Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course takes center stage for PGA Championship

The 18th at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course is one of the layout’s most challenging holes. (PGA of America)

To golf fans, the history of Kiawah Island dates to the 1991 Ryder Cup’s “War on the Shore” in which the Americans regained the trophy from Europe in an atmosphere dripping in volatility.

However, the record of this gorgeous piece of land on the Atlantic Ocean dates to 1675, when it was purchased from Native Americans by the English government for a mere pittance – hatchets, cloth, beads and other products. Captain George Raynor, rumored to be a reformed pirate, took possession of the 2,700-acre property 24 years later to create a plantation on the barrier island located 15 miles south of Charleston, S.C. Kiawah Island remained relatively quiet as the Revolutionary War and Civil War raged around it, with freed slaves living there after the Emancipation Proclamation.

It was a little more than 300 years after the island became a matter of public record that course designer Pete Dye arrived at Kiawah to construct the Ocean Course for the 29th Ryder Cup. The result was one of his most Dye-abolical creations.

The PGA of America returns to Kiawah Island this month for the PGA Championship, making the Ocean Course the fifth venue to host the PGA of America’s three biggest tournaments, having also been the site of the 2007 Senior PGA Championship and the aforementioned Ryder Cup.

Reigning PGA champion Keegan Bradley was at Kiawah for the event’s media day and was awed by what he saw.

“I heard from people that it was really hard, and they were right,” Bradley said. “It’s brutal. It’s very fair but it’s going to be tough. You can play as many practice rounds as you want around here but if the wind switches around it’s a different golf course. … If the wind blows when we’re here in August, I think the winning score could be over par.”

Dye also was on hand and has returned periodically to tweak the Ocean Course. He said he didn’t do much on his most recent working visit, with modifications to the bunkers the most noticeable differences. He doesn’t expect Tiger Woods, Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the field to be overwhelmed.

“They just told us not to make it any easier, that’s all, and left,” said Dye, who will see one of his courses host a major championship on the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours for the 13th time, the most for any living architect. “I don’t know if we made it any easier or any harder. We’ll find out.”

The other Dye courses to host majors include Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis. (2004 and 2010 PGA Championships, and 2007 U.S. Senior Open); Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind. (1991 PGA Championship and 1993 U.S. Women’s Open); Oak Tree National in Edmond, Okla. (1998 and 2006 PGA Championships); Bulle Rock Golf Club in Havre de Grace, Md. (2004 and 2005 LPGA Championships; and Blackwolf Run Golf Club in Kohler (1998 and 2012 U.S. Women’s Opens).

The Ocean Course wasn’t love at first sight for some, even though these days it’s ranked as one of the best ocean-side courses in the United States, along with Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, Bandon Dunes and others.

Colin Montgomerie called the course “unplayable” during the 1991 Ryder Cup, but when he returned to Kiawah for the 1997 World Cup of Golf he changed his tune.

“The course has improved over the last six years,” Montgomerie said at the time. “It’s grown into a popular, well-respected golf course, one of the world’s finest, if not America’s best resort.”

Montgomerie was involved in one of the most high-profile matches in the “War on the Shore” when Mark Calcavecchia lost a 4-up lead on the last four holes, allowing Montgomerie to halve the match and give Europe a chance to retain the Ryder Cup.

The Americans hadn’t been in possession of the Ryder Cup since 1983 and Captain Dave Stockton’s team created something of a bunker mentality, with the fans joining in by unmercifully taunting the Euros. The image of Calcavecchia sitting by himself in the sand dunes with his head in his hands would have been the lasting image of the event had not Bernhard Langer missed a 5-foot putt on the 18th hole to halve his match with Hale Irwin and allow the U.S. to reclaim the Ryder Cup with a one-point victory.

“It was the hardest golf course I’d ever seen when we came to play it in ’91,” said David Feherty, the CBS and Golf Channel commentator who was on the European team.

The Ocean Course is so photogenic that even Hollywood couldn’t resist its charms, with director Robert Redford showing up with cast and crew to film “The Legend of Bagger Vance” in 2000. In the movie, Will Smith plays a nomadic caddie who helps a war veteran and local golf hero, played by Matt Damon, regain his confidence and his game to defeat legends Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen in an exhibition match.

Gary Player, who estimates that he has traveled more than 15 million miles playing golf, calls Kiawah Island “one of the top 10 courses I’ve ever played.”

Coming from a nine-time champion in Grand Slam events, that’s what you call a major endorsement.

– TOM LaMARRE

94th PGA CHAMPIONSHIP

WHEN: August 9-12, 2012.

WHERE: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, South Carolina.

THE COURSE: Designed by Pete Dye and opened in 1991, the Ocean Course stretches to 7,356 yards from the tips with a rating of 77.3.

LAST YEAR: Playing in his first major championship, PGA Tour rookie Keegan Bradley (pictured above) defeated Jason Dufner by one stroke in a three-hole aggregate playoff. Both players finished the tournament 8-under par at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

QUOTABLE: “I heard from people that it was really hard, and they were right. It’s brutal. If the wind blows, I think the winning score could be over par.” – Keegan Bradley on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.

NOTABLE: In addition to this year’s PGA Championship, the Ocean Course was the site of the “War by the Shore” Ryder Cup Matches in 1991, the World Cup in 1997 and 2003, and the Senior PGA Championship in 2007.

FUN FACT: The Ocean Course was featured in the Robert Redford film “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” which opened in November 2000 and starred Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron

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