18 Classic Courses in S.C.

Ocean Course: A beauty and a beast

The Ocean Course at Kiawah has breathtaking views - when it’s not taking your breath away with the challenges it presents

bspear@thestate.comAugust 7, 2011 

— To be labeled with “potential” is, as Dickens would write, the best of times and the worst of times.

Deliver to expectations produces the obvious reaction. Of course he did; he had such great “potential.”

Fall short and the critics howl and talk about what might have been. Too bad; he had such great “potential.”

Imagine, then, the challenge that faced architect Pete Dye in August 1988. The owner pointed to a piece of land sandwiched between the Atlantic and saltwater marshes, and said he wanted a golf course. The designer loved the property and its great “potential.”

Oh, and by the way, the owner added, the Ryder Cup will be played on that course … in three years. Think about that — the Ryder Cup in three years on a golf course still in the architect’s mind.

Nevertheless, Dye accepted the task, overcame a visit from Hurricane Hugo and delivered to potential — and perhaps beyond — on schedule. The Ocean Course made its debut on the world stage, and one of the most memorable Ryder Cup competitions assured its legacy.

The golf world will drop in for another visit next year for the PGA Championship. The tournament comes with a couple of guarantees: the wind will blow and the Ocean Course will win again.

With help from Mother Nature

Golf Magazine’s biennial rankings of courses in the world hit the mailbox the other day, and the Ocean Course occupied its usual prominent place. The first South Carolina layout on the list, the Ocean Course came in 27th nationally and 45th worldwide.

Given the challenges golfers faced in the 1991 Ryder Cup, the Ocean Course’s reputation for difficulty needs no embellishment. One publication ranks it the toughest test in the U.S.

But one of the beauties is the multiple tees make the course playable and enjoyable for golfers of all abilities — if they check their egos with the starter and play the yardage suitable to their skills.

The PGA Championship will be set up in the 7,600-yard range, a distance worthy of the world’s best players. Other tees range from 5,327 yards to 7,356.

“(Resort golfers) come in here excited and want the challenge of the difficulty,” said Dick Orman, a shop attendant who has been at the course since the beginning. “They get their fill for the most part.”

The pros will, too.

“Over the years, Pete has refined the course,” Roger Warren, president of Kiawah Island Golf Resort, said, “but the skeleton and heart are still there.”

Dye and Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s managing director of tournaments who sets up the organization’s championship courses, have made some subtle changes, mostly to facilitate gallery movement. Notable changes are grassed-in areas and firmer bunkers to prevent plugged lies, and longer tees on the par-3 14th and par-4 18th. A shorter tee on the 12th provides the option for a drivable par-4.

“Mother Nature has made some changes, too,” Orman said, noting the wind continually reshapes dunes and can play havoc with sand.

The wind increases the challenge. Generally, golfers will play nine holes into the wind and nine with the wind. If a weather front comes through, mid-round adjustments will be required.

“I have been involved with the Ocean Course for 20 years, since before the Ryder Cup, and I have watched its growth and maturity,” Haigh said. “The grasses have changed quite a lot, but the routing is the same and always the biggest factor is the wind, both the strength and direction.

“What we will face next year is setting up the course for all-day play (in the PGA Championship) compared to four matches at a time (in the Ryder Cup). We will work with the weather team in setting up the course, but on the ocean, there’s always a chance the wind can turn 180 degrees during the day.”

The wind turned in the Ryder Cup, presenting a different course from what players had faced in practice. The golfers struggled and the Ocean Course’s reputation grew.

A fan friendly venue

The par-3 17th hole, playing in the 195-yard range, became the focal point of the Ryder Cup and almost certainly will be for the PGA. The area surrounding the hole has become spectator friendly and Warren expects up to 10,000 fans to congregate there each day.

“We believe the hole will be a place-to-be, like the 16th at Phoenix, or 17th at Sawgrass,” said Brett Sterba, championship director of the 2012 PGA.

From an elevated tee, No. 17 plays across a lake to a narrow green. Divers once recovered 42,000 balls from the lake, a believable number considering the difficulty the pros experienced on the hole in both the Ryder Cup and 2007 Senior PGA.

Dye believes the hole presents an optical illusion from the tee, making club selection more difficult.

“LeRoy Neiman would want to paint (the scene),” Orman said.

But the Ocean Course is more than the 17th. The balance, Dye said, “makes the golf course.”

“(Golfers) have to shape the ball both ways,” Warren said. “You can’t get in a groove by just hitting a draw or a fade on every hole. You have to work the ball, and the course give you options.”

Haigh liked the “exciting green complex” on No. 11, which has been altered over the years and now has a large swale 6-8 feet below the putting surface. “That creates choices of how to play the shot and also increases the challenge,” he said.

The sand base is a plus that architects seldom have the opportunity to work with, Dye said, noting the ball reacts differently and greens can be firmed up without using artificial methods.

“One thing different is the paspalum grass on the greens,” Warren said. “It doesn’t have any grain and it’s more difficult to read.”

And there is the ambience on every hole. Thanks to his wife’s suggestion, Dye raised all the fairways to provide ocean views — which created picture-perfect scenes and, as an unintended byproduct, increased the course’s challenge by bringing the wind even more into play.

“I have always said that you have three backgrounds — the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean — that can make a golf course great,” Dye said, “and at the Ocean course we have one of those three. You have those views everywhere, not just one a few holes.”

The PGA’s stroke play format will be different compared to the match play of the Ryder Cup, and that likely will mean less heroic shots. But if the wind blows — and the wind always blows at Kiawah — the layout will live up to its potential and the Ocean Course will handle the challenge well.

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