[ GOLF ]
PHOTO COURTESY OF BECKER COMMUNICATIONS
Ernie Els gave caps to Cameron Kucic and his Campbell teammates yesterday at an event announcing Hoakalei Country Club.
Els breaks ground on Ewa course
Plans call for the three-time major winner's layout to open in 2008
Ernie Els -- already possessing the travel schedule of a rock star on international tour -- took the long way from Los Angeles to San Diego yesterday. Between shooting a final-round 67 at Riviera on Sunday and the start of match play tomorrow at La Costa, Els was in Hawaii for a few hours to break ground and bread with the locals and talk about penning a unique autograph: a signature golf course at Ewa Beach.
Hoakalei Country Club, scheduled to open in early 2008, will feature the history of a Hawaiian legend and the vision and approval stamp of a golf icon from South Africa. And, perhaps, as Els mused yesterday, its bunkers will be filled with sand from China.
Plans for Hoakalei include a world-class resort, but not at the expense of the area residents, Els and the developers said. The three-time major winner shook hands with every member of the Campbell High School golf team, and it was obvious it wasn't just for the photo op. The Sabers athletic department will be the first beneficiaries of the Ernie Els Cup, an annual charity tournament.
One of the ultimate goals is to host professional tournaments, but Els doesn't want the course to be impossibly difficult for inexperienced golfers.
"Our philosophy is to be very playable, (even) for high-handicaps," Els said. "You have to have an opportunity to get the ball in play. You gradually make it tougher from there."
Els has designed courses since the late 1990s, when he did the Whiskey Creek Golf Club's course in Maryland. He never actually planned to design one here, but said he's doing so for two reasons.
"The vegetation, the mountains, the same kind of trees," Els said. "More than any place on the mainland, Hawaii reminds me of where I'm from."
The other? A strong recruiting pitch from the Hoakalei team of Dallas-based golf developers ClubCorp and Japanese builders Haseko.
Between rehabbing his wrenched knee, other design projects, and getting back into the swing of things on tour (actually tours, since he also plays a lot in Europe and Asia), Els at first turned down the project.
When a contingent of its leaders showed up unannounced in South Africa, though, Els was impressed.
"I know how far that trip is," he said.
And there was a follow-up visit to Els' house in England that sealed the deal.
There was no second choice, ClubCorp executive vice president Douglas Howe said.
"We kind of chased Ernie down, decided we need to go to South Africa and see him," Howe said. "We had done an analysis of all the golf course designers, and all the golf-playing designers on the tour, and Ernie was far and away No. 1, and our choice because of his history here, winning the Sony and the Mercedes, his style of play and his personality, his appreciation for the land and the island itself.
"We're very sensitive to the golf course integrating with the land and the respect of the local culture. He's a natural fit."
The course and resort will obviously bring in tourism dollars. Tee-time availability for locals will change with time, Howe said.
"There will be private-club membership (and) over time we will build the membership," Howe said. "Initially, we will have time available for local kamaaina play. As the resort builds up we'll have less local play, more local membership and resort play."
The pricing structure for greens fees is still being worked on, Howe said. Also, no estimate was available yesterday on how much it will cost to build the course and resort.
The builders got the literal blessing of some Hawaiian community members at yesterday's groundbreaking. Poni Kamau'u, a Hawaiian studies educator with the DOE, said the developers did their homework.
"They took the time to research the historical background," Kamau'u said. "They're actually bringing back the original name of the area, and they're doing it in a way that is pono (right)."
Hoakalei figures prominently in the travels of Hi'iaka, the sister of fire goddess Pele. Hi'iaka, who journeyed from the island of Hawaii to Kauai and back, stopped at a tranquil spring. When she looked at the water, she saw her reflection adorned with lehua blossoms. Hoakalei translated is "reflection of a lei."
But when that other well-known traveler visits Hoakalei to play his course, he hopes to avoid the water. And Els said there will be plenty of it on what could be a 7,500-yard layout from the back tees, some of it along the ocean.
"We will employ a coral reef and a lot of water features," he said.
Els said he'll be back in the summer to check on progress.
"By then we'll have moved some dirt."