­culty.

To­day, that rat­ing is 153 from the black (back) tees and, ide­ally, plum­met­ing.

A month ago, South Korea’s YHB Hos­pi­tal­ity Group took over the lease. It also has the lease on Royal Hawai­ian and now owns Mililani, Hawaii Kai and Ewa Beach, along with ho­tels and golf cour­ses in Cal­i­for­nia, South Korea and Ja­pan.

For the last three weeks, “a jun­gle’s worth” of trees have been taken out, in an at­tempt to let the course see the light, ac­cord­ing to gen­eral man­ager Ken Terao. He said some ar­eas — the 15th green a prime ex­am­ple — were so over­grown you never saw the sun.

“The greens were dy­ing,” he says. “Our biggest com­plaint was al­ways mud, mush, muck. Ev­ery time it rains it takes weeks to dry up. There was ab­so­lutely no air flow, no sun­light on the fair­ways and greens. Peo­ple said the course felt claus­tro­pho­bic be­cause trees were grow­ing over both sides.

“The key rea­son why we started with the trees was first, to im­prove air flow and al­low us to re­cover greens and so the fair­ways will be dryer. Plus, now you can see the course and that is just amaz­ing.”

In three six-day work weeks, the back nine has been trans­formed. The sun is vis­i­ble again, along with fair­ways, greens and only-in­Ka­neohe views.

The 11th green is com­ing back and its fair­way open­ing is now wider than 20 feet. You can see the Pa­cific Ocean again from the 12th tee, and al­most the en­tire back nine. The course’s one lake, along the 16th green, is now vis­i­ble from the fair­way. Rock walls and bridges, which had dis­ap­peared over the years, have re-ap­peared.

The front nine is next. Then there are plans to im­prove drainage, re­place the fair­way grass and lots more, to bring Ko`olau back to the promi­nence it once held. Golf Di­gest ranked it among its top new, tough­est and pub­lic cour­ses.

“It’s at least 100 per­cent bet­ter al­ready,” Terao claims. “The greens will take a cou­ple months. They’ll be fixed by the time we aer­ate in April. Al­ready they are get­ting sun­light. All the al­gae and fun­gus are dy­ing be­cause we’re get­ting sun and air now.”

The goal is to re­turn to what the course looked like when it opened — af­ter an $82 mil­lion in­vest­ment — in 1992.

“They had every­thing down to shrub level then,” Terao said. “Course con­di­tions now have a re­ally good chance of im­prov­ing. The playa­bil­ity will be bet­ter, the greens qual­ity bet­ter, every­thing will be bet­ter.”

And all those golf balls that have been un­cov­ered the past three weeks —one slope was prac­ti­cally white — will be pretty much gone.

The un­writ­ten rule at Ko’olau over the years was to bring at least as many golf balls as your hand­i­cap. Of­ten, it wasn’t enough and em­ploy­ees had to keep an eye on range balls, which had a habit of dis­ap­pear­ing into golf bags.

It is prob­a­bly still the tough­est course in Hawaii, but no longer the na­tion. Terao put in “hy­brid” tees two years ago and moved tees that re­quired 200-yard car­ries on six holes across ravines.

He hopes the last three years of 100-plus inches of rain are over, but even if it isn’t he has hope. The course took on three inches of rain dur­ing Satur­day’s storm, but by Tues­day the newly opened fair­ways were dry. And he doesn’t be­lieve it will take long re­cently cleared ar­eas to green again.

It is a rain for­est and, even at its tough­est, Ko’olau has al­ways been serene and spec­tac­u­lar.

“It is chal­leng­ing, but we have tees to make it more friendly if you want to have a bet­ter time,” Terao says. “It’s just the am­bi­ence, the sheer beauty. There’s no course that can match it.”

It’s at least 100 per­cent bet­ter al­ready.” Ken Terao Ko’olau Golf Club gen­eral man­ager

Ko’olau’s 14th green is just one of many holes that had a ma­jor overhaul in the course’s re­cent ren­o­va­tion.


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