It’s Great To Be Back At Pali

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - May 13, 2009
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Sidney Quintal, director of the city’s Department of Enterprise Service, which oversees muni golf courses, sinks a putt on the ninth green

It happened about 16 months ago. After finishing a round at the Pali Golf Course with three of Honolulu’s finest, I vowed to never play the course again. Fifteen dollars was just too much to spend on a course with hard, barren greens, empty bunkers and fairways littered with leaves and gutted from runoff.

It wasn’t a happy decision. The Pali was never grand, but it was fun, playable and, most importantly, cheap. More challenging and easier to get on than Ala Wai, Pali was often the location of midweek rounds with the usual cast of friends. Scattered among the weeds, trees and magnificent views were shots great and otherwise, and always under the watchful eyes and smart tongues of the finest trash-talkers the game has ever produced. After years of embarrassing neglect, it became too much - especially after hitting the fair-way on No. 9 just to lose the ball under a blanket of leaves that not only hid Titleists but choked the grass beneath.

The sad part of this tale is that it never should have happened. Unlike most city and county-provided recreational activities, Pali and the other municipal courses have the ability to generate income. This fact was forgotten - or ignored - in the quest to shave money off the budget. The result of the cuts were fewer rounds played and less money generated.

Less money meant even worse conditions and the further loss of players, which included a fair number of visitors playing at a higher rate. This downward funding spiral continued until the course became the embarrassment that it was when this personal pledge was made.

Although those in charge don’t like to talk about golf courses being revenue sources, preferring to clump them together with parks and other free county amenities, municipal courses must be treated like a business. Customers arrive with certain expectations, and if they are not met, those holding the cash will find other uses for their income.

Finally, after years of neglect, things are looking up. On June 23, 2008, the unthinkable happened. The City Council approved funding for a $460,000 project to replace the greens. Out went the old weed-infested Bermuda and in its place a Seashore paspalum that is not only a surface more appropriate for the conditions, but one that’s unfriendly to other forms of grass. In addition to new putting surfaces, work also has been done on tee boxes, fairways and much of the gnarled plant life that grabbed club heads, hid balls and made some holes virtually unplayable. The changes are dramatic.

The greens, finally green, may be in the best condition ever. The worst putting surface on the course is No. 1, and it has nothing to do with neglect. A hydraulic leak on a mower resulted in some small bare spots that resemble incorrectly cared for divots. Beyond that it was a surprising round of 18 upon my return.

The valley on the left of the par-3 fourth hole has been cleaned out, which means an easy second shot should you pull-hook your first. The par-5 fifth, which used to feature a hundred yards of hard, barren dirt along its embankment, now provides grass to walk on. The long par-4 sixth has been resodded in the gully that was either baked brown or muddy from runoff. No. 9, the very hole that caused all the hard feelings, is clean and playable. And No. 14, the par-4 that looked like it was squeezed in to prevent Pali from becoming the world’s only 17-hole golf course, has been cleared of underbrush and now provides an adequate landing area. The removal of long grasses, stumps, trees and weeds does more than improve the view. Removing the impediments allows for better air flow, which helps with drying and the prevention of diseases.

Work on the Pali is not complete. The greens are still young and remain bumpy. Vertical mowing, top dressing with silica sand, which has just begun, and maturity will smooth out the surface and increase the speed. The fairways, while improved, still play very tight, but it doesn’t take long to adjust. The tee boxes are better after being treated with fertilizer made from recycled sludge from the city’s waste-water plant, but remain and uneven. The next phase of the operation is to rebuild the tees.

The biggest challenge yet facing Pali is maintaining the financial commitment. The course is grossly under-staffed, and the current hiring freeze means help is a ways off. Staff members are tasked with multiple jobs, but for the first time in years leadership is in place and the course is no longer the rudderless ship it had been.

Even in the worst of times the course attracted a steady flow of customers, but the post-rebuild numbers speak for the renewed interest. From March 16, when the full course was reopened, until April 26, when this review round was played, 12,406 people have teed it up on the course. This was an increase from 8,832 over the same time frame in 2008, and 6,702 for 2007.

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