The PGA Tour schedule has some rich traditions that give glimpses into not only the history of golf but also the history of the locations where tournaments are held. Waialea Country Club, on Oahu, site of what is now known as the Sony Open in Hawaii, is one of those.
Tourism? In Hawaii?
As the PGATour website explains, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and Waialea Golf Course, which opened for play in 1927, were built as part of a promotion to develop luxury travel to Hawaii. Given its position as one of today’s top tourist destinations, it’s difficult to imagine that Hawaii tourism ever needed a boost to get off the ground. Waialea stands as a reminder that even a paradise-like Hawaii needed some in putting itself on the map, so to speak.
The venerable old Waialea grounds, upon which champions like Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Corey Pavin, Vijay Singh and Zach Johnson have played, has witnessed history, and played host to professional golf, since 1928.
Depression, War, United and Sony
The tournament began as the Hawaiian Open in 1928. Bill Mehlhorn won that year, and Craig Wood the next, before the Great Depression made its impact felt. The tournament ceased and the hotel and the Waialea golf club changed hands due to the severe economic woes. The return of tournament play didn’t happen until 1947, well after the end of World War II. Tournament play would cease again after the following year, but return for good in 1965 as an official PGA Tour event.
It remained as the Hawaiian Open until 1990, when United Airlines signed on as the sponsor, calling it United Hawaiian Open for one year. A slight change in name the following year, to the United Airlines Hawaiian Open, lasted until Sony took over as sponsor.
Sony has remained as the sponsor of the Sony Open in Hawaii since that time. Although not approaching the depths of the Great Depression, the economic woes of the early 21st Century have seen some PGA Tour sponsors either pull support altogether or limit their participation. Sony’s continuing sponsorship during such times has helped preserve the historic tournament.
The Golf Course
Designed by Seth Raynor and Charles Banks, and opened in 1927, the course at Waialea Country Club recently ranked as the 28th most difficult of the 54 PGA Tour courses. It plays to a hefty 7,044 yards for the Sony Open.
Davis Love III holds the 18-hole course record with a score of 60 (1994). John Huston (1998) and Brad Faxon (2001) jointly hold the 72-hole tournament record with a score of 260.
A tournament stimpmeter rating of 13 will make the bermudagrass greens seem like a billiard table. Added to the putting challenge, the 84 bunkers and nine water hazards make the Sony Open a challenge, year-in and year-out.
The Plantation Course at Kapalua
Since 1999, the Plantation Course has been home to the SBS Championship, formerly the Mercedes-Benz Championship. Each January, Kapalua hosts the winner of the each of the previous year’s tournaments, which makes for great golf. Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, course architects, helped Hawaii give the world a small glimpse into it’s sweeping natural beauty.
History of the Championship
The Plantation Course is the fourth PGA Tour venue for the SBS Championship, which, in those early years was called the Tournament of Champions. From 1953 to 1966, the tournament was held at Desert Inn Country Club in Las Vegas. That period crowned winners such as Art Wall, Gene Littler, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
In 1967 and 1968, the tournament remained in Las Vegas but moved to the Stardust Country Club. Frank Beard and Don January have crowned champions in those two years.
In 1969, the Mercedes Championship tour venue saw itself transported further west to Carlsbad, California’s La Costa Country Club. It remained at La Costa until moving to The Plantation Course. A notable example of the stellar career of Jack Nicklaus, he was crowned champion three more times while the tournament remained at La Costa, in addition to his two previous victories. Also winning during the La Costa period were a host of great names; Gary Player, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Paul Azinger, Davis Love, III, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, and Stuart Appleby, among other greats.
The Tournament of Champions became the Mony Tournament of Champions in 1975, the Infiniti Tournament of Champions in 1991 and the Mercedes Championships in 1994. The name changed slightly, to the Mercedes-Benz Championship, in 2007, before SBS (Seoul Broadcasting Systems) became the title sponsor for 2010.
The Plantation Course
By listening to some of the competitors in the Mercedes-Benz Championship, it would seem that the Plantation Course is one of the most difficult tracks on tour. The fact is, it ranks 50th out of 54 in terms of difficulty. Despite it’s statistically “easy” ranking, there has been only one hole-in-one recorded in the 10 years it has been held in Kapalua; Lucas Glover’s ace on the eighth hole in 2006.
Golfweek ranked The Plantation Course as No. 56 among its “America’s Best Modern Courses” in 2007. The par-73 course opened in 1991 and was, as earlier mentioned, designed by architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. They designed a course that puts a great deal of importance on precision and shot-making over distance. Rolling terrain, a seaside location and lots of vegetation, not to mention 99 bunkers, lye in wait for errant shots.
Any person who has seen the course in person, or even watched the tournament on television, can attest to the secondary importance of course specifications. Its natural beauty is virtually unparalleled, not simply in golf, but in the world. Even casual nature lovers and golf fans will find themselves in awe of the views.
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