Hawaii’s Busiest Golf Course, Junior Golf and an Unprecedented Multimillion-Dollar Partnership


Talk about the growth of the game. In fact, it’s much more than talking about it. Through an unprecedented partnership in golf, youth golf organizations in Hawaii can be assured of funding for years, if not generations, to come.

The Hawaii State Junior Golf Association and First Tee of Hawaii, which had previously merged into one united youth organization, moved their headquarters to the Ala Wai Municipal Golf Course in the heart of Waikiki on the island of Oahu. Most importantly, through a first-of-its-kind public/private partnership with the City of Honolulu, Combined Junior Golf Groups have taken over operation of Ala Wai’s bustling lineup and all merchandising, with an agreement in place that allows significant financial investment gain on both sides – money that was previously left on the table.

“They had all kinds of problems there,” said Mark Rolfing, the golf announcer known as ‘Mr. Hawaii’ who helped facilitate the deal. “Now it’s going to be a major fundraiser, in perpetuity as far as I’m concerned, for the organization. We’re going to rebrand Ala Wai very quickly. It makes all the sense in the world. It’s going to be a fresh start. . And that’s just the beginning.

The unique model – perhaps the first of its kind in a major city – begins with the driving range area.

At Ala Wai, once celebrated as the busiest golf course in the country, the bustling course is a “cash cow”, says Rolfing. Significant improvements are being made ahead of the facility’s reopening on March 4, including the arrival of approximately 75,000 Callaway range balls to replace aging inventory that barely has any dimples, and a re-grassing of the entire range. The golf shop, ball distribution building, long and short game areas and the practice green, which had been closed, are also being renovated.

To be clear, it is not the juniors themselves who will be running Ala Wai, although some teenagers will surely assist the experienced professional staff at times. Chris Noda, who spent 20 years in golf operations at Kapalua Resort before working as director of golf at Mauna Lani, oversees the organization’s interests at Ala Wai. One of the first changes concerns branding, including a new name – Ala Wai Golf Center – and a new logo as the group now has merchandising rights that have never really been exploited.

The operational approach of Oahu’s six municipal golf facilities has always been different from what golfers are used to elsewhere. Rather than a golf professional, the facilities are overseen by superintendents who are also responsible for staffing the golf shop. Although the courses are fairly well maintained, there aren’t really any marketing efforts to speak of. At Ala Wai, which Rolfing says is an $8 million to $10 million a year business, the county previously granted driving range concessions to an outside company.

“They were basically giving money,” Rolfing said.

And unlike 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 official seal of the city and county. 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 be popular with locals and visitors alike. Ala Wai, a relatively flat par-70 course dating back to the 1930s, offers views of Diamond Head, the Koolau Mountain Range and the Waikiki skyline.

These tourists — not to mention the 50,000 hotel rooms across the street along Waikiki Beach — present significant untapped opportunities. While visitors play at other nearby resort courses make up about 70%, tourists make up about 3% of Ala Wai’s games. Rather than playing the sporty “locals course” for around $55, visitors will drive 90 minutes or more and spend around $200 to practice on Oahu’s resort courses.

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

“The game mix needs to change, but that’s further down the line. Right now we are concerned with everything except the golf course.

The larger concept is for Ala Wai to become the birthplace of Hawaiian golf, which Rolfing says has been somewhat fractured thus far.

The state junior golf association and First Tee have permanent headquarters—and funding—for instruction, learning facilities, and programs. Eventually, some of the other nine major golf associations may also move to a 150-acre property. The University of Hawaii, located nearby but which has never had a real connection with Ala Wai, will also host the establishment, 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 shooting range. This would be yet another major source of income, especially given the proximity to Waikiki. Although tourism and resort properties may come to mind for many when they think of golf in Hawaii, the state actually has one of the highest participation rates in the country by population, according to the National Golf Foundation.

“When the HSJGA and First Tee merged two years ago, it became a logical entity to do something about and the city was convinced that we were the right group to be able to do this for a number of 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 totally dedicated to the game and the kids. But it is quite remarkable. I wasn’t sure that was going to happen. »

The driving range activity immediately becomes a secure and long-term financial generator for organizations. And an innovative approach to developing golf.


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