OKATIE — The owner pointed to a piece of land sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and saltwater marshes and told the architect to construct a golf course worthy of staging a major championship.
Pete Dye, the architect, might have swallowed hard at the challenge. He had three years to convert the snake-filled lowlands into a layout that would challenge the world’s finest golfers in the 1991 Ryder Cup matches.
Dye produced in a big way. Although hampered by Hurricane Hugo and a myriad of other obstacles, he had the Ocean Course prepared for the Ryder Cup, and the layout lived up to expectations in terms of difficulty in the so-called War by the Shore.
A generation later, the course on Kiawah Island has increased in stature with maturity.
The South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel, agrees, selecting the Ocean Course the state’s best in 2012 and following up this year by voting the crown jewel of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort No. 1 in its biennial “Best You Can Play” rankings.
The panel is composed of 125 golf enthusiasts who represent a diverse range of occupations, handicaps, and backgrounds. The group’s objective is to promote excellence in the state’s golf course design and operation through competitive ranking, education and public advocacy.
The “Best 50” courses, public or private, are chosen in even-numbered years and the “Best You Can Play” are announced in odd-numbered years. Criteria used in judging include, routing, variety, strategy, equity, memorability, aesthetics and the golfer’s experience.
The panel announced its 2013 “Best You Can Play” at its annual spring meeting Saturday night at the Callawassie Island Club and presented the Mike Strantz Memorial Award, symbolic of the state’s best public course, to The Ocean Course.
Other than the No. 1 course, the list of 30 is alphabetical with no numerical ranking.
“There are so many outstanding courses that you’re really splitting hairs in the voting,” Michael Whitaker, the panel’s executive director, said in discussing the rankings. “When you think about the number of really good golf courses in this state and reduce that number to 30, it’s a daunting task.
“Some of the older courses have stood the test of time, some have improved with some relative small tweaks and others that have undergone renovation or restoration to their original design features have increased in quality.”
Regional honors went to The Ocean Course (Lowcountry area), Caledonia Golf & Fish Club at Pawleys Island (Grand Strand), Mount Vintage Plantation and Golf Club at North Augusta (Midlands) and the Walker Course at Clemson University (Upstate).
Twenty-five of the 30 courses honored Saturday are located in the tourist meccas along the Atlantic Ocean with 14 on the Grand Strand between Little River at the North Carolina state line and Pawleys Island.
That’s no surprise, Whitaker said.
“Given how golf has become such an important and vital part of the state’s tourist industry, the coastal areas naturally have developed high quality courses for public play,” he said. “The thing is, there are many more outstanding courses throughout the state besides the ones chosen on this list. You can plan any number of courses in the state and leave with a ‘wow’ impression.
“Remember, these are courses the public can play. Add the many wonderful private courses in the state and you see how fortunate golfers are in South Carolina. The opportunities to play great courses are plentiful.”
The Ocean Course and Sea Pines’ Resort’s Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island topped the 2012 “Best Courses” list and are probably the state’s most familiar, thanks to professional golf. The PGA Tour makes its only South Carolina stop each April at Harbour Town for the RBC Heritage Classic, and the Ocean Course followed the 1991 Ryder Cup by playing host to the 2012 PGA Championship, the first men’s major to be played in the state.
The Grand Strand courses honored ranged from Tidewater Golf Club on the north at Little River to the cluster at Pawleys Island on the south. The Charleston area has seven courses on the list, including three at Kiawah Island Golf Resort and two at Seabrook Island Club. Both Kiawah and Barefoot Resort in North Myrtle Beach placed three courses among the top 30.
Cobblestone Park Golf Club in Blythewood, a newcomer to the list, joins Mount Vintage and the Country Club of South Carolina in Florence in representing the Midlands. The Walker Course and the Furman University Golf Club in Greenville are Upstate courses honored.
Information on previous rankings can be found at www.scgolfpanel.org.