Talking Hawaii golf with Dave Mills

Despite some course closures in the last decade, Hawaii still offers plenty of tee times and ocean vistas for golf enthusiasts.
Despite some course closures in the last decade, Hawaii still offers plenty of tee times and ocean vistas for golf enthusiasts.
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Dave Mills has steeped himself in Hawaii golf vacations for two decades, and during that time he has learned a great deal about hitting the links in the Aloha State. But it took a devastating natural disaster to turn Mills attention away from the mainland to the islands.

Mills, who once hosted a golf-focused radio show in Los Angeles and has written for Golf Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Golf, and Fairways & Greens Magazine, started the Golfer's Guide to Southern California in 1992, which included course reviews and other golf-related content. When Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai that year, Mills visited the island with his girlfriend at the time, who was from the Garden Isle. He spent weeks on island and decided to write an extensive three-part guide to Kauai's picturesque golf courses, which were empty after the tropical storm..

The Kauai guide was a success, and Mills saw opportunity in Hawaii. He changed his publication's title to Golfer's Guide to So. California and Hawaii and developed golf discount programs on Kauai, Maui, Oahu and Island of Hawaii. In 1995 he launched the Golfer's Guide Powercard, which granted holders discounts on Hawaii golf vacations. In 1998, Mills moved on from Southern California and focused the publication entirely on Hawaii, and then launched and Hawaii Golf Vacation Service for package golf vacations.

With more than 20 years experience exploring the islands' courses and working with the industry, Mills is intimately familiar with the state of golf in Hawaii, including where to find the best deals and the shifts in the sports landscape over the years. Mills arrived in the '90s, a period when he says Hawaii was building golf courses "willy nilly."

"They had this attitude that if they build it, the people will come. But they didn't come. Costco or some other business would never build a new store in an area that can't support it demographically or wasn't growing to meet that mark."

Numerous courses have closed in the last 10 years, he said, and the building boom has ceased. Hawaii's golf industry in general could benefit from a more coordinated effort at marketing, Mills argues.

"There isn't much unified marketing with courses, and if they worked together they could have done much better," he said. "It's sort of every man for themselves in Hawaii golf courses. There is no association representing them here in the state, but there are multiple hotel associations. Golf has nothing in terms of lobbying and advocacy here in the state."

Hawaii Golf Deals specializes in the "avid golfer," Mills said, the person who is going to golf at least a few times during the trip and see golf as a main attraction of their vacation.

"We get people who are playing serious amounts of golf," he said. "The majority are golfing couples on long-duration visits. We know from the data we collect that golfers, when compared to other types of travelers, have some of the longest stays. We rarely get someone fewer than seven nights, and our average stay is over nine nights."

While the avid golfer can be a great visitor to court based on their average stay and spend, Mills acknowledged that the market is trending older, and the groups he sees have gotten smaller.

"We don't see young groups very much, and golf is skewing older," Mill said. "In the early 2000s there was a boost in the numbers of young people, but golf has seen a downturn worldwide. That's why you see courses getting creative and offering disc golf and doing other things to get people on the turf."

Mills added that rising costs of accommodations and additional fees has contributed to a drop in the number of large golf groups he sees. Despite the slowdown and closing of some courses in Hawaii, tee times are still fairly easy to get and there is a wide variety of courses available on the four most visited islands.

"A lot people don't realize that most golfers are over 15 handicap and really any of these courses offers plenty of challenge," Mills said. "The resort courses tend to be the main draws, Mauna Kea, Hapuna, Makani and Waikoloa Village on the Big Island. I write about the courses accurately and work to give a sense of what it's like to play. I don't sugar coat anything, but I've never been on a course I couldn't take something positive away from."

Mills said he finds that it is not always about sending his clients to the most well-known or amenity-laden course, but balancing experience and cost.

"In a lot of cases price can dictate expectations," he said. "It's $289 to play Kapalua's Plantation Course and when you get done, you may think that was one expensive round of golf. And if you go somewhere that is $85 to play, maybe the overall experience with the value is better. That all comes into play with the avid golfer."

While his clients will go to the beach or do some other activities, they are not as interested in the typical tropical getaway experiences as other travelers, Mills said, although he has always known golfers to be interested in great food and wine experiences.

"My other advice for first-time Hawaii golf visitors is don't worry about the weather. Don't pack too many clothes -- you only need a nice aloha shirt for dinner at night," Mills said. "And, after 9/11 and the increased flight security we found it doesn't pay to island-hop as much because it's too time-consuming and we've found you can't golf on the day you travel."

Additionally, it is not just economy travelers who are eagerly anticipating Southwest's planned entry into the Hawaii market. Mills said the airline's first-bag-free policy could be a boon for golfers who prefer to bring their own clubs.

The Golf Hawaii Card is $49.95 for Island of Hawaii, $35.95 for Oahu and $66.95 for Oahu and Island of Hawaii combined. The card includes the negotiated discounts with participating courses, with unlimited golf at all of the locations, special tee-time reservation access and other added values. Through Hawaii Golf Vacation Service they also offer golf vacation packages with accommodations, car rentals and other provisions. Hawaii Golf Deals also produced Insider Golf Guides for Kauai and Maui and offers golf vacations and specials on those islands as well.

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