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Kiawah Island's Ocean Course Will Be No Beach Vacation
Unless Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson or one of the 20 PGA professionals in the field shoots three straight 63s establishing a 10-stroke lead, it's likely the most intriguing story prior to the final round of the 94th PGA Championship will be the venue.
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, 20 miles south of Charleston on the shores of South Carolina's Lowcountry, would be worthy of superlatives even if it hadn't been built quite so quickly. That it was designed, shaped, seeded and groomed for major international competition in just 25 months - less if you take into account the time lost clearing up and recreating the coastline after Hurricane Hugo blasted through two months after construction began - surely makes it one of the most remarkable courses in the world.
Architect Pete Dye dug his first bucket-load of soil, sand and salt from the dunes and marshes on the eastern end of the island in July 1989, a few months following the PGA of America's decision to move the 1991 Ryder Cup from the original venue - PGA West in Palm Springs, Calif. - to the East Coast in order to avoid the desert heat and so European audiences could tune in during prime time.
Dye and his wife Alice, whose idea it was to raise the fairways to, or above, dune level - thus subjecting players to the full brunt of offshore winds from the south and west, got the job done in good time, and the tantalizing layout definitely played its part in producing the most exciting finish in Ryder Cup history. A contest that came down to the final putt on the final hole of the final singles match would obviously have created a great deal of excitement wherever the matches were played - even the Belfry (the 14-14 tie that happened there in 1989 wasn't quite as enthralling as the finish in the '91 matches). But the spectacular ocean setting at Kiawah certainly added to the drama of the occasion.
It would be fair to say the Ocean Course has flown under the radar somewhat since the unfortunately-named "War by the Shore" 21 years ago. Yes, it is now part of a Golf Digest top-20 resort thanks to the opening of the highly acclaimed Sanctuary Hotel in 2004, and is ranked by the same magazine as America's toughest - and 26th best - course. Yes, it was featured in the movie "Bagger Vance" and was the first course made available for gamers on worldgolftour.com. Yes, it hosted a "Shell Wonderful World of Golf" match between Annika Sorenstam and Dottie Pepper in 1996. And yes, it has hosted two World Cups (1997, 2003), one PGA Professional National Championship (2005) and a Senior PGA Championship (2007, won by Denis Watson).
But after what happened in 1991 only the very highest rankings and most prestigious events are going to move Kiawah's needle and make it part of a global conversation again.
The ocean views, huge sandy waste areas, undulating fairways and greens, and exposure to the wind characterize this endlessly captivating course. There are 18 distinct, well-defined holes, any one of which can ruin a player's scorecard and his hopes of winning; these are 18 quite separate tales, romantic or tragic, coming together to create a grueling and utterly exhausting compilation.
Because the holes are so singular and easily recognizable, many regard the course as more suitable for the thrill of 18-hole match play than the steady grind of 72-hole stroke play. Also working against it is the fact that Tuesday's torrential rain and the isolated/scattered thunderstorms forecast for every day of the tournament will soften the ground, making the course play more like a regular PGA Tour stop than a firm-and-fast major championship venue.
The combination of soft fairways and immoderate length - 7,676 yards, which makes it the longest course ever used for a major - suggests the group of potential winners might well be reduced to only the mightiest of hitters. But then they said that about a lengthened Augusta National in 2002 and '05 since when Mike Weir, Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman have each won a green jacket.
The Ocean Course is a tough test even when calm, but as with most courses in this day and age it will need a little help from the heavens to defend itself against the best players in the world and all their made-to-measure, turbo-charged equipment. Watson won the '07 Senior PGA with a four-round total of 9-under 279 in pleasant but gusty conditions. If it blows hard this week, very few, if any, in the field will get remotely close to that number. But with yielding greens and the forecast 5-10mph breezes, several players might equal or surpass it.
The question though is who will best take advantage of a course that has lost its sting and go the lowest.
Until last week, the reigning PGA champion Keegan Bradley, whose victory at Atlanta Athletic Club 12 months ago came at the first major he ever played in, was having a slightly disappointing 2012. In his second, third and fourth major championship appearances, he finished T27, T68, and T34, and he had missed three cuts elsewhere. It hadn't been a disastrous second-year on the PGA Tour for the Vermont native by any means, but after two wins and a fifth-place finish in the FedEx Cup standings in 2011, he was justified in expecting a little better.
On Sunday, however, the 26-year-old New Englander won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron with a brilliant six-birdie-no-bogey 64. And with that, Bradley thrust himself into the reckoning for a successful defense of the Wanamaker Trophy, something only Tiger Woods has achieved (twice - '99 and '00; '06 and '07) since the tournament became a stroke-play event in 1958.
Woods himself is the clear favorite and, at 10-1 odds, a very attractive bet considering he tops the PGA Tour money list, FedEx Cup standings, U.S. Ryder Cup Team standings, PGA Tour scoring average standings, and has the best GIR and accuracy stats on the PGA Tour from 175 to 200 yards, a distance from which might hit as many as nine approaches per round this week. Woods's record in inclement weather has never been terribly impressive, but if he can avoid the storms and whatever wind does show up, he may be difficult to beat. The strategic options of Dye's typically thought-provoking layout will appeal to the world No. 2, who united sound course management and decision-making with superior ball-striking in his 14 major championship victories.
Sitting one place ahead of Woods in the world rankings, Luke Donald still remains major-less after 36 attempts and a total of 55 weeks as the world No. 1. The consensus is the Englishman doesn't possess the firepower to hit Kiawah's four lengthy par-5s in two or threaten birdies at the five brutishly long par-4s. But the Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort in Florida, where he won this year's Transitions Championship, and the West Course at Wentworth, where he has won the last two BMW Championships, aren't exactly short. Indeed, who's to say Donald won't be to Kiawah Island what Weir, Johnson and Immelman were to Augusta? And with the desire to emulate the Great Britain Olympics team performing so well in London, Donald has extra motivation in capturing the title that may yet justify his world ranking to the doubters.
Ernie Els might be a new, old golfer following his Open Championship win and earn the title that pushes him one step closer to a career Grand Slam, and what about Martin Kaymer, the last man to win the PGA Championship on a Pete Dye design? The German won in 2010 at Whistling Straits, which shares several characteristics with the Ocean Course. Kaymer wasn't in the best of form entering the 2010 tournament, but he went on a tear after his victory winning his next two events and his first of the 2011 season, eventually climbing to the top spot in the world golf rankings.
The form book might mean very little at a place like the Ocean Course, to which some in the field might take an instant dislike while others feel inspired by its many unconventional challenges. On Sunday, the winner will hoist the trophy and be able to say he beat what the PGA of America claims is the strongest field of the year. But it remains to be seen if he can master the Ocean Course and beat Old Man Dye.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.