Top of the hit parade

I'm standing behind my ball on the third tee at the famous Mauna Kea golf course. Ahead of me, the Pacific Ocean rolls into the Kona coast, then crashes into volcanic rocks. The green sits 163 metres away on the other side of the bay, into the wind.

Johnny Eusebio - my playing partner and the PGA head golf professional at Mauna Kea and its sister course, Hapuna - has already put his ball on the left side of the green with a crisp five-iron using his machine-like swing.

The water glistens as I stand over the ball and concentrate on my target: a bank to the right side of the green. I take a deep breath and swing hard through the ball - I don't want to be short. The ball launches straight towards the target - and it's then that a greenkeeper on a ride-on mower comes over the bank. For an instant, I imagine the driver slumping over the wheel, unconscious after a direct hit.

"What's Hawaiian for 'fore'? I don't want to kill that bloke," I ask Eusebio nervously. "It's the same," he answers quickly as the ball lands near the keeper. I breathe again.

My second shot is a difficult chip from above the green through deep Bermuda grass that plunges downhill - the green looks perilous from this side, with its super-slick surface sloping hard towards the water. My shot comes up short in the fringe. My third stroke kisses the ball with the face of the putter but it rolls fast and we hear a "ding" as it's stopped by the flag.

"Great way to make a par!" Eusebio enthuses.

"Never in doubt," I beam after the lucky break, collecting my ball from the cup. "This is going to be a great day of golf."

Indeed, it's going to be an incredible week of golf. Mauna Kea is my first round in a week of playing courses throughout Hawaii island, known as the Big Island, and Oahu.

Simply put, Hawaii is a golfer's paradise. Many golf resorts, such as Mauna Kea, are located on the coast, with majestic views of cloud-shrouded mountains on one side and dramatic rocky shorelines on the other. Some courses, such as Big Island's Makalei, are situated so high up the escarpment that your ears pop as you climb between holes.

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Each course is different and challenging in its own way. Whether it's hitting blind shots between giant black-lava flows at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Hualalai or battling the north-easterly trade winds and avoiding water hazards at the Arnold Palmer course at Turtle Bay, your score can add up quickly. For the amateur golfer, these courses can be as exhilarating as they are brutal.

Hawaii has perfect golf weather. It's warm year-round (the average temperature in September-October is 31 degrees, 22 in February) and showers normally pass quickly.

The ultimate golf holiday, in my view, involves staying at one or more of the islands' golf resorts. Between rounds, mix beach activities and five-star luxuries: attentive service, giant heated pools, tennis, spa treatments, fine cuisine and shopping.

On arrival at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Big Island's northern-western Kohala Coast, clubs are taken from the boot of your hire car to the clubhouse while you receive welcome beads, a cold juice and a chilled and scented face towel as you check in. I'm shown to a six-room apartment.

"This is your life," I remind Eusebio, with only a hint of envy, as we drive to the fourth tee. "Playing this course regularly - it can't get much better than this."

Here are my top tips on six of Hawaii's finest golf resorts:

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

Location On the Big Island's Kohala Coast. At 62-100 Mauna Kea Beach Drive, Waimea; see princeresortshawaii.com/mauna-kea-beach-hotel.

Green fees 18 holes costs $US250 ($259) for non-resort guests; $US225 for guests (includes cart, driving range is free). A triple play package at Hapuna and Mauna Kea costs $US299.

Par 72.

Fairways Bermuda grass, immaculate but the compact ground is hard to hit through.

Greens Bermuda grass. Lots of undulations make the super-slick greens hard to read. Pin placements are challenging, too.

Length Resort 5814 metres; championship 6739 metres.

Rating/slope Resort tees 72.2/130; championship tees 77.2/136.

Experience Set on a stunning coastline and built on the black rock of a lava flow from Mount Mauna Kea, this course offers the best kind of Hawaiian golf experience. Beautifully manicured, the course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr in 1964 and updated by Rees Jones in 2008.

With its fast, undulating greens, 99 sand traps and plenty of unsighted shots to the flag sticks, it poses challenges for the low-handicapper and the holiday golfer.

Annual membership costs $US17,000 (there are about 250 members) and there is hardly a soul on the course when we tee off at 8.30am. Hitting over the Pacific Ocean on the par-three third hole is a real treat.

Resort You don't need to play golf to enjoy a break here. The hotel was developed by Laurance S. Rockefeller in 1965 and refurbished after the 2006 earthquake. My apartment has two balconies overlooking the golden sands of Mauna Kea Beach, where I swim every day. There's a beach-side bar and grill and fine dining in Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar. A mountain-view room costs from $US567 a night. A "stay-and-play" package for two includes three nights' accommodation and rounds of golf at Mauna Kea and the neighbouring Hapuna Golf Course for $US1395.

Other attractions Try stand-up paddle-boarding or scuba diving with the manta rays off Mauna Kea Beach.

Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel

Location On the Big Island's Kohala Coast, adjacent to Mauna Kea. At 62-100 Kauna'Oa Drive, Waimea; see princeresortshawaii.com/hapuna-beach-prince-hotel.php.

Green fees 18 holes costs $US125 (carts cost $US25). Hapuna Five-Oh costs $US199 for five rounds.

Par 72.

Fairways Bermuda grass.

Greens Tifdwarf grass; even the slopes aren't overly difficult.

Length Resort tees 5513 metres; championship tees 5975 metres.

Rating/slope Resort tees 74.7/129; championship tees 70.4/130.

Experience With gusts reaching 72km/h, it is easily the windiest round of my life. Even a slight error on contact with the ball carries the shot into the wiry rough or fescue that lines the fairways and simply swallows balls, making an already crowded course even slower.

Designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, the championship course is a sister to Mauna Kea. Although some of the holes sit beside the shoreline, most of the course is much higher on the escarpment, at times as high as 214 metres above sea level.

The hilly layout creates some brilliant vistas of the coast (especially on the elevated tee on hole 11) when the vog (volcanic fog) clears. Off the tournament tees, distance is not such a challenge and the greens are easier to read, so it's theoretically easier to score better here. After a disastrous start (55), I manage to finish well (42) with a string of pars off the tournament tees.

Resort Opened in 1994, Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel is a sprawling complex of 350 guest rooms and four restaurants on a point overlooking beautiful Hapuna Beach. There is a family-friendly atmosphere and plenty of room in the giant pool.

Other attractions Drive into the highlands and explore the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) country around Waimea, a 30-minute drive. Sample succulent local fare at the renowned Merriman's Restaurant (try the mixed plate: swordfish, mahi-mahi and fillet steak).

Makalei Golf Club

Location On Hualalai Mountain overlooking Kona on the Big Island. At 72-3890 Hawaii Belt Road, Kailua-Kona; see makalei.com.

Green fees $US85 before 11am; $US55 after 1pm.

Par 72.

Fairways Open and luscious Bermuda.

Greens Bent grass.

Length Championship 6485 metres; visitor white 5633 metres.

Rating/slope Championship 74.3/144; visitor white 68.7/134.

Experience As well as being more affordable, this beautiful course is a welcome change from the coastal resorts. Nestled on the slopes of Hualalai Mountain, Makalei is protected from the trade winds of the coastal courses. As well as being becalmed, the wooded course is lusciously green and cool.

My playing partner and the Makalei general manager, Ross Birch, recommends taking a jacket along as we jump in a cart and head up to the driving range, which sits some way above the course.

"This must be the only course in the world where your ears pop when you go from the clubhouse to the driving range," Birch says. "The view isn't bad either."

That's an understatement. The panoramic view of the coast is stunning as you warm up your swing.

Makalei has plenty of elevation changes (from 549 metres to 867 metres) but many of the fairways are wide open so you can hit your driver freely. There are few sand traps, although hole 15 offers a great target with a lake on the left and bunkers on the right of the green.

Other attractions Take the scenic drive on Saddle Road up Mauna Kea mountain to the Onizuka Centre for International Astronomy's visitor information station at 2800 metres (the summit is 4205 metres) and enjoy some nightly guided stargazing.

Hualalai Golf Course

Location On Hawaii's Kohala Coast. At 72-100 Ka'upulehu Drive, Kailua-Kona; see fourseasons.com/hualalai.

Green fees $US250, for hotel guests and home owners only.

Par 72.

Fairways Wide-open links on Tifway II Bermuda grass.

Greens The TifDwarf Bermuda greens are quick and firm like a billiard table (and some offer small targets) but once you are on, the slopes are even and easy to read.

Length 6508 metres; 5516 metres.

Rating/slope Championship 73.7/139, guest 68.8/129.

Experience Hitting off on the first tee towards Hualalai volcano with my playing partner and Fours Seasons' marketing director Ciro Tacinelli, it is clear this is going to be an unusual round. Designed by Jack "The Golden Bear" Nicklaus and opened in 1996 beside the luxury Four Seasons resort, Hualalai is a links-style course with a unique look. Its beautifully groomed fairways have been dropped into spaces carved out of the black lava.

The contrast between the luscious green and walls of jagged black rock that stand like walls on either side of the fairway is stunning.

I soon discover there are unsighted shots over these ancient rocks. My tee shot off the first falls into fluffy Bermuda rough and I have to hit over a three-metre wall with a pitching wedge. On the seventh, the lava makes a narrow canyon in the middle of the fairway.

The course's defences include long, well-placed fairway bunkers but the sand is well packed, making it easier to hit out of. Apart from some rocky outcrops, the course is wide open.

The picturesque par-three 17th has the ocean crashing into the lava on the left and a giant bunker in front of the green. My tee shot lands behind the green on a flat piece of lava, which I judge is playable with a pitching wedge.

The 18th is even more spectacular, with the tee looking straight down at Waiakauhi Beach.

There is no sign of the damage incurred this year when the March tsunami smashed into the waterfront suites and lifted one deck into the middle of the fairway.

I hit over Waiakauhi Pond before finding one of Nicklaus's giant bunkers and three putting. It caps a stunning day's golf but my score shows the Bear hasn't beaten me.

Hualalai hosts the PGA Champions Tour each January and the facilities are outstanding. Even so, the course is built to be forgiving of casual golfers. "It is a good resort course - what golfer wants to go on holidays and hit their worst score ever?" Tacinelli says.

Resort Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka'upulehu is the height of luxury, with 192 guest rooms and 51 suites and villas. There are seven swimming pools, catering for adults, families, young children, fitness fanatics and even an aquarium filled with more than 3000 tropical fish. An ocean golf view room costs $US901 a night.

Other attractions Take a cruise south along the coast from Kona's Keauhou on the Fair Wind II (fair-wind.com) to Kealakekua Bay, where the Captain Cook monument marks that famous seafarer's demise, and snorkel on the stunning coral reef.

Turtle Bay — Arnold Palmer Course

Location The North Shore of Oahu. At 57-091 Kamehameha Highway; see turtlebayresort.com/golf.

Green fees $US195 ($US155 for resort guests) or $US110 after 2pm. A daily unlimited package costs from $US164.50.

Par 72.

Fairways Carpet-like Bermuda.

Greens Super-slick Bermuda.

Length Championship 6600 metres.

Rating/slope 64.1/116; championship 74.4 /143.

Experience There are two championship courses attached to the magnificent Turtle Bay Resort: one designed by George Fazio, the other by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay. I'm booked into the latter, regarded as the better course, which has hosted the PGA Champions Tour and LPGA SBS Open. The first nine holes are links-style with water hazards and holes exposed to trade winds. The second nine winds through a wooded wetland and Punaho'olapa Marsh bird sanctuary.

The par-five hole three is dubbed "Pa Ahamanu" or "Strong Winds of Kahuku" on the tee block and the wind can punish any slice or hook. There is a lake flanking the left side of the entire hole, a giant sand bunker in the centre of the fairway and a bay that must be cleared to reach the green. My tee shot finds the rough and I watch my second get caught by the wind and disappear into the bay. I've come unstuck again.

This is highly challenging golf. There are water hazards on every hole apart from the fifth. Although I'm striking the ball well and manage a few pars on the front nine, lack of course knowledge is punishing me. The greens are slick, too, with some tricky pin positions.

The 11th hole is named "Ho omanawanui" or "To Have Patience" but I'm beginning to lose mine as another approach shot gets wet.

By the time we reach the gorgeous 18th, where the brave can try to hit a three-wood second shot over water to the green, Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay's course has beaten me.

Resort It opened in 1972 with Bob Hope as the headline act, though the resort doesn't show its age. Set on the point overlooking beautiful Turtle Bay, it's a great escape for couples and families with a range of luxury rooms, villas and suites. My beach cottage ($US640 a night) has the largest bath I've ever seen.

Other attractions Book a two-hour lesson at Hans Hedemann Surf School (hanshedemannsurf.com) and you'll be paddling out on a long board to the point beside Turtle Bay Resort, with an instructor guiding you onto waves. It's an exhilarating start for novices.

Hawaii Prince Golf Club

Location Ewa plain on Oahu, about 40 minutes' drive from Waikiki. At 91-1200 Fort Weaver Road, Ewa Beach; see princeresortshawaii.com/waikiki-oahu-golf.php

Green fees $US160, or $US95 before 11.30am for Hawaii Prince Hotel guests. Players' Choice package costs $US105 (hotel guests) for a round plus transfer and rental stocks.

Par There are three nine-hole courses, each of which are par 36.

Fairways Bermuda.

Greens Bermuda - fast and can be reasonably tricky in places.

Length Course A/B back tees 6508 metres; resort guest 5703 metres.

Rating/slope Course A/B back tees 73.8/137; resort guest 69.8/125.

Experience After arriving on the complimentary bus from the Hawaii Prince Hotel, my clubs are loaded on a cart for me. Designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, the 27-hole golf course is fun for enthusiasts and occasional golfers. Opened in 1992, it has 90 bunkers and 10 lakes.

I'm assigned course B and manage to hit off just ahead of a junior golf competition. This course is open and doesn't feature too many fairway traps, so I blast away with the driver making many greens easily. However, I misjudge several putts on the slick greens, so pars go begging.

Hole nine is the hardest and the best, with water down the left side of the fairway and on the right side of the green. At 369 metres, you can't play too conservatively to the right, or you'll have a difficult shot at the green. I record my first double bogey of the round here.

Playing by myself, I've raced through in one hour 20 minutes with 44 strokes.

Course A is a different story. There are plenty of slow groups in front and, after missing a par putt on the first, I join two elderly New Zealanders. Despite not offering too many bunkers, Course A is more open and plays a lot longer into the trade wind. There are many water hazards to contend with, too. Our pace slows and I lose my rhythm.

The greens have large landing areas but are fast and reasonably tricky in places. My drives are going up to 270 metres with the wind but are knocked down to 220 metres into the wind.

The fairways are undulating so the ball is often below or above your feet. Despite finishing with an easy par, what was shaping up as a mid-80s score is now 92.

Resort About 40 minutes' drive from the course, Hawaii Prince Hotel is a twin-tower complex with 521 oceanfront rooms and 57 suites with high-rise views of Waikiki. I get a touch of vertigo as I ascend in the lift to my 23rd-floor room, with a stunning outlook over the harbour.

Rooms cost from $US255 a night, at 100 Holomoana Street, Honolulu; see princeresortshawaii.com/hawaii-prince-hotel.php.

Other attractions Browse Waikiki's shops, take a dip at Waikiki Beach or enjoy a Hula Pie (cookie, chocolate fudge, whipped cream, nuts) at Duke's Restaurant.

Daniel Fallon travelled courtesy of Hawai'i Tourism and Hawaiian Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Hawaiian Airlines has a fare to Kona from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1295 low-season return including tax. You fly non-stop to Honolulu (about 10hr), then to Kona (45min). Melbourne passengers pay about $100 extra and fly Virgin Australia to Sydney to connect. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

More information See discoverhawaii.com.au; hawaiianairlines.com.

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