Native Intelligence: Lāna‘i

Free Birdie

Story by Grady Timmons. Photos by PF Bentley.

When news broke last year that billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns 98 percent of the island of Lāna‘i, was closing the Kō‘ele Golf Course and replacing it with a zipline course and possible statue garden, golfers were stunned.

But anyone who thinks that the closure leaves the island with just one golf course—at the Four Seasons in Mānele—clearly isn’t in the know about one of the backyard treasures among Hawai‘i’s golf courses: the public Cavendish Course in tiny Lāna‘i City.

Cavendish is a remnant of old Lāna‘i, when Dole operated the island as a giant pineapple plantation. Scotsman E.B. Cavendish designed the nine-hole, par-thirty-six layout in 1947 for the recreation of the workers, and up until 1990, when the Kō‘ele and Mānele resorts opened, it was the island’s only course. Cavendish is now run by Ellison’s company, Pūlama Lāna‘i, which has reassigned the Kō‘ele grounds crew to maintain it. “Cavendish is in the best shape I ever seen it in my lifetime,” says Honolulu golfer Les Tamashiro, who grew up on the island and returns frequently.

Part of what makes Cavendish so special is that it’s free. There are no greens fees or tee times—and not much else. No pro shop, no club or cart rentals, not even a dress code. Just show up and play. There is a clubhouse, but it’s a lean-to with cafeteria tables and it’s BYO everything. The course itself sits in the island’s cool uplands. Stately pines frame the fairways, and there are views of Lāna‘i Hale, the island’s summit. The fairways are eminently playable, the greens well maintained. There is a 550-yard par-five and two challenging par-threes, one up a hill, the other across a ravine. Golfers accustomed to finely manicured resort layouts might find Cavendish rough-hewn and quaint, but others say it suits their style. Online reviews strike a similar theme: “Golf as it should be played!” “Tons of fun,” says one, “in that golfing barefoot, beer-a-hole kind of way.” “None of that highfalutin stuff,” says another. “Just hit the ball in the hole.”

Cavendish doesn’t get the play it once did, when residents joked, “It’s getting so crowded you need a tee time.” But for those who like to walk and enjoy a rustic round of golf, it remains a treat. After all, as one regular says, “You can’t beat free.”