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The Beauty & the Beast

By: Joel Zuckerman


Call it Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps the Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove. However one chooses to describe it, for the discriminating golf traveler one of the game's most appealing contrasts is the sheer grandeur and intimidation factor presented by the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, coupled with the opulence of the island's Sanctuary Hotel.

The 18th Green on the Ocean Course

A golfer can brave the elements and unrelenting challenge of this marquee golf course, site of the 1991 Ryder Cup and 2012 PGA Championship, and despite its inherent rigors, know that sanctuary at the Sanctuary is looming at round's end. Just the sight of the crashing waves across the hotel's great lawn, while comfortably ensconced in the flower-filled lobby, is enough to salve the sting of any number of the triple-bogeys and lost golf balls that preceded it.

Though it's been tweaked, softened and manipulated over the years, the Ocean Course's pedigree remains intact. The 2012 PGA Championship, won by Rory McIlroy, marked the first time the state of South Carolina hosted a major championship. The course still leaves resort guests breathless and often battered by the swirling gusts, mesmerizing views, ubiquitous waste bunkers and the prospect of trouble at virtually all points on the compass.

A common saying among the staff is, "We don't sell golf balls, we rent them." But despite the intimidation factor, the difficulty, the fact that the green fee is steep and the waste bunkers deep, golfers flock to the Ocean Course. The reason is simple: It's one of the most memorably exhilarating tests of the game one can ever hope to find.

The Green on No. 8 at Ocean

"The Ocean Course is an iconic golf experience in the United States," says Kiawah Resort president Roger Warren. "It provides the opportunity for visitors to play a true links course, which in our country in very unusual. The wind, the ocean and the wonderful Pete Dye design add up to an unforgettable golf adventure that every player should have at least once in his lifetime, although it's been our experience that many visitors enjoy the course repeatedly."

The repeat visits are easy to understand, considering the Sanctuary is just a few miles down the road. This AAA Five-Diamond property offers 255 rooms and suites, the smallest of which still measures a spacious 520 square feet. Each room includes marble walk-in showers, dual vanities, deep soaking tubs, and amenities like a handcrafted desk and armoire, an elegantly appointed sofa and chair, and custom-made bed.

However, there's more to the hotel than just the room and its iconic golf course. (Not to mention the other four courses at the resort.) Tennis, spa, swimming pools, various dining facilities, biking, birding and wildlife exploration are all part of the package when visiting the Sanctuary. Or, for the less active and adventurous, it's easy to just hang around the elegant lobby, sipping a drink and listening to soothing piano music while enjoying the ocean views.

The Ocean Course Clubhouse

Out on the course itself, one of the first things a player notices is the layout's massive scale. It's fairly narrow, and always in close proximity to the beach, but stretches almost three miles in length. But the fact is that the course's tended turf is involves 55 acres. Wetlands, sand, roughs and other hazards occupy an area six or eight times that size. Brawny as it appears, with generous fairways and oversized greens, it's dwarfed by the naturalness around it.

Unless your name is stitched into the golf bag and there is a full-time caddie in your employ, the second thing one notices is that the course can be brutally hard when the wind is up. This thought might occur on the opening hole, especially if the drive is yanked left and a player must descend a staircase into a waste bunker to hit the next shot. Bear in mind, staircases are usually reserved for diminutive pot bunkers; but here, where the sand chasm might stretch to 50 yards in length, you need a ladder to safely reach the bottom. Getting out? Try a smooth mid-iron, a flare gun, a winch-and-pulley system, or a combination of the three.

The second hole is known by some longtime employees as "the hardest par-5 this early in a round in America." The dogleg requires a drive that needs to carry a yawning marsh, but will go through the fairway into more vegetation if too boldly struck. Then the choice is either lay up short, or attempt to fly an insidious little creek with the second. This leaves either a long- or short-iron approach to a narrow, funneling green. And so the challenge goes.

The Green Complex at No. 5

"The wind will ratchet up the difficulty factor tremendously," continues Warren. "On a calm day it's very playable, but when it blows it becomes very tough. Sometimes I wonder if people just like to get beat up, because the tee sheet is usually full, and people walk off the course with a smile. They love the scenery, which is spectacular. And the course is certainly enhanced by the legacy of the Ryder Cup, World Cup and PGA Championship events it has played host to in the past."

For all its trepidation and travails, the Ocean Course is a special experience, especially for those who love the game in its natural state. It's a walking paradise with a fine caddie program. Some sort of permitting glitch as the course was hurriedly being readied for the Ryder Cup resulted in the clubhouse being located a good stretch from both the first and 10th tees, and the ninth and 18th greens. Fortunately, a dependable shuttle system whisks walkers to and from these starting and ending points seamlessly. Once on course, the walk between greens and tees couldn't be easier.

The "cart-path only" directive issued by Warren near the beginning of his tenure was a masterstroke. Not only is this a golf course that's meant to be walked, but turf conditions have improved dramatically since the buggies were banished to the periphery.

The Sanctuary Hotel

From the blue markers, at about 6,750 yards, most any golf mortal will have all he or she can handle. That's why there are plenty of options and numerous tees that will allow shorter hitters and less-skilled players the opportunity to enjoy this incredible track. But be sure to face away from the fairway every so often and, with your caddie's assistance, take a gander at some of the back tees.

Never mind that the tips play 7,350 yards, that's a relative pitch and putt. The hard-to-fathom fact is that the course can be extended all the way up to 7,900 yards, if necessary, where it gets a 155 Slope and a 79.8 rating. If the wind blows at 30 mph, as it easily can, nobody - not Tiger, Rory, Dustin, Ernie or Phil - would break 80 unless they were having an exceptionally fine day. Now that is a tough golf course!

Remember there is generally no prevailing wind direction at Kiawah Island. It can come from anywhere and everywhere. At the Ocean Course, you don't play into the teeth of the wind. You play into its fangs. Just do the best you're able, and try not to lose one of the most thoroughly invigorating psychological and physical battles you'll ever find in this great game.

And take comfort in the fact that, at round's end, even if you've posted a "radio station score" (Mix 107, Wave 109, etc.) there is great (practically unparalleled) comfort back at the Sanctuary Hotel.

Joel Zuckerman, called "One of the Southeast's most respected and sought-after golf writers" by Golfer's Guide Magazine, is an award-winning travel writer based in Savannah, Ga. His seventh and latest book, entitled "Pro's Pros - Extraordinary Club Professionals Making Golf Great!" was released in June 2013. This is the first-ever golf book to shine the spotlight on the beating heart of golf - the unsung, yet hard-working club professional. Joel's course reviews, player profiles, essays and features have appeared in 110 publications, including Sports Illustrated, Golf, Continental Magazine and Delta's Sky Magazine. He has played more than 800 courses in 40-plus states and a dozen countries. For more about Joel, or to order this unique new book, visit www.vagabondgolfer.com.