The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island
South Carolina, United States of America

The allure of playing golf through coastal dunes on a barrier island requires no explanation.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is an incomparable playground, appreciated by golfers worldwide that cherish the elusive balance between challenge and the enrichment that comes from being cocooned in nature. Located along the Atlantic Ocean on the south eastern tip of a west-east running 10,000 acre sand barrier, the course always seemed destined for greatness. After all, how many courses around the world does the golfer enjoy the sound of the pounding surf on every hole? Yet, a great site doesn’t automatically yield a great course, especially with the added pressure that the course was to host the 1991 Ryder Cup a scant few months after opening!

Such pressure wasn’t new to Pete Dye. Already halfway into his incomparable six decade career in 1989, he had become accustomed to the spotlight with groundbreaking designs at Harbour Town in the early 1970s and TPC Sawgrass in the early 1980s. Regardless of the tight time schedule and even after the devastation wrecked by Hurricane Hugo, Pete and Alice Dye jumped at the chance to work on this tongue of property.  The east coast of North America had not seen such a site devoted solely to golf since Cape Breton Highlands in 1939.

Dye’s design associate Brain Curley picks up the narrative: ‘Landmark Land had purchased the property in the late 1980s. At the time, PGA West was under contract with the PGA of America to host the 1991 Ryder Cup. The PGA came to Landmark and wanted to move the event to the East Coast to gain a larger TV audience and to avoid the potential for excessive heat in the Desert in a September event. Landmark agreed to move the event to Kiawah Island and host on the new “Ocean Course”. If the course wasn’t ready, the nearby Tom Fazio course would serve as the back up. Pete, Lee Schmidt and I were there the day the deal closed for a site visit. We spent the day walking the fantastic site with its rich mixture of thick vegetation, dunes and scattered ponds. I remember that Pete was concerned about ticks and the Lyme disease which were in the news at the time. We went straight from there to the 1989 ASGCA meeting in Pinehurst but we were all incredibly energized by the environment and opportunity to route a course without any consideration for houses. The big challenge was where to place the clubhouse, given the large areas we had to avoid making any impact on. The course opened in time to stage the unbelievable Ryder Cup but it wasn’t until 15 years later that the clubhouse was allowed to be situated in its current, ideal spot with views out over the dunes to the ocean.

Similar to Cruden Bay (which was a favorite of Dye’s) and North Berwick, the routing they devised is a loose figure ‘ 8,’ with several holes running along the dune line on each nine. Such a routing is infinitely preferable to the out-and-back layouts found in the United Kingdom and Dye later employed it again at Whistling Straits. The only potential drawback to such a configuration was that holes five through thirteen run broadly in the same east-west direction. However, long-time Head Professional Stephen Younger is quick to point out how Dye tweaked the angles of each hole so that the golfer is kept guessing as to the effect of the wind on his next shot. For example, though the sixth and seventh holes head in the general direction toward the clubhouse, the sixth fairway billows out to the right, calling for a draw off the tee. Meanwhile, the seventh doglegs right around an expansive sandy area with a power fade the ideal shot. The alternating ask of these two holes is but one example of how the wind effects shots wildly differently even if the playing corridors head in the same direction. Indeed, only a handful of straight holes exist at Kiawah.

Can the golfer hit the power fade past the bunkers and reach the 7th in two?

Regarding the construction, Curley states, “Pete was given the directive from Joe Walser (one of the Landmark Heads) to see the ocean from tees, fairways and greens. Additionally, Hurricane Hugo decimated the region. Pete moved a heap of sand to build up many of the playing areas and simultaneously, a massive re-vegetation effort was required after Hugo. The course incorporates all the usual angles of setup I had been accustomed to working with Pete but for the first time in my experience, Pete did a transitional edge look that was much more rugged. Huge, long tees were built rather than individual tees as he was very aware of  the need for a very flexible course set-up to deal with the strong winds. I remember him pointing out future tee locations that would stretch the course past 8,000 yards. Pete’s views in 1989 were way, way ahead of the curve.’

A prime benefit of moving so much land was to create several tumbling fairways such as at the third, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and sixteenth. The graceful sweep of these rolling fairways through the dunes is an element that separates the The Ocean Course from other Lowcountry courses. Closer to the greens, the land movement is tied into the surrounding dunesland and marshland areas. Heaps and heaps of time was spent getting the green sites just right, a feat that is only accomplished when the architect spends as much time on site as the Dyes did. Gone are the sharp edges present at some of his early 1980s such as PGA West or TPC at Sawgrass. Instead, the greens and the course enjoy a softer appearance consistent with its coastal setting.

As impressive as the course is above the ground, below the ground is equally so and explains why the environmentalists were kept happy during the construction process. Dye installed fourteen miles of underground pipes to create a unique internal drainage system that recycles the water from the course back into its own irrigation system. The normal pesticides and herbicides that are used in the up-keep of any course are confined to the course; there is no runoff and thus the surrounding wetlands are fully protected.

Having only been open several months, the course was raw when it hosted the 1991 Ryder Cup and yet it still produced one of the sport’s most enduring events, providing equal measures of heroic and humbling spectacles for all to witness.  Critics of the course grumbled that it wasn’t a links, which is true because it isn’t. Built 45 minutes south of Charleston, this climate has no more chance of sustaining fescue fairways and greens than the author does of winning the 2021 PGA Championship to be held here. When it opened, The Ocean Course featured bermuda fairways and greens. Plenty of greens offer an opening for a run-up shot (e.g. the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, ninth, tenth, twelfth, thirteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and the new eighteenth) but what caught the critics off-guard where the number of greens built-up on knobs.

Professionals are often critical of features that don’t readily succumb to their skills but Dye had his marching orders and damn if he was going to let The Ocean Course prove an unsuitable host for the Ryder Cup. Some of the plateau greens (e.g. the ones at the second and eleventh) provide defense to reachable par 5s. Others like the third and eighth shore up short holes. The most infamous during the Ryder Cup turned out to the one at the one shot fourteenth, which proved to be invincible. This hole, which borrows Redan playing characteristics, lived up to that french meaning of being a part of a fortification.

As seen from behind, the raised 3rd green complex is bunkerless yet full of peril.

When downwind, plenty of approach shots land on the green only to trickle over. Indeed, Younger contends that the pulpit green is even more wily when the hole is downwind (i.e. offshore) than when the breeze comes off the ocean to aid in holding balls on the putting surface.

Having played here two months prior to the Ryder Cup, the author thought at the time that this was Dye’s finest design accomplishment. It was impossible not to be enthralled by so many standout original holes. Admittedly, the course would be a terror for stroke play; balls that hit on the young/firm playing surfaces could careen over and end up in a footprint in one of the sandscapes that surrounded a majority of the greens. What happened next though is where the story gets really interesting for the good amateur.

Let Green Keeper Jeff Stone speak of the course’s evolution over the next 20 years:

In 1997, Dye returned to The Ocean Course to make abundant, yet subtle, changes to the course aimed at both increasing the pace of play for the average resort player and adding additional challenges for the more accomplished player.  The first change he made was replacing the turf on the approaches to each of the greens.  For the Ryder Cup, the approaches were Tifdwarf Bermuda, the same grass that was on the greens.  With Tifdwarf, if a player missed the green, their ball often ran off into the dunes or marshes.  Even if the ball stayed in play, it left a difficult shot since most resort players don’t have a tight-lie flop shot.  He changed the approaches to 419 Bermuda, the same type of grass that is on the fairways which is more “roll-resistant” and sets the ball up.  This makes it easier for the average player to hold the green while, at the same time, makes it more difficult for the better player who would often bump and run chips (or even putt) up the slopes of the green collars.  Forced to use a lob wedge, up-and-downs became much more difficult. He also added collection areas around many of the greens, greatly increasing the playability for the average resort player but, again, challenging the better player with uneven stances.

In the summer of 2002, he expanded the tee-shot landing area on No. 2 by ramping up the angle of the fairway and bulkheaded its second marsh crossing making it more visible.  He added fairway to the left side of the tee-shot landing area on No. 4 and three pot bunkers to the right (turning the hole more left to right giving players a better angle into the green).  He has also raised the tees and shifted them to the left as well as shaved down the fairway giving players a view of the marsh crossing on the far side of the landing area.  On No. 18, he shifted the entire green complex out to the last dune near the Atlantic Ocean making one of the most dramatic finishing holes in golf. In addition to these architectural changes, new tees have been created on seven holes and a number of the existing tees have been enlarged. From a visual standpoint, other than the 4th fairway and the 18th green, most players wouldn’t know these changes were made.  From a playability standpoint, however, these subtle changes make a big difference.

In the summer of 2003, he resurfaced every green with Paspalum specifically designed for The Ocean Course’s seaside environment.  In fact, it is named for The Ocean Course – OC03.  In addition to a blade size comparable to Tifdwarf, it can be mowed to the length of 1/10 of an inch providing the necessary green speeds demanded by today’s professional tournament venues.  Plus, unlike Bermuda grasses, there is virtually no grain and the grass comes in thick to give the greens a sense of maturity even when the greens are relatively new. Additionally, he substantially altered the fairway bunkering on No. 9, No. 11, No. 13, No, 16 and No. 18, reclaiming the course’s original bunker lines that changed over the years with the sifting dunes.  These changes both make the holes more playable for the average resort player and tempt the better player to take additional risks.

As noted above, this course was always going to shift around as it was built on sand. The implementation of more grass around the greens as well as more grass-faced bunkers helped produce less bad lies while greatly increasing the number of fiddly chips from short grass around the greens. Pace of play improved and the course’s short game interest greatly expanded.

The moniker ‘War by the Shore’ conveyed a sense of going to battle in 1991 but by the time the course hosted the 2012 PGA Championship, the course was altogether a more fun – and varied – test. As was Dye’s penchant, he always liked tinker with things but the course that will host the 2021 PGA Championship will likely do so from a set of tees still shorter than what Dye originally created. Think about that! When it opened, the course already had the potential to play from 7,800 yards, though the Ryder Cup played it 700 yards shorter than that.

Like Pinehurst No. 2, The Ocean Course is the best of both worlds: it could host a tournament with two weeks notice but in the meanwhile, it provides the stage for what may be the resort guest’s most memorable round of the year. Two distances are given below, one from approximately where the Ryder Cup was played and one from the Dye set, which measures 6,475 yards and is from where countless people enjoy the course, even if the wind gusts. As with all Dye courses, there are plenty of tees to pick from and anyone who complains that the course is ‘unfair’, simply played from the wrong set given the day’s conditions.

Holes to Note

First hole, 395/365 yards; Dye eases the golfer into the round with lots of room off the tee and a green with a bail-out area left. Though it is the furthest away from the ocean of any hole, the dull roar of the surf is still heard, which hints at how special the round is likely to be.

The 1st hole slowly reveals itself on approach from the practice area.

The egret has signaled for us to play through! With plenty of room left of the green, the first is indeed ‘a gentle handshake’ opener.

The different hues and textures captivate in this view back down the 1st in the early morning light.

Second hole, 545/500 yards: One of the game’s most complex three shotters, this double dogleg can wreck a stroke play round that is barely underway. Care must be taken with each shot. The tee shot and second must negotiate the wetlands while the third is to a raised green that is defended by a pit on the left and more marsh on the right and beyond. A testament to its difficulty is that Seve Ballesteros won the hole with a 7 to Wayne Levi’s 8 in the singles matches in the final day of the 1991 Ryder Cup. Curley succinctly sums up one of the The Ocean Course’s challenges: ‘It has the toughest second shot par 5 lay-ups of any course that I have ever seen.’ Almost as a way to make it up to the golfer, The Ocean Course has a superb, ocean side practice field, so there is little excuse for stepping onto the tee ill-prepared.

One of the game’s great diagonal carries comes at the 2nd. A long hitter might elect a line 90 yards left (!) of a short knocker but both players need to execute.

The live oaks lend the course a sense of maturity far beyond its 30 years.

The brave man who carries past these steps on the inside of the dogleg has the chance to reach in two.

This marshland cross hazard bisects the fairway 115 yards from the green. If the golfer can carry it in two, he gains the preferred angle into the long and narrow green.

This man gamely went for the green in two but the resultant 45 yard long bunker shot thwarted the desired birdie.

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