Appeared in November/December 2003 LINKS
If ever a golf course architect and a parcel of land were an ideal match, Pete Dye and the fragile strip of grassy dunes that lines the eastern tip of Kiawah Island, South Carolina, are it. “When I first walked the seaside land at Kiawah, I immediately fell in love with the site,” Dye recalled in his 1995 memoir Bury Me in a Pot Bunker. “The combination of the beautiful ocean views on one side and the vast saltwater marshes on the other captivated me.”
Dye took on the assignment when the PGA of America moved the 1991 Ryder Cup from PGA West, its original site. An East Coast venue, the reasoning went, would allow European fans more primetime TV viewing. It was a bet-the-ranch decision, but Dye and his crew labored overtime to get the job done, setting the stage for one of the most memorable Ryder Cups in history.
That was just the beginning for the Ocean Course, the recipient of two major renovations and countless tweaks by Dye over the years. Like the great links of Ireland and Great Britain, the Ocean Course evokes a sense of timelessness—even as it creaks and shifts in response to its environment, and to the finish strokes of the man who crafted it.
Early on, Dye faced a design challenge that hinted at what an unpredictable golf course the Ocean Course would be. There is no prevailing wind, meaning the playing length of holes would change from day to day. Dye came up with a routing in which the first nine holes would loop clockwise through salt marsh and stands of gnarly live oak, while the second nine would circle counterclockwise through oceanfront dunes. This variance in hole orientation, combined with the changing winds and a wide array of short, medium and long holes, make for a course that rarely plays the same from day to day.
Another early challenge was also wind-related: Hurricane Hugo. The 1989 storm that staggered Charleston also battered the line of grassy dunes that straddled the construction site. But Dye and his crew prevailed, commuting to the island via boat while storm-damaged access roads were closed, and painstakingly restoring the dunes and sea oats.
Dye’s wife, Alice, herself an accomplished course designer, made a key observation during construction: “I don’t know what you're thinking,” she said one day after a walk along the dunes. “You’re building a course right next to the ocean but not letting golfers see it.”
Using fill dug from lakes and pockets around the course, Dye raised every fairway by six feet, which not only improved views, but also exposed the course even more to the wind. Alice was also responsible for proposing the eight-acre lake that stretches from tee to green on the par-3 17th, a hole that would gain instant notoriety during that Ryder Cup.
On the final day, competitors were hitting long irons and woods into the wind on the 17th. The most infamous of these splashes was Mark Calcavecchia’s half-shank en route to blowing a five-hole lead to Colin Montgomerie.
Along with early accolades for the Ocean Course came plenty of criticism: Some felt it was too penal, especially for the high-handicapper who lacked pinpoint accuracy from tee to green. Dye addressed those concerns in 1997, adding five acres of turf to make the course less of a target-style layout and more receptive to stray tee shots and run-up approaches.
In 2002 Dye returned to enlarge tees and re-work seven holes, including the par-4 18th, where he placed an elevated, wildly undulating green 40 yards closer to the Atlantic, creating a more dramatic final approach that plays directly toward the pounding surf.
It's a fitting crescendo to an 18-hole trek that is grind-it-out golf. And that's not even considering the unofficial, way-back tees of more than 7,800 yards. Yet Ocean Course is plenty of fun, albeit in a sadistic sort of way.
Year founded: 1991
Architect: Pete Dye