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Pope Of Slope

The World's Toughest Golf Course

Oahu's Ko'olau offers all the challenge a golfer could ever want

BY DON CHAPMAN

One landmark remains immune from the nitpickers who are chipping away at some of Hawaii's long-held claims to fame. The summit of Wai'ale'ale on Kauai, we suddenly learn, is not exactly the wettest spot on Earth. Molokai's sea cliffs are not quite the world's tallest. And these Islands apparently are merely almost the most remote. Close penultimates, each.

Then there's Ko'olau Golf Course. For better or worse, Ko'olau is the toughest golf course in the world.

"If you want to know the truth," says Parris Ernst, the former head pro, "Ko'olau is the toughest golf course in the universe."

The course is located just below the Pali Lookout at the windward base of the steep, green Ko'olau Range, 20 minutes from downtown Honolulu. How tough is it?

The first time that former U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson played Ko'olau, he shot 80. On Chi Chi Rodriguez's first time around, he managed an 88. Par is 72. And neither pro was playing from the back tees!

The United States Golf Association officially calls Ko'olau the toughest golf course in America.

How Tough Is It?

It's the country's toughest course by a long shot. Which is appropriate; you need a lot of long shots to play Ko'olau. From the white tees, you face 10 forced carries of at least 115 yards. On the 18th hole, you need to carry the ball 150 yards from the white tees, 200 from the blues. And then you face another carry of 200 yards over another section of that same ravine to reach the green. Lots of times, the smart play for your second shot on this par 4 is to lay-up short of the ravine.

"It's the ravines that make it tough," says architect Dick Nugent, who with Jack Tuthill is to blame for creating this stunning green monster. "It's not like we could fill them in or anything."

The depth of some of the ravines came as a surprise to Nugent even after studying topographical maps of the site. "We discovered that the topo maps were all wrong. I called the company that made them and told the president that what he showed as little gullies of 20 or 30 feet were actually huge ravines that went down 100 feet or more. He told me, 'Oh, yeah, we didn't have any way of getting down there, so we just measured from the tops of the trees.' So as we built the course, we were doing new topos "

The "world's toughest" rating was not attained easily. When the course opened in 1992, a USGA rating team gave Ko'olau a slope of 152 from the gold tees. Dean Knuth, the USGA's senior director of handicapping and the guy who created the Slope handicap system, saw that figure and now admits, "I didn't believe it! I've played all of the highest-rated courses in the country. A 152 just didn't seem possible."

So Knuth flew over from USGA headquarters in Far Hills, NJ, and played Ko'olau himself. A six-handicapper, Knuth shot 89 from the white tees.

'The rating team was wrong they underestimated how difficult it is!" Knuth said after his round, and ordered the second rating.

Another USGA Handicap team spent a couple of days at Ko'olau and came up with a stratospheric 162 rating from the gold tees, 158 from the blues, 154 from the whites and 143 from the reds. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of Scotland, which rules golf everywhere except the U.S., has never given a higher rating. The previously acknowledged toughest course in America, the International Country Club in Bolton, MA, has a Slope rating of 155 from the "tiger tees," which plays 8,350 yards and features six carries of at least 250 yards over water.

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