Ko'olau: Toughest Course on the Planet
by Don Chapman
Hawaii Golfer Magazine
Hawaii, land of ancient myth and legend, has a new one: Ko'olau Golf Course.
Local golfers have been talking about Ko'olau (pronounced ko-oh-lau) in awed voices since it opened in May 1992. After a while, having heard so many tales of lost balls, forced carries, blind tee shots and all-time record high scores, the course began to sound like a fire-breathing dragon that was terrorizing the Windward Oahu countryside and populace.
The word soon got around and even non-golfers began askng in tremulous tones: "H-h-have you played K-k-ko'olau yet?"
To tell you the truth, I didn't rush off to be first in line to meet the monster.
As PGA head professional Paris Ernst says: "Most of the clubs that play here have a prize for the guy who loses the most balls."
Ernst, incidentally, advises: "Especially the first time around, bring 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."
How tough is this course?
Well, former U. S. Open champion Scott Simpson, who lives in nearby Kailua and likes to practice at Ko'olau's driving range, has adamantly declined to play from the gold monster tees, opting instead for the blues.
The myth and the legend grew even larger when a United States Golf Association team gave Ko'olau a Slope Rating of 162 from the gold tees, 158 from the blues, 154 from the whites and 143 from the reds. It was, at the time, believed that only the legendary Pine Valley in New Jersey was rated the highest with its 153 Slope.
So it wasn't long before the myth and legend of Ko'olau reached USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., and Dean Knuth, the guy who came up with the Slope System.
"Dean said that he didn't believe the rating," says Ernst. "He didn't think it could possibly be that tough. So he came out with a rating team. They checked a few holes and then stopped and shook their heads. Dean said he didn't think it could be possible, but it's even tougher than the first rating team said. Apparently, they were not used to seeing things like this, they were afraid to give it a really high number. Dean said it's the max. They're sending another team another team to do a new rating in January, but Dean said it's at least 155, the maximum allowed by the Slope System."
So the myth and the legend continues to grow: It turns out that Ko'olau is even tougher than we first thought. It's like the fire-breathing dragon just grew another head. Perfect.
You'd be excused for accidentally calling it Ko-oh-oh-lau.
"I didn't intend to make it that tough, it just worked out that way," says Dick Nugent, the architect who somehow sculpted greens and fairways at the base of the steep green Ko'olau Mountains, which give the course its name.
"Our goal, our mission from the owners, was to build a world-class championship golf course," says Nugent, whose creations in 45 years of building golf courses include Kemper Lakes, where Payne Stewart won the PGA Championship. "Well, world-class is one of those terms that can have a lot of meanings. So I sat down with Jack Tuthill and we came up with a list of what we considered to be truly world-class courses."
Ko'olau is sometimes called Minami, after the company that built the course. The company has had other business problems and the course and its 260,000-square-foot clubhouse is for sale. Replete with a fountain, marble floors and locker rooms as big as some clubhouses, it remains basically a shell without furnishings. But Ernst has recently added a pro shop and there is a snack shop. If you're interested in buying, Ernst says "$85 million was the last figure I've heard."