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Golfing Hawaii

My very first hole of golf in Hawaii and I make a birdie, though I can hardly register the fact. For there I am, on the Big Island, near the village of Volcano on a peerlessly clear day in December, nearly 4,000 feet above the sea. The course, the Volcano Golf Club, is perched on the rim of Kilauea, an immense, brooding cauldron of gas and steam that is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The "current" eruption from the nearby Pu'u O'o crater began in 1983 and has since spilled out enough lava to create more than two hundred new hectares of land on the southeastern shore. But these days it's quiet; here, on the windward side, it's often rainy and damp, and especially so at altitude. Yet today the ceiling is unlimited and the air is Alpine crisp, as arid as noontide, the sweet scent of the brilliant red lehua blossoms settling down upon us from the gnarly ohia trees like the barest whisper of dew.

We don wind shirts while waiting on the second tee, as there's a cool breeze kicking up. I've joined some longtime regulars at the club, the "Pua" (or "Flower") group, which is composed of a few major grower-dealers of island flowers (red ginger, anthuriums, birds of paradise, orchids) and a dozen or so of their friends from down in Hilo or vacationing from the mainland. A close friend of mine is a relation, and so the organizer of the Pua golfers, Vern Inouye, has kindly invited me to play in his group's regular Saturday round. It turns out it's a fivesome, with me actually being the sixth. We're playing with his father and mother, as well as his cousin Tom and his ten-year-old grandson, a sweet-faced boy with a sturdy fireplug body whose nickname is Boomer, the reason for which becomes abundantly clear from his drive on the first hole, which ends up even with mine.

Being six, we're the last group of the Pua golfers, and we watch the foursome ahead of us tee off on the second hole. There's a wisecrack or two between drives, some self-deprecating retorts, and it's easy enough to tell that this is a relaxed and affable group, not-so-serious serious golfers who, like a lot of us who love the game, find the purest joy in simply being there for each other's serendipitous shots, whether triumphant or comic or just plain ridiculous.

I've come to Hawaii with my wife, Michelle, and our two young daughters, staying three weeks, evenly splitting our time between the Big Island and Maui. We'd chosen Hawaii for the usual touristic reasons: its wondrous waters and vistas, and of course—at least for me—its magnificent golf. Like every semifanatical hacker, I'd perhaps too passionately noted the many articles and photographs of Hawaiian courses—the dreamy money shots of faraway greens over ocean and ravine and lava—and had patiently bided the years until I could find the right time for our family to make the passage. And so while Michelle and the girls spend mornings at the beach, I've resolved to play a wide range of courses on the two islands, in the hope that I might find such a thing as an essence of Hawaiian golf, and what that might in turn reveal about the culture and people of the islands.

Vern scorches a beautiful tee ball on the second hole, an uphill par four that climbs eastward through the highlands. His family is of Japanese heritage, four generations removed from their native land, and the Pua group is a sundry bunch: Asian, white, black, Hawaiian, mixed. It's an immediately pleasing sight to me, just what I'd imagined I'd see in Hawaii, though I must admit to being overconscious of the fact, too, the mix of ethnicities being something one hardly sees in social settings on the mainland, and even more rarely on the golf course.

I grew up in the New York suburbs, our Korean family one of but a handful of nonwhite families in our squarely middle-class town in upper Westchester County, a pretty village with an old movie house and train station and a nine-hole golf course where I first kissed a girl, and a surfeit of churches and bars in what was then an Irish and Italian Catholic predominance. It was more than a decent place to grow up and not very troublesome for us in a racial way, but nonetheless it was an exotic culture (the Camaros, the rosaries, the keg-party softball games) that we were always parsing for meanings and signs, and I would say that our mode was one of a slow but steady acclimation to its particular features and patterns and then to those of the larger culture beyond, until, eventually, we didn't notice so much difference anymore.

As we make our way up the fairway, I'm thinking about the world I've made for myself and my own family back in New Jersey, a place which had seemed to me perfectly amenable and comfortable in those abstracted, contextual ways, and in the "real" ways too, being a good place to write and to teach, to raise the girls, maybe even to grow old. Had I lived too long in my leafy northeastern life, become too comfortable with the mainstream culture, where diversity doesn't necessarily mean real mixing, real blending?For here in Volcano, searching for my errant tee shot in the thick stems of the torch ginger with an equanimity I'd never have in the prickly nettles on my course in Princeton, high in the sky and thousands of miles from anywhere I've ever called home, I'm suddenly caught by the notion that I've landed in a place whose primary features I very well might have come up with myself, if such things were left to me, replete with a perfect climate and a setting of arresting natural beauty and a vibrant, working variety of folk, along with, if I were so allowed, some of the most visually arresting golf courses in the realm.

In short, A Better Place.

I say as much to Tom, an early-retired engineer, whose cart I'm sharing. He laughs, like he's heard that one before. He's a rugged, wiry fellow, quiet on the surface, with a strong, lightning-quick swing. After just a couple of holes we're chatting freely, Tom pointing out the traits of the volcanic landscape, the birds and insects, the flora, as well as mapping out the family for me, the patriarchs and matriarchs I'd heard about. "This is where we all come back to," Tom will tell me later, after the golf. "Volcano is where everything began."

Of course, most everyone who has spent any time in Hawaii will tell you it really is the sort of setting that possesses the stuff of such ideations, wishes, dreams. The islands are shockingly lovely, gaudily displaying all shape and possibility. There's no need for exaggeration. There are the fragrances, the vistas, the sweet downy envelope of the air. On a sunny day, the ocean water is a shimmering shade of blue, that diaphanous, electrified blue of blue cotton candy at the circus. The fairways are famously wide; the greens, more often than not, resort-speed slow. There are out­croppings of lava insinuating themselves everywhere, stands of lush flora where the lava is not, all of it presenting itself in a landscape so richly saturated with scent and texture and color that you feel intensely—and differently—alive.

We wild-eyed golfers often look to the natural world for inspiration and salve, trying to channel a certain demiurge in the interplay of turf and sea and sky to inspire easeful, silken strikes. And we well know that among visual cues it is perhaps the nearness of waters that most inflames a golfer's passions. I think back to when I was in Scotland for the very first time, during the European heat wave of the summer of 2003, gazing out at the sea on a brilliant, nearly breezeless eighty-five-degree day at Turnberry, the Firth of Clyde as calm as a lake of long-steeped tea. I thought how lucky I was as I stepped up to the tee box of the tenth hole of the Ailsa course, which runs along the craggy shore, what with the weather so eerily tropical, un–Scotland like, which is exactly how you see it in brochures but only rarely when you're there, and even after I yanked two drives into the ocean I was sure I'd never play golf in more lovely a spot than that.

I had my wife promise that she would scatter my ashes someday off that stretch of the Scottish shore, or else flit them up into the wind in the hopes they'd make landfall on Bass Rock off the West links at North Berwick; but after playing for a couple of weeks in Hawaii, I am now quite resolved that the atomized motes of my earthly self should be cast, say, along the ocean holes at the Mauna Kea Resort on the Kohala coast, or just down the shoreline at the South course at Mauna Lani, where I would play after Volcano on my Hawaiian golf idyll.

The South Course at Mauna Lani, like many Hawaiian resort courses, is set upon a former lava flow that runs from the high land to the sea, its mostly generous fairways lined with outcroppings of rocky lava and kiawe trees that stubbornly endure the relentless Kona winds. It's an astounding arrangement, not to mention a challenging golf layout, marked as it is by lava boulders in the bunkers, large greenside swales that collect loose shots, and then, at the seventh hole, a border of shimmering and treacherous ocean. It all seems an illusion of sorts, a fabulist tableau, but as you hit shot after shot it becomes clear that wild imagination has somehow precipitated to real life: After putting out on the thirteenth green, set right beside the ocean, I saw the slick dark crescent of a kohola, or humpback whale, break the surface like an island unto itself. The creature reappeared once more, showing again its broad, somehow humble back, and then it was gone. The wintertime waters feature the yearly return of such whales, who rejoin the spinner and bottlenose dolphins and the monk seals to mate and feed in the native waters of the omilu, the bluefin trevally fish who dart about hungrily in the base of the waves in brilliant phosphorescent flashes.

Two holes later, I stand on Mauna Lani's famed par-three fifteenth. One might think that the fact that you're about to hit a golf ball over nearly two hundred yards of roiling ocean would blunt the majesty of such sightings, or else that the resplendent life would distract from the daunting shot ahead, but in fact a deeper sensibility begins to develop, a particular state of mind that I've been trying ever since to engender whenever I play: namely, To Let What­ever Happens Happen. Wise men of golf have long counseled a similar approach, including Hawaii's own Darrin Gee, whose instruction academy, the Spirit of Golf, holds as one of its primary tenets the notion of "detaching from the outcome." This is, of course, the soundest advice, to focus on the moment's process rather than the result, to make your best swing and then move on. Yet for perennially remorseful overanalyzers like me, this mantra is too often just another opportunity for some blustery internal rhetoric; for despite how hard I try (exactly missing the point), I end up caring too much about making something good happen, and thusly mess up all.

But at Mauna Lani's fifteenth, and at the similarly iconic third hole at Mauna Kea, where I played the next day, one's usually ruinous hand-wringing self is suddenly captured by the pitch and swirl of the trade winds; there's no longer a series of dark scenarios playing out cynically in the mind, and the bunkered green, faced by volcanic rock and a frame of swaying palms, seems, in fact, to glow and enlarge in the distance rather than menacingly recede, appearing less as a target than a destination, a place of loveliness that you know you'll get to soon enough.

Such stirring ocean holes abound on the sunny and dry Kohala Coast of the Big Island, including my underdog favorite, the par-five twelfth on the Beach course at the Waikoloa Beach Resort, set like the rest of the holes atop a massive nineteenth-century lava flow that runs more than thirty miles from Mauna Loa to the water. The shoreline pinches in on the fairway just between the spot of one's layup and the green, the surf riding all the way in to a small inlet. When the tide is especially rough and heavy, you have to fit in your approach shot between sprays of ocean water geysering up with each set of waves.

Then one has the urge to track the lava, all that lava along the fairways, upland and toward its source, the brown-black fields of the rocky, crusty variety of lava known as a'a—as serene and foreboding as the sea itself, replete with waves and eddies and upheavals that suggest great and violent move­ment though they are perfectly, almost mystically, still. This is a setting that's often described as lunar or Martian but to me is utterly prehistorical, as ruggedly real as the deep gouges in your golf ball after you've hit it into the petrified flows. I managed this a dozen times at least, getting lucky on three or four occasions with wild ricochets back onto the fairway. One time, at Mauna Lani, my ball hit the top of a lava mound and was supervaulted onto the next fairway, a wide swale of sun-baked a'a between me and it, and rather than give up on the hole or the four-dollar ball, I hiked across the sharp rocks using my upended iron as a walking stick. I hit the ruined ball back toward the correct green and made my return, and though I nearly tumbled twice, I was still grateful for the trek, not only because my ball had somehow made it to the green, but for the singular hazard of the hazard.

But amidst the lava there's life, too: At the Kings course in Waikoloa, wild baby goats skip out from the shimmering pili, native fountain grass that is much like fescue but grows in what looks like bunched, willowy bouquets of soft sea-green threads with hay-colored seed pods on the ends. The combination of this and the outcroppings of lava is muted and exquisite, the endless sky framed in the east by looming Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. When the tricky, persistent winds kick up, you can hear the chatter of the palm fronds as they slap against each other, the turmeric-colored finches and red cardinals darting and angling between trees in spectral streaks, and with the subtle roll to the land and the well-bunkered fairways and greens and waves of pili, there is more than a whisper of a Scottish links here, a serendipitous blending of the royal and ancient game with a tropical arcadia that is literally rebirthing itself from within.

It's a blending that presides, certainly, over all things Hawaiian, so that after the round, in addition to the standard burger or tuna melt, there's a grilled-ahi soft taco on offer, or a smoky pulled-Kalua-pork sandwich with hot sauce, or a chilled bowl of soba. Out in the towns and villages, too, there are ample signs of the mixing, as we happened upon a New Year's mochi-pounding ceremony in a quaint Buddhist-leaning village off the main road north of Hilo, or up in the verdant ranch lands of Waimea, where the cowboys are local boys, the groceries stock fresh fish for making poke (Hawaiian raw-fish salad) and there are not one but two Korean kalbi joints, where for $8.99 you get a stack of L.A.-style ribs and a choice of three sides, among which are kimchi and hijiki and then, of course, macaroni salad with egg, all of which I don't mind literally blending on my plate, a weird mélange that nonetheless seems oddly right. For here at last is my fusion America, shot through with a deep, broad vein of Pacific Rim influences, and though it's my first visit to Hawaii, it's somehow exactly what I am: Asian and American with a little bit of everything in between.

Throughout my visit, I am amazed at how utterly at ease I feel all over the islands, not just because of the lovely clime, but culturally. There's a distinct nonacknowledgment of me going on, this odd cushion of engagement I've never quite felt, as if I'm floating in water the exact temperature of my skin. It's a sensation, I realize, I'd never felt in New York or San Francisco or even in Seoul. Is this the reason, despite my fairly ragged play during the trip, that I feel nevertheless like I'm in a "zone," a slipstream of mind and physicality where the usual dictates and operations—competitive drive, keeping score, a constancy of calibration and analysis—seem but static and noise?

A very similar feeling prevailed when I went over to Maui for my final ten days of Hawaiian golf. There, I played the Wailea Golf Club's lush Gold course, a manicured garden-like track where the Champions Skins Game is held; and Makena North, where the tight fairways, elevated, slick greens and penal bunkers reminded me that not all resort golf is so affable and gentle; and then the massively scaled Plantation course at Kapalua, where a few of the fairways are almost as wide as some are long on my home course, which allows you to swing freely and smoothly, ironically resulting in the needlessly straightest drives of your life. And perhaps this in a nutshell is the secret promise and glory of Hawaiian golf: that inscribed within each of us is not just an ideal swing but an ideal sense of self as well, a perfect rhythm and carriage that one might be able to garner from an instructional video or belief system or some wizened screed-bearing guru, but which surely arises in embracing the ever-present details of land and sea and sky, whether you're in Maui, or North Berwick, or even back where you play in central Jersey.

Still, on the plane heading home I kept thinking of that first round at the Volcano Golf Club with Vern and Tom and the Pua group, which was, even given the world-class courses I was lucky enough to play in Hawaii, my very favorite. Maybe it was how the invasive torch ginger was sprouting everywhere, ominously beautiful; or the crushed lava used to fill the bunkers, which were the color of weathered headstones; or that Vern's father, Papa Ben, bettered his age by shooting seventy-nine; or that his mother, Mama Lily, packed sandwich lunches for everyone in the group, fourteen in all. It was all I could do but marvel at the brooding, laconic volcano, and across the island and down to the sea, to feel as if I was playing at the seat of the world, the very ground beneath my feet secretly shifting, alive. Completely new.

After the round at Volcano, the group gathered in the clubhouse for beer and conversation and to settle the bets. Somehow Vern figured out a way to have me win a couple bucks, perhaps in the Asian tradition of welcome to the guest, and perhaps in the same tradition I happily accepted. There was talk of great shots, and of some greatly tragic holes. Mama Lily passed out cookies she'd made. I had to leave early to meet up with my family back down in Hilo. I put away the bills and someone watching me said, "You better come back now," and of course I answered that I would. But maybe I knew then that that wasn't exactly right, nor exactly true. I knew then that wherever I went, I wouldn't ever truly leave.

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