During the 1991 Ryder Cup at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C., Nick Faldo said, a little more than slightly exasperated, “If we had to play this place with a scorecard and a pencil, we might not finish.”
Twenty-one years later, Rory McIlroy won the PGA Championship at the Ocean Course at 13-under 275. However, second place was held by England’s David Lynn at 5-under par, giving McIlroy a whopping eight-stroke victory, a record for the PGA Championship.
Several times in that 21-year gap, Ocean Course designer Pete Dye went back to Kiawah to soften the layout’s jagged edges. In the beginning, a shot could miss some greens by 15 feet — yes, feet — and be absolutely unplayable. If the world’s best players couldn’t manage to get around without some kind of disaster, what would that mean for the mortals among us?
When Dye first walked the sandy land next to the Atlantic on the easternmost end of Kiawah Island, he envisioned the course would play down among the dunes. But Dye’s wife, Alice, suggested that the course play on top of the dunes, thereby giving players a view of the ocean. As the result of that negotiation, 10 holes are on the ocean and the other eight run parallel.
All of which makes the Ocean Course even more susceptible to the wind. The 1991 Ryder Cuppers discovered that first-hand as did the players in the 2012 PGA. In the second round of the PGA, winds blew upwards of 30 mph and scores blew up, as well.
McIlroy shot 75 on Friday, while Keegan Bradley posted 77 and Justin Rose carded 79. Bradley and Rose ended up tied for third for the championship. The wind calmed after a Saturday afternoon thunderstorm and on Sunday, the course was there for the taking. McIlroy shot 67-66 on the weekend.
For the rest of us, it’s a rare day the wind doesn’t blow at the Ocean Course, so it becomes even more imperative to select the proper set of tees. The Championship tees are 7,356 yards and has a big-boy course rating of 77.3. Golf Digest’s panelists rate the Ocean Course as the most difficult in the world. Yes, the world.
The middle set of tees is 6,475 yards and a course rating of 72.0, but in a trouble-laden wind, it can play 500 yards or more longer. To make matters more difficult, there is no prevailing wind. Some days the wind can come from the west, others from the east. And it’s a different course in each wind condition.
Because of the wind, the Ocean Course looks generous from the tee. But into the wind and even in crosswinds, hitting even those ample fairways can be problematic. It’s the approaches where the Ocean Course bares its teeth. Miss a green and par — or even bogey — becomes an undertaking.
The Ocean Course is walking only until noon each day. The resort employs a large cadre of caddies who know yardages, wind and breaks in the green but also know how to navigate each hole from the tee and into and around the green. They can also provide a history lesson, if you wish.
Hole No. 17 | Par 3. [Photo: Kiawah Island Golf Resort]
The signature hole is undoubtedly the par-3 17th, which can play 221 yards from the back tees and features water short and right of the green. Today, there are two bunkers on the left and the rest is grassed in. During the Ryder Cup, most of what bordered the green long and left was ragged dunes.
During Sunday’s singles, the 17thwas played from 197 yards and the wind was into the players and off the left. More than one ball found the water on the right, including Mark Calcavecchia, who shanked a 2-iron (he called it a “snap slice”) into the water on his way to a half in his match with Colin Montgomerie.
Hale Irwin hit the green with a 4-wood in his final match with Bernhard Langer but made bogey after a three-putt, bringing the match all square. They famously halved the 18thwith bogeys, halving the match and giving the Ryder Cup to the U.S.
The PGA Championship returns to the Ocean Course in 2021 and because it’s a resort course, anyone has the opportunity to play a major championship course and it’s infinitely worth playing, even if it’s just once.
While it’s not the unforgiving brute that the Ryder Cuppers faced, despite the changes that have been made, the Ocean Course is neither kind nor gentle. No matter which tees you choose.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C.