Cavendish: Hawaii’s Free-to-Play Golf Course

By Erik Matuszewski


(Photo by Erik Matuszewski)


At the end of a non-descript road in Lanai City, there’s a golf course unlike any other in the heaven-on-earth that is the Hawaiian Islands.

The tee boxes and fairways are a bit shaggy. Drainage can be a problem. Worm casings cover many of the greens, and deer hoofprints crisscross some bunkers. The only golf carts you’ll see are owned by locals. There are no ocean views, palm trees, or tee times, for that matter.

There’s also no green fees.

You read that right. The nine-hole Cavendish Golf Course is free to play—one of a select few in the U.S.—and one of the purest experiences you’ll have in golf.

The layout was built in 1947 by Edwin Cavendish to give Dole pineapple plantation workers something to do during their free time.

The course remains the pride of the local Lanai community, some of whom have had a vital role in its care and conditioning over the years. A group of locals is still responsible for cutting new hole positions every Saturday, but the course today is primarily kept up by a management company, Pulama, that billionaire Larry Ellison set up to oversee the island’s transformation. Ellison, the founder of Oracle, owns about 98% of Lanai, having purchased the 140-square-mile island in 2012 for $300 million.

Cavendish is delightfully rough-around-the-edges, weaving through tall Cook Pines in the middle of Lanai, where Lanai City is home to most of the island’s 3,200 residents.

(Photo by Erik Matuszewski)


When the local taxi dropped me off, only one other vehicle was in the parking lot—an old van with a similarly aging golf cart in tow. A dog sat patiently alongside the van, waiting for his owner and the start of their round. There’s no pro shop, per se, just an aging wooden clubhouse with faded paint that’s partially open on one side. Long metal tables and benches take up most of the interior, while newspaper clippings and plaques touting local achievements hang on the walls.

Golfers who visited Lanai in the past may have been blissfully unaware of Cavendish’s presence. It sits adjacent to a former Greg Norman design called the Experience at Koele, a course that was affiliated with the Four Seasons Lanai and is now closed. To get to the second tee box at Cavendish, you’ll first cross the sixth fairway. From there, a number of overgrown holes from the Koele course come into view across an access road directly behind the second tee.

Eighteen stone tee markers from Koele, some of them cracked, line the parking lot at Cavendish as tribute of sorts. The property’s former lodge is now home to a wellness retreat affiliated with the Four Seasons.

When I played Cavendish on a Saturday afternoon with three fellow golf writers, a number of locals hopped from hole-to-hole outside the set routing. By the fifth hole, an uphill par five that follows four straight par fours to start, we let a twosome play through. One of the men we’d seen in the parking lot earlier; he wore a t-shirt and jeans, while his dog, an enthusiastic young boxer named Diesel, ran alongside his weathered cart. His playing partner had a modern golf cart with a Hawaii license plate on it for road use, and clearly had driven to the course.

(Photo by Erik Matuszewski)


Nearby homes sit just across the street from the 8th green and 9th tee box, some of them less than a wedge shot away.

With five par fours, two par threes, and two par fives, Cavendish is about 3,000 yards in length. It also has two sets of tee boxes on each hole: blue tee markers for the front nine and the whites for the second nine. Several of the holes have raised greens, while the bunkers have a similar look and feel throughout: all slightly raised, with scruffy grass around the edges. The layout finishes with two challenging par-three holes among its final three, including the uphill 9th to a green just in front of the clubhouse.

I found myself smiling throughout our late-afternoon walk, reveling in the experience and the surroundings. We caught up with the two locals again in the parking lot after putting out on the 9th hole and they were excited to hear our thoughts about their hidden gem.

At the start of the round a part of me worried we were intruding on the locals’ layout, but that wasn’t the case at all. Another older local showed up as we were leaving and, before he teed off in flip flops, or “slippahs,” he too asked about our experience. Cavendish is a source of shared pride, and rightfully so. There truly isn’t another course like it in the world.

(Photo by Erik Matuszewski)