Feature Interview with Brian Gerard & Jeff Stone (Kiawah)

September, 2012


Famous for its ocean views, The Ocean Course also features some of Dye’s best strategic playing angles. For instance, carry the deep fairway bunker off the tenth tee and enjoy the best angle into the green.

The Ocean Course was three months old when it hosted the 1991 Ryder Cup. How was it received?

The course was generally considered extremely difficult but fair.  Pete said that he spoke to Raymond Floyd and he told him “it was a fine golf course.”  That was during the practice rounds.  Then, the night before the opening rounds, a front moved through and the wind freshened and shifted 180 degrees.  What were easy 6 or 7 irons turned into difficult 3 irons and 3-woods.  It wasn’t received quite as well after that…

Though all the back tees weren’t used, how long did the course measure when it opened in 1991? How long will it play for the 2012 PGA Championship?

The course measured 7,800 yards from the tips in 1991 but it wasn’t played near that long during the Ryder Cup.  Probably closer to 7,300 yards. Kerry Haigh’s initial yardages for this year’s PGA Championship at The Ocean Course will be 7,676 yards, the longest major in history.

Let’s talk about the evolution of the course since the Ryder Cup. There is a lot to cover starting with the type recovery shots around the greens.

Mother Nature has made most of the changes to The Ocean Course since the Ryder Cup.  As Pete Dye has said, the course doesn’t “walk,” it “swims.”  I (Superintendent Jeff Stone) am constantly fighting the harsh natural environment keeping the course in tournament shape.  For example, there was a storm that came through about two months before the Senior PGA Championship in 2007 that had 70+ mph winds.  The grounds crew was using snow shovels on the greens to remove inches of sand that had blown up from the surrounding bunkers, followed by days of blowing the remainder of the sand off the greens with leaf blowers.

On the TV in the pro shop, we have an eye-opening video running – the original broadcast of all three days of the 1991 Ryder Cup.  Many of the bunkers that are now 5-6 feet deep were level with the fairways back then.  That’s why Pete grassed in many of the bunker faces and reshaped the fairway contours on a number of the holes to bring some of the original look back to the course.

Pete has been back numerous times since the Ryder Cup to make changes to the course.  In 1997, he 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.   In 1997, 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.

Over the last eighteen months, Pete Dye has returned to Kiawah Island a number of times to continue to fine tune his design as it prepares to host the 94th PGA Championship in August.

Perhaps the most riveting change is to the 14th hole, where the tee box was elevated and the hole lengthened 15 yards to a massive 243-yard par 3 with a view for the ages. The best golfers in the world will now be able to look down upon the glory of The Ocean Course’s finishing holes and clubhouse. In effect, it will be the highest point on the golf course, and it will be a dramatic view of the back nine.

As we have mentioned, some of the changes have been going on for over a year such as grassing in bunker faces all around the course.   In addition to returning the course to its original look as the constant shifting sands altered the course greatly in the 20 years since it opened, another reason was to limit balls from plugging in the sand faces.

Dye has added and shifted tee boxes on a number of holes to give better angles of play and more set-up options, and to aid in gallery flow.  For example, he shifted the 18th tee back and toward the ocean to prevent the players from cutting the dogleg.  In past events, players would blast their drives over the bunkers on the inside of the dogleg, hitting the down slope, and leaving them with a short iron into the green.  With the new tee box, most drives will end up at the top of the hill, leaving them with a 200+ yard shot into the green.  Moving the tee closer to the ocean also provided more room around the pond on the 17th hole, allowing for more viewing areas.

Two other big changes Dye has made are to the green complexes of the par-three 5th hole and the par-five 11th hole.  On the 5th, he lengthened the bunker on the left side of the green making the back left pin placement more challenging.  On the 11th, the left side of the green used to be up about three to four feet above the surface of the green.  It’s now about six feet below the surface in a collection area.  This gives the player a greater incentive to go for the green in two.

On the 12th hole, Dye has moved the bulkhead in on the right side of the fairway near the green narrowing the approach and added a forward tee box with the thought of making this a drivable par 4 during the championship.  On No. 7, the bunkering on the right side of the landing area and on the left from 200 yards in has been recontoured and softened.

The greens were re-grassed in 2002 with paspalum. Pete Dye has long been a fan of that grass, in part based on his own experiences at Casa de Campo. Tell us about its playing characteristics.

Not just the greens.  In 2002, both the greens and tees were replaced with Paspalum.  Since then, we’ve been throwing Paspalum grass seeds and sprigs out across the entire course when we aerified so the entire course has mostly been converted over to Paspalum.
One of the major features of Paspalum is that it has virtually no grain.  Another is that it thrives in the South Carolina summer heat, especially the warm summer nights, to the point that “growth regulators” are used so that the greens during morning rounds won’t be substantially faster than afternoon rounds.  Plus, the grass doesn’t seem to be affected by the mineral-ladened water from our deep wells.

The long second tee is an indication of the set-up flexibility that The Ocean Course enjoys. In addition, the second hole features a favorite ploy of Dye’s , namely a switchback hole. In this case, a draw is ideal off the tee and a fade is required to hit and hold the angled green.

Kiawah was awarded the PGA Championship in 2005? Was it done so with the caveat that any specific changes be made?

No.  There was no need.  We generally keep The Ocean Course in tournament condition at all times.  With the winds we get out there, it’s not possible to amp up the green speeds as balls would start to oscillate.  The only thing we will do different is grow the rough out to 3 inches.  The rough lines we will have during the at the tournament are the same rough lines we’ve had for the last year and a half.

How wide is the typical fairway for day-to-day resort play? How wide will they average for the PGA Championship?

The fairways are between 30 and 32 yards wide.  That’s the width that they’ll be for the Championship.  That’s the width they’ve been for the last year and a half.  However, the rough will be grown to three inches during the championship.

Wow! That’s relatively wide for a major championship. That’s great. So the challenge will come at the green?

The challenge on The Ocean Course comes from the wind.  Whether on the tee, fairway or on our around the green, the wind plays a major factor on how to play the next shot.

Tell us about the evolution of the bunkers.

As we mentioned before, the natural environment played the largest part in the course’s bunker evolution.  With the storms that move through the region, bunker edges need to be altered to return them to their original look.  This can be seen on No. 7.  The bunker to the right of the landing area had turned into a huge bowl.  Last summer, Pete came in and reshaped its left edge to give it a subtler look.  He also reshaped and regrassed the bunker that runs along the left side of the fairway from 200 yards in to the green.

Thanks to Mother Nature, the long fairway bunker down the right of the sixteenth fairway is deeper than when the course opened. Though a potential birdie hole, the green features the deepest greenside bunker on the course so the golfer going for the green in two needs to beware!

Pete Dye added several central hazards to the course in 2002, specifically at the fourth and eleventh holes. What was the thinking behind those?

That’s part of the genius of Pete Dye.  He puts visual obstructions on holes to draw the player’s eye off the best line of play.  Pete’s design style takes place between the player’s ears as much as it takes place on the lay of the land.
Actually, on No. 4, there used to be a “horseshoe” of marsh that crept into the left side of the fairway in front of the dead tree.  In 2002, he got the environmental variances to have it removed, allowing players to use the left side of the fairway thus giving them a better angle into the green.  He added the three pot bunkers to turn the hole left to right.

The only hole whose playing corridor has altered is the eighteenth. Tell us about how that came to pass.

Back when the course was built, there was an error in drawing the “critical line,” (i.e. the line drawn by environmental agencies indicating how close to the ocean the course could be built) forcing Pete go build the green further inland than he wanted.  When the government finally acknowledged the error, the Ryder Cup was upon him so Pete had to keep the green where it was.  When he had the opportunity in 2002, he had the green moved to where he originally wanted it, about 40 feet closer to the ocean, directly on the primary dune line.
For the PGA Championship, as discussed earlier, the tees were moved closer to the primary dune line so that there will be a more challenging second shot into the green.

The PGA Championship is infamously held in August, the timing of which puts a lot of stress on the playing surfaces. How will the Ocean Course cope?

With wall-to-wall Paspalum, we don’t foresee any challenges with the condition of the playing surfaces.

Fast and firm is the mantra for any major championship. Can such conditions be achieved in August?

Since the course is sand-based, it will be quite easy to dry it out and get it playing fast and firm. Even if an afternoon thunderstorm rolls through, the course is sand-based so the grass-in areas drain quite easily.  Some of the natural sand areas around the course sometimes retain water but we’ll make sure the drainage systems are totally clear before the championship.

As seen from behind, the third is one of the best short par fours built since World War II. The pushed up green is a hard target to hit and hold in the wind and leaves a host of tricky recovery shots that are invariably played from a tight lie.

How well does the course drain in case an afternoon thunderstorm rolls through?

As we said, the course is sand-based so the grass-in areas drain quite easily.  Some of the natural sand areas around the course sometimes retain water but we’ll make sure the drainage systems are totally clear before the championship.

The Ocean Course has hosted a variety of other events since the Ryder Cup including the World Cup of Golf, The PGA Professional National Championship, and the Senior PGA Championship. What are some firsts for the 2012 PGA Championship?

I think the 7,676 yards will be a first…  We’ve also worked to make sure the viewing experience of those attending the championship will be unmatched.  First off, we’ve limited the number of spectators to 30,000 a day (27,000 sold tickets plus children 17 years and younger enter free with paying adult and enlisted military personal will also get in for free).  We have developed multiple spectator viewing areas throughout the course for optimal comfort and excitement including behind No. 9, around No. 17 and in various other areas on the course.

Unlike the Ryder Cup, the Senior PGA Championship was a stroke play event. What three holes averaged the most over par? What three holes averaged the most under par? Do you think that will stand for the 2012 PGA Championship?

With the Senior PGA Championship, the hardest hole in relation to par was No. 17 (3.601) even though it was played  up a set of tees (165ish yards) the first three days of the tournament.  The second hardest hole was No. 4 (4.408) and No. 14 (3.406).  Plans are to have No. 17 play all the way back at 223 yards and No. 14 to play from its newly created back tee at 238 yards so all bets are off on how they will play.  New in the mix for the PGA Championship is No. 12.  While the initial yardage of this Par-4 is 412 yards, new tees can have the hole play between 300 and 388 yards making it a drivable Par-4.
The only holes that played under par during the Senior PGA were No. 7 (4.649) and No. 11 (4.701).  However the differences between 2007 and 2012 will be substantial (No. 7 – 537 yards vs. 579 yards and No. 11 – 562 yards vs. 593 yards).

What is the strength and direction of the ocean breezes on a typical August day?

Typical wind in August usually comes out of the SSW (down the final stretch of holes).  Wind should be between 5 – 8 mph with a good chance of increasing throughout the day.  On a normal summer day, the sun will heat the land causing the air to rise.  Therefore, an ocean breeze will pick up later in the day.  Keep in mind, however, that this is only “typical.”  It’s not unusual for winds to come from any direction.

Given that breeze, what greens will be the hardest to hit in regulation on the front? Back?

Front nine, No. 3,  No. 5, especially with a back pin placement and No. 9.  Back nine, No. 13, No. 14 and No. 17.

Good Luck! We’ll all be watching!

Since opening for play in 1991 as a beast, The Ocean Course has also evolved into a course of great beauty.