‘Toughest Course’ Trying to Soften Image for Average Golfers


The record for the Koolau Golf Club is 63. That’s not strokes--it’s for balls lost in one round.

The course, at the base of a spectacular mountain range separating downtown Honolulu from the western side of the island, is considered the toughest in the United States--and has been called many more unprintable names.

New owners, however, are trying to soften its image to the “most challenging.” They’ve made some of the king-sized traps smaller, widened the fairways and cut back some of the lush tropical vegetation that made for peekaboo shots around corners and trees. They’ve also installed a new computer system that guides players around the course.

That’s good news for any golfer who ever struggled around the 80 bunkers and over the six rain-carved ravines that each carry 100-plus yards. The layout measures a formidable 7,310 yards from the championship tees and a more manageable 5,102 yards from the front tees.


Just to hear the name Koolau brought a pained smile to Scott Simpson, the 1987 U.S. Open champion who used to live in Hawaii.

“It’s the hardest I’ve ever played,” he said. “I’ve played it from the back tees and it’s a monster. And it’s beautiful, all at the same time.”

For those who follow such things, the USGA’s slope rating for the 6-year-old course is 155, the maximum allowed. But the rating is really a lot higher.

When the local section of the PGA rated the course, it came up with a 162. Impossible, said the national PGA, which sent a team of officials for precise measurement. Its rating was higher, topping out at 172.

It’s been said players should plan on losing a ball for every stroke of their handicap--at least.

“It’s a nice place to have a picnic,” weekend golfer Leslie Miller said. “It’s not fair because the carries are too long. My best is a 96 from the red tees. I was happy with my score, but happier that I lost only six balls.”

Dean Wilson, who plays on the Asian PGA Tour, holds the course record at 69.

Rob Nelson, who has transformed several other courses in Hawaii, was brought in by American Golf Corp. to soften the course’s image and make it more playable.


“We have already made giant strides,” the new general manager said as he looked out over the fairway from the marble-and-glass clubhouse. “All the bunkers, which were designed to trap drives, have been rebuilt.

“We don’t want the reputation of being a one-time golf course. We want to be a user-friendly course.”

To help players, Koolau has also installed the ParView Global Positions System (GPS) as part of its $1.8 million renovation. The state-of-the-art “Information Superfairway” is a small monitor in all the carts that can tell players where they are on a hole, where they want to be and pretty much everything but what they had for breakfast.

Don’t laugh, it can actually place lunch and dinner orders for players approaching the ninth and 18th holes.


“It helps tremendously,” Nelson said. “It shows you where you’re going and what you should do.”

At the first tee, the system overview lists distances to hazards and through them. There is a paragraph from the host pro about how best to play the hole.

On the fairway, the GPS keeps players updated on how far they’ve come and how many yards remain to the center of the green. Once they’re within 200 yards, the overview transforms into a view of the hole, showing pin placement, slope and undulation.

The system clock starts after players hit their first tee shots and is set for a 4 1/2-hour round. If they’re on the second green but should be on the third tee, the computer tells them.


“You really need it on a course like this where you have blind shots,” Nelson said. “The first time you’re out here, you have no clue and the 10th time, you want to know how far.”

All the changes are welcomed by golfers, including Simpson, whose best score at Koolau was a 71.

“There’s just no margin for error,” he said. “I should go back and try to see what I could shoot. It’s fun to play it once in a while because it’s the ultimate test.”