Most people have to go to Hawaii’s Big Island to play golf: The planet’s first golf course was built by the Portuguese in 1779, and now the island’s mostly uninhabited Mauna Loa is a favorite among thrill seekers, with many runs over the mountain’s craggy peaks. The eighth hole of Mauna Loa Golf Club, the most elevated of its courses, looks out over the lava fields, with its promise of spectacular views, shimmering water and occasional eruptions.
Openings on the Mauna Loa course are virtually monthly. One July day I tried out the 4.14-mile round trip round-trip round-trip when the temperatures rose above 100 degrees, as they often do in the summer. The course, with a par of 72, was built with volcanic soil and features several holes that require elevation changes. It was not surprising that the grisly-looking lava forms the bunkers along the edges of the fairways.
There was one snag that threatened to spoil my experience: I had come equipped with high-quality shoes that are perfect for running without socks in hot weather, but I ended up with so much sweaty clothing I was still stomping around five hours later. Oh well. It was a different kind of golfing experience to play here — no two rounds are alike. The run from the exit of the air strip to the clubhouse was long and unforgiving, the lava-rock earthen slopes contoured by ocean breezes. The course takes players up and down the mountain, occasionally turning right and then left for another short run along the side of a smaller, lower volcano to get closer to the ominous peaks. The 18th hole was in a huge green that skirted the mouth of the Volcano crater. I took my putt, and watched in disbelief as it swerved along the perimeter of the crater and disappeared into the black glowing lava dome. I watched as the green lit up and then resumed its course, disappearing into a huge, dark, mawlike abyss. It was one of the strangest and most exciting golfing experiences in my career.