The numbers speak for themselves — 79.1 and 155. Those are the course and slope ratings that the USGA has assigned to the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort when the 7,849-yard layout is played from the championship tees. As such, the course holds rank as the most difficult course in the country.
When the world’s best players tee off at the Ocean Course during the 103rd PGA Championship and play from an even longer 7,876 yards, the seminal work of Pete and Alice Dye will likely prove that its bite can be just as ferocious as its bark.
“You can patch it together and get around on other courses,” said Brian Gerard, the resort’s director of golf. “But when you’re on the Ocean Course that’s a difficult patch. Simply put, it will expose your weaknesses.”
The pros may face adversity and they’ll likely struggle at times this week, but their experiences on the course will only partially tell the story of what an everyday amateur’s round might entail. All players — especially amateurs (and first-time visitors) — will be visually intimidated during their rounds, and most will have to contend with at least a moderate wind, though it’s not uncommon for players to encounter blustery conditions. Also, the Ocean Course’s green complexes will confound average players.
“Seeing the subtle elevation changes around the greens is something that the person watching on TV doesn’t see,” Gerard said. “You have to play the course to be able to see that.”
THE INTIMIDATION GAME
While some bucket list golf courses can be graciously hospitable to everyday amateurs during their introductory rounds, the Ocean Course is not one of them. First-time visitors to the Dye Designs masterpiece can expect to be awestruck both by the site’s natural beauty and the grandeur of the holes as they weave their way around and over Atlantic coastal dunes.
“The Ocean Course shows very well on TV, but you don’t really get the true effect of how it makes you feel until you’re standing on the property,” Gerard said. “When you get to number five, just standing on the tee and looking around … it’s amazing.”
Yet, just as much as the championship layout fills first-timers with awe, it terrorizes them for all the same reasons. “The Ocean Course is visually intimidating. Pete was the master of that,” Gerard said. “He draws your eyes off your line and toward the trouble.”
As is the case on just about every Pete Dye-designed golf course, trouble areas abound. But on Kiawah Island’s flagship course — as is often the case with most Dye designs — there is plenty of room to play golf, even if it doesn’t look that way from the tee.
“A lot of people don’t see that, and you don’t often visualize that when seeing it on TV,” Gerard said. “But when you’re out there in the landing areas you realize there’s plenty of room to miss it.”
The par-five second hole, for example, is a left-curving dogleg that features an expansive waste area on the inside part of the leg. The conservative play for most amateurs is along the fairway’s right side. Yet, because the waste area looms so large, it’s easy to overlook the inherent trouble should a shot miss wide to the right — a steep embankment that separates the playing area from native wetlands. The competitors during this week’s PGA Championship almost assuredly won’t find themselves hitting recovery shots from the base of that embankment, where golf balls easily disappear in the gnarly 6-inch-high rough. But average amateurs are bound to venture down there with regularity.
“If you stick to your line there’s plenty of room to play golf,” Gerard said. “But when your eyes get drawn to trouble, now you don’t have any confidence, and Pete did that better than anybody.”
AGAINST THE WIND
When the wind really blows across Kiawah Island, the Ocean Course lives up to its billing as the most difficult golf course in the United States. According to Kiawah Island Resort president Roger Warren, the course isn’t contrived in its design — it’s a true oceanside course — but despite its typical firm and fast conditioning, the layout only partially plays like a links course.
“Because the greens are perched up, you have to play [your approach shots] through the air,” Warren said. “That’s the genius of the course’s challenge — to play to those greens through the air and through the wind.”
When the natural elements are at their most extreme, good scores can be hard to come by. In 2012, when the Ocean Course hosted the PGA Championship for the first time, the initial round was played in relatively benign conditions. Not surprisingly, players’ scores reflected that, with 44 players shooting under par.
During the second round, however, the wind picked up, bludgeoning the afternoon wave of golfers with 30-mph gusts. Only four players posted under-par rounds that Friday, and a number of the world’s best ball-strikers and shot-makers gave back a lot of strokes. Matt Kuchar, Gary Woodland, and Justin Rose all shot 10 strokes worse on day two than they had on day one. Alex Noren followed up his 67 on Thursday with an 80 on Friday. And Ryan Palmer shot himself out of the tournament, carding an 86 in round two after a 1-under-par round the day before.
“There’s no given experience,” Warren said of the wind. “It changes day to day, and it can change halfway through your day.”
If the wind blows fiercely at any point this week, tour players will be noticeably challenged; however, their difficulties won’t really tell the story, at least not the one that would forecast the average amateur’s experience in similar conditions.
“There’s a big difference between seeing wind on TV and feeling wind on the golf course,” Gerard said. “A 25-mph wind on a tour player compared to a 25-mph wind on an amateur, it has a different effect. The tour player has all the shots. The average player is hitting the same shot every time, so it affects their game that much more.”
THEN AND NOW
In its infancy, the Ocean Course was irrefutably hard. Landing areas were diminutive, the fairways and greens were seeded with Tifdwarf Bermudagrass, and the sloped edges of the elevated green complexes often funneled balls away from the putting surface with enough speed that shots coming in hot could roll into waste areas and possibly come to rest in unplayable positions. “It was tight, fast, and hard,” Gerard said, “and the average player doesn’t have the ability to hit a flop shot off a tight lie.”
Even skilled players with single-digit handicaps struggled not only to play well on the course but to enjoy the experience of a round. “I played it for the first time back in 1994, and I absolutely hated it,” Warren said. “There were too many times where I stood on the tee and didn’t know where to hit it. Or I didn’t think there was any place I could hit it. I didn’t think it was fair.”
Before long, Dye returned to the course to make necessary amendments, widening fairways, repositioning bunkers, and elevating the edges of some of the playing areas to better define the perimeters of the course and to provide players with better direction off the tee. In all of those instances, the late course architect did so with boots on the ground.
“He wasn’t doing it on a piece of paper,” Gerard said. “He was doing it out in the field, visually experiencing what the different players were going to see. It was true genius the way he did it.”
In fact, when Dye was out on the course surveying the land and assessing some of the issues that needed to be rectified, he would often stop random groups of golfers as they passed by, asking direct questions like, ‘Are you getting around this place alright?’ Many times, those accosted players didn’t even know who he was.
“That’s one of the coolest things that I remember about Pete,” Gerard said. “He took an interest in the average player as much as he did the best players in the world. He wanted to hear what people said about his design, and he would always try to find a solution that satisfied everyone.”
Today, the Ocean Course delivers all of the challenge that any golfer would ever yearn for. Yet, through its gradual evolution over the years, the layout exists as a playable destination for players of varying ability levels, albeit a course where higher-than-average scores should be expected.
“It’s a bucket list golf course; it draws people from all over the world,” Warren said. “If you love golf, it’s hard not to be enamored with it. Some places just make you feel good when you’re there, and this golf course just feels good.”
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