Mark Rolfing rolled up to meet me behind the 18th green at Hualalai in his golf cart, fishing pole sitting shotgun — a perfect metaphor for the life he now lives.
“It’s a yellow spotted papio,” Rolfing said, proudly showing me a picture on his phone of his catch of the day. “I was looking at hole locations in my cart and just happened to have a fishing rod with me. I’m telling everyone with the Golf Channel it jumped into my cart though.”
If you watched the broadcast of the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai — or any televised golf over the past 25 years for that matter — it is likely you have seen Rolfing’s work. The veteran on-course and tower analyst for NBC and Golf Channel has called the islands home for more than three decades and has embraced not only the great golf the islands offer but also the lifestyle that comes with it.
“I fell in love with Hawaii when I played in the Hawaiian Open the first time,” Rolfing said. “I was the typical guy. I heard the ukulele sounds, listened to Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Hawaii’ and always had this vision of swaying palm trees going in my head. When I got here, it was exactly what I had imagined.”
After failing to earn his PGA tour card and competing on golf tours from Europe to Asia, Rolfing settled down at Kapalua Resort on Maui, working his way up to being director of marketing and recreation for the resort.
“I had a pretty good college career, turned pro and just didn’t really have it. It was hard to come to that realization that I wasn’t good enough,” Rolfing said. “Typical you have to go into television immediately as a player or they forget about you. This was before the days of guys like David Feherty and Gary McCord. I disappeared for eight years, then resurfaced playing in a postseason event we had started over on Maui.”
At the event, Rolfing had convinced a sponsor to put up a car on the 17th hole, an innovative idea at the time. As fate had it, he won that car with a solid 6-iron shot. Legendary announcers Vin Scully and Lee Trevino were in the booth and brought Rolfing up to talk about the shot.
“Trevino thinks I fixed the whole thing up, and we are talking when suddenly a ruling happens on the course,” Rolfing said. “I don’t think Trevino had ever been out on the course. The hole we were talking about had a lateral hazard and he was saying Peter Jacobsen was going to have to drop in a bad area by the hazard. I corrected him, telling him he can drop in the fairway on the other side of the hazard.”
Rolfing hung out in the booth the rest of the weekend and impressed producers with his knowledge of the game. Weeks later he signed on with ESPN as an analyst.
Rolfing has had a wildly successful career since, being named by Golf World as one of the top television announcers in the sport and inducted into the Hawaii Golf Hall of Fame.
In addition to a broadcast career, in 1985 he founded Rolfing Sports, which has produced a variety of major events from golf to college basketball.
Rolfing also found a way to show off his island home on the extremely successful show “Golf Hawaii,” which he hosted for 14 seasons. He entertained guests such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan while showcasing the great courses of the islands.
“What happened to me ending up where I did would not have happened if I was in LA or any of the larger markets,” Rolfing said. “Hawaii is so much part of me now. Here, I stood out in a small place. When Arnold Palmer, President Ford or Mark McCormic came here, I got to play with them. The only way I was going to survive and thrive was to be engaging. I could not fall back on my playing record.”
Rolfing was an important cog in brining big-time PGA events to Hawaii, which show off Hawaii’s picturesque courses and pristine conditions to a national audience. The winners-only Champions event held at Hualalai this weekend had one of the best fields in recent memory, something Rolfing had advocated for.
However, it is not all rainbows and butterflies as shown on television. Rolfing is worried about the health of the sport in the islands.
“I’m concerned,” Rolfing said. “There are three big problems — it cost too much, takes too long, and the game is too hard. Until we figure out how to solve those three problems we are not going to grow the game. We have the same people playing over and over, and even they are not playing as much because it takes too long. We keep trying to do all these things as an industry to promote golf, but the fact is we have to solve those three basic problems.”
Rolfing is right. For casual golfers on vacation, getting in a round is rarely at the top of their to-do list simply because there are an assortment of other activities that are free and more accessible.
“We have got to remember that the opportunities in front of the visitors on this island are endless,” Rolfing said. “Golf, which has become so time-consuming and so expensive, is competing with all of them. People only have so much time.”
It is the dreaded Catch-22 that comes with living in paradise — too many beautiful things to see and do that there is not enough time to play 18 holes under the tropical sunshine.
A possible solution Rolfing proposed is having the courses cater more to the busy schedules of the guests.
“If someone wants to play nine holes they should not have to wait until late in the afternoon because they are going to luau at 5 p.m. If people want to play nine holes at 7 a.m. and be back with their family at 10 a.m. we should find a way to do that,” Rolfing said. “I liken it to going to a sushi restaurant and they tell you that you can buy 18 pieces of sushi, but that’s it. You may not want 18. So then, they tell you that you can have a nine-piece platter, but you can only get it at midnight after everyone else has left.”
There have been some discussion of how to improve the experience and stimulate the golf economy in Hawaii. However, little has actually been done to tackle the growing problem. Rolfing is optimistic though.
“I’m starting to get a sense we are almost there,” Rolfing said. “I feel very strongly that it is time for everyone to look in the mirror and ask themselves how are we going to solve this. People are not bringing golf clubs to Hawaii and they are not looking at it like they should come here to play golf. We are making it hard for them to want to do that. We have to make it easy.”