ANATOMY OF A DIFFICULT COURSE
Golf Digest Middle East|May 2021
WHAT THE OCEAN COURSE AT KIAWAH ISLAND, SITE OF THIS YEAR’S PGA CHAMPIONSHIP, TEACHES US ABOUT OVERCOMING CHALLENGING LAYOUTS
DEREK DUNCAN

All golf courses are difficult for those playing poorly. Others have difficulty bred into them. When the professionals take on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island for the PGA Championship May 20-23, they will be playing the most difficult course in recent major-championship history. Only six courses in the United States have a higher combined USGA Course and Slope Rating than the Ocean Course’s 79.1 and 155 off tees measuring nearly 7,900 yards, numbers that seem almost surreal—but they are real. Only one of those six courses, Oak Tree National, has ever been the site of a men’s major (the 1988 PGA Championship).

As daunting as those figures are, viewers shouldn’t necessarily expect a bloodletting at Kiawah. A Course Rating reflects the predicted score of a scratch golfer playing his or her best off that set of tees, but not even the tour pros will be asked to take on the full weight of the design. In fact, it’s unlikely the course will ever play to its maximum yardage. The switching, unpredictable east-west coastal winds that mirror the east-west routing of the holes means those 7,900 yards are needed for flexibility—some days half the holes could face stiff headwinds, and the next, with the wind coming from a different direction, they might play 50 or even 100 yards shorter. (In May, with cooler temperatures, a confusing north wind cutting across the line of play is also possible.) Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer for the PGA of America, and his team will try to anticipate the wind direction and adjust tees forward or back accordingly. Guessing wrong could result in long days and grumbling competitors.

Instruction advice provided by Abby Welch, a teacher at the Kiawah Island Resort, with Matthew Rudy.

NO. 2, PAR 5 ‘SWING THROUGH IT’ TO CLEAR A HAZARD

This hole requires a shot over a marsh off the tee and another by the green, but you can make these tasks less intimidating by remembering one thing: Swing through it. The thought will help you launch a drive higher and farther. Just be sure to tee the ball slightly higher than the top of your clubhead. Swinging through it also applies to approach shots, provided you shift your weight onto your front foot first.

NO. 3, PAR 4 ACCOUNT FOR ROLLOUT ON A TABLETOP GREEN

First, try to get the shortest club possible in your hands for an approach into an elevated green. Anything longer than an 8-iron and you’ll have to make adjustments to hit it higher. Also, always play the shot to the front of the green, even if the pin is back. Take advantage of the whole putting surface to stop the ball, or else you might be playing your next shot from a collection area well below the hole.

Wind and length might be the sternest challenges, but they are not insurmountable— the professionals have the shots and length to overcome or at least mitigate them. Rory McIlroy made the Ocean Course look almost easy during the 2012 PGA Championship, shooting a 13-under-par 275, eight shots clear of the field. But most golfers don’t have the shots, and these same factors—plus high-handicap land mines like waste bunkers, gnarly sea grasses bordering fairways and a battery of other defenses Pete Dye built into the course as he rushed to complete it in time for the 1991 Ryder Cup matches—can turn casual rounds at the Ocean Course into interminable search-and-rescue missions.

The Ocean Course’s reputation for inducing cruel outcomes was forged on that Ryder Cup battlefield as Dye’s interpretation of Low Country links became as much of a storyline as the back-and-forth tension of the matches, supplying equal doses of physical and psychological trauma. Incidentally, that’s exactly the kind of experience many resort guests want. Brian Gerard, director of golf at Kiawah Island Golf Resort for the past 17 years, who previously served as head professional at the Ocean Course for 11 years, saw it daily.

“People didn’t care what their scorecard read—they were there to play one of the most challenging, difficult golf courses in the country, one that had hosted a Ryder Cup,” he says. “They would come in and say it was a hard golf course, but they didn’t complain about it.”

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