Teeing up Tech: The Ala Wai Driving Range is Due for an Upgrade

A public-private partnership aims to remake the old-school Ala Wai golf driving range into a slick sports/entertainment complex. Some neighbors are skeptical.
Future Ala Wai Driving Range
Topgolf rendering of Ala Wai driving range proposal. 
Rendering: Courtesy of TopGolf


Honolulu city officials have teed up a proposal to more than double the size of the Ala Wai driving range while adding many bells and whistles through a $50 million investment in a golf-meets-entertainment complex designed to attract both seasoned golfers and first-timers.


The city announced its selection of Topgolf Hawai‘i for the project in May after soliciting competitive proposals. The new entity is a partnership between Topgolf USA Inc. and local partners The MacNaughton Group and Kobayashi Group, which would develop and run the operation as part of a 20-year lease with the City and County of Honolulu, with options to renew up to 40 years.


The plan calls for a four-story structure no taller than the nearby Ala Wai Golf Course clubhouse, according to city Enterprise Services Director Guy Kaulukukui. He says the proposal would quadruple the revenue the city gets from the current driving range.


Kaulukukui notes that the number of people golfing at the Ala Wai course has been steadily declining over the past 30 years. He traces the drop to several factors: Golf can be expensive, time consuming (four to six hours to play 18 holes) and difficult to master. “It’s an intimidating sport,” says Kaulukukui, who golfs.


The initial proposal includes 100 hitting bays, net poles at least 170 feet tall, restaurant space, meeting rooms, event spaces, indoor and outdoor keiki play areas, and a rooftop lānai Kaulukukui says will all lie within the existing 7.2 acres the range now occupies. The current range consists of 42 hitting stalls.


Dallas-based Topgolf operates 41 facilities: 38 in the U.S. and three in the United Kingdom. The operation here would likely also feature lounge-style seating areas where players gather to hit microchip-implanted balls, aiming for colorful targets, with technology that allows players to track their speed and accuracy. Topgolf ranges charge from $25 per hour before noon to $45 an hour after 5 p.m.


Neighborhood board member Michelle Matson says the commercial project doesn’t belong on land zoned for preservation, set aside in state law “for the purposes of operating a municipal golf course.”


Topgolf complexes include bars and restaurants, game centers and musical entertainment. While a traditional driving range can be considered an accessory use to the golf course, Matson says, “a Trumpesque entertainment center is not.”


But MacNaughton chief operating officer Emily Reber Porter says the group plans to make the new facility fit with the surroundings and neighborhood. “We’re really thinking of it as a community amenity for residents,” she says.


The increased revenue may help subsidize dropping revenue from fewer people playing golf. In 1983, the National Golf Foundation described the Ala Wai Golf Course as the most heavily played 18-hole regulation facility in the world with a reported 220,000 rounds annually. By 1986, the city recorded 197,549 rounds annually; that number dropped by about 3 percent each year, to 176,000 rounds annually in 2000. It’s hovered near 130,000 per year for the past five years, Kaulukukui says.


Topgolf will pay $1.02 million plus 1 percent of sales annually. Matson remains wary. “It’s like a gambling casino without the gambling,” she says. “This is not Hawai‘i.”


Reber Porter says the project developers will seek input from the community before taking the proposals to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources and the City Council.  If approved, she expects construction to begin in 2021.