Story by Dodd Hessey
Maui is a golfer’s paradise but who first played it here?
Early Hawaiians were into sports and games, but none were of the stick-and-ball type played in other cultures. By the time Captain Cook “discovered” the Islands, the Chinese had been batting balls around with clubs for 3,000 years. The Romans were merrily knocking little wooden spheres around Southern England when Jesus was a boy.
Since we’re fairly certain the Polynesians who settled Maui never fretted about double-bogeying an easy par 4, the first folks to golf on this island must have been foreigners, yes? Scottish sailors on liberty from a trading vessel, perhaps; men who used wooden clubs to sail leather balls into a clear, 1800s Hawaiian sky?
While the names of Maui’s first golfers have been lost to time, the game’s first real home here is well known: Maui Country Club.
The year was 1925. On the mainland, “Silent Cal” Coolidge was president; the U.S. economy was booming; and Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, and Bill Tilden were the household names in baseball, golf, and tennis. On the Valley Isle, a group calling itself the Maui Golf Association negotiated an agreement with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company for sixty-six acres of cane fields, sixty of which it intended to turn into a golf course. The association — and its negotiations — were led by its president, Hawai‘i territorial senator Harold W. Rice, and by Frank Fowler Baldwin, who would become president of HC&S after the death of his father, Henry Perrine Baldwin.
The twenty-five-year lease for all this prime north shore land, including water and electricity for the pump, was $1 per year. O‘ahu County Club professional Alex Bell was brought in to consult on the design, and under his expert eye the parcel was graded and shaped into a nine-hole layout that golfers still find entertaining.
Opening ceremonies for Maui Country Club were held on July 3, 1927. Membership was $50 per family, monthly dues $2.75, both inclusive of War Tax. (Apparently World War I was still being paid for.) The initial membership drive netted seventy-eight men and ten women.
Two other golf courses were in operation on the island when Maui Country Club opened, one on the West Side, north of Honolua; the other on the slopes of Haleakala, at Pa‘uwela. Owned by Baldwin Packers and HC&S respectively, these courses served the plantation bosses, middle management, and company guests. The courses were rough by modern standards—the fairways were mown by grazing animals, the greens fenced to keep the animals off—and playing them must have been an adventure. Not only were course conditions far from ideal, but players had to negotiate the fairways without stepping in anything. Nature reclaimed those two primitive courses long ago, so today Maui Country Club can boast of being the oldest golf course on the island. Not by much, though, for the County opened a public course on January 1, 1930.
Located on Maui’s north shore, Waiehu was only the second public course in Hawai‘i; the first, Moanalua, on O‘ahu, opened in 1897. Since Maui Country Club was private, and in those days for whites only, Waiehu was where the rest of the island’s golfers came to play.
As times and attitudes evolved, so did the club. In the 1950s, banker Barney Tokunaga was the first nonwhite accepted into this elite group, followed by plantation physician Dr. Harold Kushi — who eventually became president of the Maui Golf Association.
O‘ahu’s Charlie Chun was the club’s first golf professional. In 1961, PGA member Henry Yogi became head pro, thanks to a little prodding from Dr. Ransom MacArthur — known to old-timers as “Jiggs” — and his wife, Katherine.
“My pals laughed and said I’d never get the job,” Henry says. “But Dr. MacArthur and Katherine — who was a board member — encouraged me to apply. I flew over from O‘ahu, and was hired. I stayed at the club for nearly two years, until Eddie Tam asked me to take over at Waiehu. I couldn’t turn the mayor down, right? He and his golfing buddies used to play in a twelve-some at both courses, you know.”
Club General Manager Russell K. Goshi smiles at the mention of this former Maui mayor. “If you wanted a building permit back in those days,” he says, “you had to beat Eddie Tam on our third hole.”
The club’s plantation roots are evident in the design of its two-story clubhouse, a gracious building appointed in koa and bamboo, with a large lanai looking out on the course’s tree-lined fairways. The structure was completed in 1932, and added to in 1949. An extensive renovation in 2009 cost $3.5 million, a sum that would’ve built many clubhouses in the twenties. Most of the club’s records were lost in ’46 when a tsunami flooded the clubhouse and tore away one wall; what charter members spent to build the first clubhouse is no longer known.
The club has hosted a number of famous folks over the years. Old-timers say Bob Hope and Bing Crosby walked its fairways, and maybe even Babe Ruth. Actor Woody Harrelson has been spotted barefooting around the course, and singer Willie Nelson and son Luke have played it many times. Other celebs include NBA Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson, actor Owen Wilson, and former pro volleyball star and Playboy cover girl Gabby Reese, who, with husband and world-renowned surfer Laird Hamilton, is fond of the club’s convivial atmosphere. Maui being a mecca for watermen, the club also lists iconic surfers Buzzy Kerbox, Ilima Kalama and his son Dave among its members, along with legendary windsurfers Robby Naish and Pete Cabrinha.
On Mondays, the public is invited to play the club’s historic fairways. Green fees are $33 if you’re walking, $45 if you take a cart. Plus tax, of course; nothing really changes.
If you decide to take advantage of this opportunity, here are a few tips. The greens on this course are among the finest in the county, and putting them requires the golfer’s full attention. Also, the course is laid out with the prevailing trade winds in mind, so its holes are aligned up- or downwind. When facing the wind, “tee it low and swing slow,” and when it’s at your back, “tee it high and let it fly!”
Mostly, though, just relax and enjoy yourself. That’s really what Maui Country Club is all about.
Maui Country Club
48 Nonohe St., Spreckelsville
(808) 877-7893 • www.mauicountryclub.org