Venerable Moanalua Golf Club retains its charm

In a time when it seems like things change dramatically in a matter of hours, minutes and seconds, it is somewhat soothing to think about Moanalua Golf Club, where little has changed since it opened in 1898.

That was the year Hawaii was annexed by the United States as a territory and a bit more than a decade after golf was introduced to America.

Samuel Mills Damon built an 18-hole course in the valley of his 9,000-acre property, willed to him in 1884 by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop — the wife of his banking business partner, Charles Bishop.

In 1901, the course was shortened to its current nine holes and 3,000 yards. Damon felt the shorter course was “sufficient for a warm climate such as we have here.”

Hawaii Golf Hall of Famer Ron Castillo’s kids all have or had careers in golf. He learned the game at Moanalua from his father, who became a member after World War II.

“He was a golf nut,” recalls Castillo, 83. “He’d play golf, then play poker in the clubhouse and I’d have to entertain myself. I only had one club I could use because it was short enough. It was called a ‘jigger’ — a pitching iron. I played until he was done and he’d call me to go home.”

His father eventually bought him a $100 membership at the “blue collar club.” His $10 monthly fees helped build the clubhouse.

Castillo talks about Damon’s house being the only one in the valley and the estate going “from the Koolaus to the ocean.” The third hole was Hawaii’s first polo field, and an air field where a plaque memorialized the time Amelia Earhart landed her plane on it.

“Amelia Earhart landed there and greeted the children,” Castillo says. “My mom told me that. She was one of the kids.”

Moanalua was the end of the line for the trolley. Castillo says it stopped about a half mile from Tripler Army Medical Center and you “walked from there. It was only like half a valley, but Tripler was at the top of the hill and Moanalua at the bottom.

“It was considered country because it was the end of town.”

Fred Zane’s dad managed — and did pretty much everything else — at Moanalua from 1946-56. When Fred was little he sold sodas on the scenic eighth tee. Before the highway was built, he remembers a historical sign on the road honoring Moanalua as the “Oldest Golf Course West of the Rockies.”

He and Castillo also remember lots of good golfers and “good vibes.” The course was open to everyone for free its first three years, then became semi-private, but remained reasonable. It is still open to the public on weekdays.

Guys like Clyde Sniffen and Walter Kawakami were caddies there before becoming professionals. Castillo and Zane remember early Hall of Famers like Francis I’i Brown, Guinea Kop, Jackie Pung, Jimmy Ukauka, Bill Gee and Jackie Yates Holt playing there. And, of course, Joan Damon, who married into the family.

Bev Kim, a younger Hall of Famer who turns 74 next week, took her first lesson at Moanalua in 1959 — and freaked out.

“This guy Kammy Lau was the pro there and he made me cry,” Kim recalls with a laugh. “The lesson was down at the third hole at a flat area with kiawe trees all over. You hit toward the hill and No. 4. I’d hit like 50 balls, then have to run up and get the balls and do it all over again.”

She would move on to taking lessons from Guinea Kop, along with Joan Damon, and ultimately grew to love the party that was the Moanalua Women’s Invitational.

That started in 1948 and she played her first when she was 14, and almost every one until Mahina (Ah Yuen) Anguay — Waimea High School’s Principal — won the last in 1998. Yates Holt, the 1955 Women’s Intercollegiate champion, won the 1952 Moanalua Invitational, then won it again after returning home 30 years later.

She probably felt the same as Kim.

“To me, the only reasons I kept going back was there were some really fun ladies there, and guys too,” Kim says. “It’s what golf was supposed to be like.”

Surprisingly, what she likes best about the course is its frightening final hole surrounded by hazards — “because of the stories I hear about it.”

Castillo still plays at Moanalua, as often as possible, and what he likes best sounds similar.

“When you look at a golf course, you look for playability, but at that golf course there is just a lot of memorability,” he says. “A lot of places to get in trouble. It’s just not an open field to go play golf in. It’s an old-style golf course — too short for the modern golfer, but not for us.”

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