Hawaii’s Busiest Golf Course, Junior Golf And An Unprecedented Multimillion-Dollar Partnership

Talk about growing the game. Actually, it’s far more than just talking about it. Thanks to an unprecedented partnership in the golf world, youth golf organizations in Hawaii may be guaranteed funding for years, if not generations, to come.

The Hawaii State Junior Golf Association and First Tee of Hawaii, which previously merged into one united youth organization, have moved their headquarters to Ala Wai municipal golf course in the heart of Waikiki on the island of Oahu. More importantly, through a first-of-its-kind public/private partnership with the city of Honolulu, the combined junior golf groups have taken over operation of Ala Wai’s bustling range and all merchandising, with an agreement in place that allows for significant financial gain on both sides — money that was previously being left on the table.

“They were having all kinds of problems there,” said Mark Rolfing, the golf announcer known as ‘Mr. Hawaii’ who helped facilitate the agreement. “Now this is going to be a major funding source, in perpetuity as far as I’m concerned, for the organization. We’re going to very quickly change the brand of Ala Wai. It makes all the sense in the world. This will be a new start. And it’s only the beginning.”

The unique model – perhaps the first of its kind in a major city — starts with the driving range business.

At Ala Wai, once celebrated as the nation’s busiest golf course, the bustling range is a “cash cow,” Rolfing says. Significant improvements are being made ahead of the facility’s March 4 re-opening, including the arrival of about 75,000 Callaway range balls to replace an aging inventory that barely has dimples, and a re-grassing of the entire range. Also undergoing renovation are the golf shop, ball dispensing building, long and short game areas, and the practice putting green, which had been closed.

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To be clear, it isn’t juniors themselves who will be running Ala Wai, though some teenagers will surely be assisting the experienced professional staff at times. Chris Noda, who spent 20 years in golf operations at the Kapalua Resort before working as the Director of Golf at Mauna Lani, is overseeing the organization’s interests at Ala Wai. One of the first changes is branding, including a new name – the Ala Wai Golf Center — and a new logo given that the group now has merchandising rights that have never really been taken advantage of.  

The operational approach at Oahu’s six municipal golf facilities has always been different than what golfers are accustomed to elsewhere. Rather than a golf professional, the facilities are overseen by superintendents who are also responsible for the golf shop staffing. While the courses might be fairly well-maintained, there’s no real marketing efforts to speak of. At Ala Wai, which Rolfing suggests is a $8 million to $10 million a year business, the county had previously given driving range concessions to an outside company.

“They were basically giving away money,” Rolfing said.

And unlike the resort courses elsewhere on Oahu, from Ko’Olina to Turtle Bay, Ala Wai never really had its own logo. The one the course has used on occasion is the city and county’s official seal. The new one features an image of nearby Diamond Head crater, one of Hawaii’s most recognized landmarks, along with several palm trees, and will no doubt prove to be popular with locals and visitors alike. Ala Wai, a relatively flat, par 70 layout that dates back to the 1930s, boasts views of Diamond Head, the Koolau mountain range and the Waikiki skyline.

Those tourists – not to mention the 50,000 hotel rooms across the street along Waikiki Beach – present significant untapped opportunity. While visitor play at other nearby resort courses is about 70%, tourists account for around 3% of Ala Wai’s rounds. Rather than play the sporty “locals’ course” for around $55, visitors will drive 90 minutes or more and spend in the neighborhood of $200 to tee it up at Oahu’s resort courses.

“The majority of successful city golf divisions around America, they have a flagship course, which Ala Wai is here,” Rolfing said. “Granted, Torrey Pines in San Diego and Harding Park in San Francisco have (professional) events, but they’re charging $300 for visitors to play golf. That’s a big percentage of their mix and how they subsidize other courses. That doesn’t happen here at all. The visitor rate is barely more than the $30 local rate.

“The mix of play has to change, but that’s further down the line. Right now, we’re concerned with everything but the golf course.”

The broader concept is for Ala Wai to become the home of Hawaii golf, which Rolfing notes has been somewhat fractured up until now.

The state’s junior golf association and First Tee has a permanent home – and funding – for instruction, learning facilities and programs. Eventually, some of the other nine major golf associations could potentially relocate to one 150-acre property as well. The University of Hawaii, which is located nearby but never had a real connection with Ala Wai, will also call the facility home, for its golf teams and students in general.  

The new partnership is also a potential precursor to a Topgolf golf-entertainment facility adjacent to the traditional range. That would be yet another major revenue source, especially given the proximity to Waikiki. While tourism and resort properties might spring to mind for many when they think of golf in Hawaii, the state actually has one of the nation’s highest participation rates by population, according to the National Golf Foundation.

“When the HSJGA and First Tee merged two years ago, that became a logical entity to do something and the city became convinced that we were the right group to be able to pull this off for a couple reasons,” Rolfing said. “One is the commitment to the development of youth golf, but also the board of directors, which is a top-notch group of influencers and people that are totally committed to the game and to kids. But it’s pretty remarkable. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen.”

The driving range business immediately becomes a secure, long-term financial generator for the organizations. And an innovative approach to growing golf.

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