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

Twelfth hole, 465/410 yards; This and fifteen are the only two holes on this side where an uninterrupted, straight line can be draw from the tee to the green. Such is a common occurrence at plenty of courses but not here. Yet, the occasional straight playing corridor on a course with fairways that twist and turn actually adds variety. On one of his last visits here, Dye mused about the possibility of playing it from ~400 yards as a potential drivable par 4 when downwind. As the fairway cascades downhill the last 150 yards, it is a more reasonable proposition than one may suspect! The hitch is that the fairway progressively narrows and that a canal rubs up close to the fairway for the last 75 yards before the green. Anything that bleeds right is likely gone and that includes if the hole is played from its standard length, leaving the golfer with a tricky downhill approach that invariably produces a ball that drifts right. Greenside, humps and hollows help ensure that a player who tentatively plays away from the water will face a ticklish up and down.

This aerial, courtesy of the PGA of America, highlights the complicating factors for one’s approach at 12.

This view from 100 yards highlights why the 12th is the lowest handicap hole on the side.

The Ocean Course is a walker’s dream, helped by tight green to tee walks everywhere save from 9 to 10. After holing out at 12, the golfer takes this bridge to the 13 tee, from where he confronts a wonderful diagonal tee ball.

Thirteenth hole, 405/365 yards; An all-time favorite of Dye’s and a favorite of resort guests for three decades, this classic Cape swings right along the marsh. Options abound off the tee, depending on how aggressive a line the player wants to take relative to the marsh right and a cluster of bunkers left. There is no pat answer and even if there was, it changes with the shift of winds from morning to afternoon. The long green is 41 paces deep, narrows in the back but is open in the front and at grade with the fairway. A low runner is always a consideration. This hole’s flexibility hinges on the green being open in front and this hole can play anywhere from 350 yards to 470 yards while still preserving the angles of play.

Angles, angles, angles – the appeal of the 13th endures forever, regardless of advancements in technology.

A series of bunkers punctuate the fairway from the left. Getting past them from the tee is imperative as this shot from 195 yards is wholly unappealing!

The only advantage from hugging the canal off the tee is that one then gets to aim his approach away from it. Having said that, …

…this view from the left center of the fairway seems far preferable!

The green falls away to the rear, so let the putting surface do the work when the hole is in the back third.

Fourteenth hole, 195/160 yards; The saying at Rye Golf Club applies to this modified Redan: the key shot is the second one! One of the challenges is that this is the first time that the golfer hits a ball in a southeasterly direction in ~two and half hours (i.e. since the tee shot on four) as this one shotter starts the five hole journey east back to the clubhouse. Therefore, getting an accurate read on the wind is problematic, exacerbated by the built-up green pad. Perhaps the consolation of the bracing view of the ocean can temporarily assuage the golfing concerns? The real kicker is the putting surface itself, which rises from the front to the middle, before bending left and dropping down two feet to the back edge. Hitting the green from the tee is good but hitting and holding the green from the tee is truly impressive. Dye’s architecture gets at the purity of the strike, which can be upsetting to plenty of players. The PGA will use the 235 yard tees for at least a few rounds in 2021 and you can count on this hole to agitate and perturb. Indeed, Dye considered it his duty as an architect to get under the player’s skin and mess with his comfort zone. This pushed-up green complex does so with grace in a most magical setting.

The one shot 14th green complex slopes away on all sides and possesses Redan characteristics. It proved to be most vexing during the Ryder Cup matches and will no doubt prove so again for the 2021 PGA Championship. Photograph courtesy of the PGA of America.

Fifteenth hole, 420/380 yards; To gain perspective on how good The Ocean Course is from top to bottom, pick its three weakest (or perhaps ‘least distinguished’ is more apt) holes. For some, that would include the fifteenth. Now let’s think about that. First, the hole parallels the Atlantic Ocean. Second, the preferred tee ball is toward the dune line on the right because a large bunker runs left down the entire hole, jutting into the fairway before then hugging the left side of the green. Third, the green houses some of the more pronounced contours on the course. Well! While the fifteenth may not be the first hole that one thinks of regarding The Ocean Course, it would be the highlight of most courses elsewhere.

Traditionalists appreciate that seaside golf shouldn’t offer perfect optics with everything laid out neatly before the player. The view from the 15th tee contains mystery and the player is unlikely to see where his tee ball finishes, both laudable attributes.

This 2004 photograph shows the sand sweeping up the bunker face, which ultimately proved to be an unwinnable chore to maintain properly. Today’s greenside bunker …

… is grass faced and deeper.

As seen from behind, the intermediate sized 15th green is best approached from the right side of the fairway. Photo courtesy of the PGA of America.

Sixteenth hole, 580/540 yards; This hole’s elasticity captures part of the course’s appeal. One day, the author hit a driver, three wood, one iron and barely reached the green in regulation. The next day he was over the back with a driver and three wood! In either wind, the hole plays equally well and Dye deserves heaps of credit for building such flexibility into many of the holes. Such an example of the ever changing playing conditions is but one reason why coastal courses must be considered supreme to inland courses. The fairway is massive in width but only by staying on the higher, right side will the golfer a) gain a clear view for his second shot and b) enjoy the best angle into the green should the hole be downwind. A fine example of how Dye makes a hole playable for all yet exacting for the better golfer. The scale of the hazards sometimes dwarf the golfer, such as here where this ten foot deep greenside bunker keeps the golfer honest in how he plays the hole. How refreshing to find a three shotter that stands up to the advances of technology and it caps off a sensational set of three shot holes.

The tiger needs to position his tee ball close to the large fairway bunker in order to enjoy the best chance of hitting – and holding – the angled green in two. Langer’s clutch up-and-down from the greenside bunker in the 1991 Ryder helped propel his match to the final hole. Photo courtesy of PGA of America.

Seventeenth hole, 220/180 yards; At the Battle of Ypres, Sir John French noted, ‘It slowly dawned on me that they were using heavier artillery than we were.’ Many golfers share a similar feeling when they stand on this tee. Though the author prefers the fourteenth because of how it embraces the coastal environment, there is no denying that this is the course’s most well known hole to television viewers. Indeed, name a side with a tougher pair of one shotters than the second nine here?! Relative to the fourteenth which plays at an oblique angle toward the ocean, this one plays at a 30 degree angle away from the shoreline, the only hole on the course to do so. Just when the pressure is the greatest, questions swirl in the golfer’s mind in terms of wind direction, etc.

A nail biter of a forced carry, especially when the wind is about. The best ‘misses’ are (of course) dry which suggests either left or long over the green.

Each tee marker is progressively left and eventually, the forced carry dissipates from the red tee. Thanks in no small part to his wife, Dye always built a sub-5,500 yard set of tees.

Eighteenth hole, 440/400 yards; Not many courses can claim two of Dye’s finest finishing holes! Originally, Dye was forced to stay clear of the dune line so he nestled the green forty yards inland among some manufactured dunes. This is the green site where the Langer/Irwin Ryder Cup match reached its epic final crescendo. In 2002, working closely with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Resort gained permission for Dye to move the green site to where Dye had always wanted it: 30 yards to the right along the main dune line, leaving the ocean as the backdrop for the day’s final approach. Though the original green site is no more, both of these finishing holes could be considered among Dye’s best as they are/were both natural and restrained, unlike some of his built-for-television finishers elsewhere.

The clubhouse was relocated to this position in 2006 and its veranda is the perfect spot to reflect on your round while viewing the action up the Home hole.

This view back down the Home hole shows how a fade is preferred from the tee while a draw is ideal for one’s approach. The plethora of playing angles throughout the round certainly favor the shotmaker. Photo courtesy of the PGA of America.

As a raw site, this was arguably Dye’s single greatest opportunity in his long career. Though the immediacy of the rocky shoreline at the Teeth of the Dog was utilized to great effect, its inland holes lack the same interest as those at The Ocean Course. Ultimately, when one couples the appealing nature of the golf with the glorious Carolina coastal setting, one may conclude that The Ocean Course is indeed Dye’s finest course. The author would steadfastly select its second, third, eleventh, and thirteenth holes and potentially its twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth for inclusion in Dye’s best eclectic all-time course. Bottom line: The course is simply chock full of first rate holes and to the author at least, the back nine is Dye’s finest nine holes.

Others disagree. Some people’s judgement remains clouded by the Ryder Cup where the public witnessed the professionals being humbled. Without a doubt, the course hosted the Ryder Cup matches one year prematurely and that shaped its early reputation for being a brute. It certainly can be, however, since then, the new owners of Kiawah worked hand-in-hand with Dye to soften any over-the-top requirements while making the course much more user friendly on a regular basis. Much of Dye’s fine-tuning was accomplished between 1994 and 1997 when Kiawah hosted the International Team Championships. After Scotland won the event at 31 under par (!), it was evident to all that the course had become more enjoyable to play than in 1991. Colin Montgomerie went so far as to say during the closing ceremonies that ‘In 1991, the course was unplayable, but now it’s grown into one of the world’s finest, if not America’s best resort.’

A critical step in the course’s evolution occurred when five acres of turf was brought in to grass many of the recovery areas around the greens. Long gone are the days where the ball rolled off the back of a green and into a foot print. Recovery shots are both more manageable and varied to the point where some critics now consider these green complexes to be Dye’s finest. The rotating asks between the greens that are at fairway level and the ones that are on knobs or plateaus are first rate. Also, a new irrigation system was installed that provides coverage of some of the sandy areas. The Club has the capability to water such areas and prevent the sand from blowing across the fairways and greens during windy conditions. The course has never been in finer condition than in the summer of 2020.

Nonetheless, some people play the course today to say that they have tackled ‘The Monster.’ This is ridiculous. Like every Dye course, there is a set of tees to accommodate even the modest golfer. And many of the fairways are ~30% wider than on traditional inland courses. Sure, in a strong wind, the course bears its teeth but so does Pebble Beach and no one grouses there. Dye gives the golfer plenty of room to play and only when the golfer stops thinking and starts trying to force shots will he remember those famous words from the Battle of Ypres.

The Ocean Course doesn’t reveal all her secrets after just a few rounds. However, if the golfer takes the time to know it as it exists today, one thing is for certain: you will play a round there that you will remember the rest of your life, long after all the other pretender courses are distant memories.

The End