Kiawah Ocean Course
Kiawah Island. One Sanctuary Beach Dr. (800) 576-1570
Folly and Sullivan's have their frisbee, soccer, and bocce ball, but Kiawah Island boasts a beach game that ups the par. There aren't many places worldwide to play golf on the beach, and arguably none finer than the Ocean Course.
At over $300 a jaunt, it's hard to believe that many of those who voted for it have actually teed off there. Perhaps they've navigated its links in a Tiger Woods PGA video game on Playstation? With that game comprising the bulk of this writer's golf experience, I set off on a balmy Monday afternoon with City Paper publisher Noel Mermer to play what Golf Digest hailed this month as "the toughest 18 holes in America."
"Be careful looking for lost balls near water and tall grass," says a man greeting players at the first tee. "We do have gators out." He explains the natural setting of the course, how there's no out-of-bounds, how sand dunes, sea shells, and salt marsh are all factors. We learn the natural dynamics quickly on the second hole -- tidal creeks cut across the fairway, creating a water obstacle at high tide. Where else might the tides be a factor in your tee time?
Only 20 years ago, the land that the Ocean Course sits on was part of Kiawah Resort's "wildlife safari," a Jeep expedition for tourists into the narrow, marshy expanses of the island. When designer Pete Dye first viewed the site in 1989, he joked that he'd trade his wife to build a course there. In his autobiography, he writes that "when PGA officials first visited the site, they almost threw up. There before them was a vast expanse of nothing where their beloved Ryder Cup was to be played (in 1991)."
Every hole at the Ocean Course seems to follow a natural contour of the sand dunes, as if the builders were able to slap turf right on top of what was already there. Salt marshes line the sides, eating golf balls and harboring abundant wildlife. On the sixth hole, while I chipped from the sand for the sixth time that day, two wood storks landed only 10 feet from my ball, oblivious to me or the game being played.
Below the course, a complex system of pipes create an internal drainage system that returns about 50 percent of water used in irrigation to a collection pond. Growing grass at the beach requires immense amounts of water. Reclaiming that water not only saves money and resources but keeps any chemicals and fertilizers out of surrounding marshes as well, creating a course that actually exists in harmony with the environment around it.
Nature, however, still rules supreme at the beach. Several holes were renovated in 2003 to compensate for fairways that had changed shapes as dunes beneath them shifted. The legendary 18th green, literally on the beach, requires frequent renourishment to keep it from falling into the sea.
"We need a different Weather Channel just for this course," jokes Kiawah's golf publicist Mike Vegis. A course brochure explains that "to cope with the wind, players need intelligence and patience, but most of all realism and emotional control." At what is likely the windiest course this side of the Scottish Highlands, players may find themselves with 30-mile headwinds for a 100-yard chip over water. At the 17th hole, several pros at the 1991 Ryder Cup shot two balls into the pond before landing one on the green. Ten holes lie directly on the Atlantic Ocean, hence the course's large greens and multiple tee boxes to compensate.
For two amateurs playing the course hosting this year's Senior PGA Championship, and the PGA Championship itself in 2012, we weren't all that bad. My score wasn't spectacular, but it would have been a pretty terrible bowling score as well. Several fairways literally drop off into water, and splashes weren't uncommon. More than once my ball found its way to the base of a 20-foot wall of sand, expecting me to chip it out to a more playable location.
At times I hit more balls from sand than grass, chalking up double-digit strokes on a single hole, but with adversity comes triumph. A crisp shot with the 5-iron on the pond-crossing 17th placed my ball about eight feet from the pin. "Don't over-think it, just get up there and sink it," coached Noel as we approached the green. Needless to say, I missed the putt, but made par and enjoyed the glory of a tee shot that would satisfy a pro.
My triumph on 17 was followed up by a long drive into the "waste area" of the 18th, a fitting end to a course that properly kicked my butt. Climbing out of the massive bunker, I looked out over green, rolling dunes and a sunset over the ocean. Even to a naturalist and non-golfer, the Ocean Course is a beautiful place. Maybe I'll get some practice at the municipal course and give it another shot some day.