Environment of The Ocean Course

Aerial Ocean Course

In an age when environmental impact studies command as much attention as slope ratings, The environment of The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort has earned acclaim from scientists and environmentalists for its sensitivity to nature.

Build along nearly three miles of pristine oceanfront property, the Ocean Course features 10 holes immediately adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean and all 18 holes offer spectacular views of the ocean as well as nearby marshlands, none of which every will be obstructed by development.  Course designer Pete Dye went to great lengths to assure that The Ocean Course would blend into its oceanfront setting.

But it is his behind-the-scenes efforts – such as the installation of a unique internal drainage system the recycles irrigation water while protecting adjacent wetlands from run-off, or the creation of acres of saltwater and freshwater wetlands, or the building of dunes and the extensive planting of native grasses – that has environmental agencies singing Dye’s praises.

Shortly after the course was opened in 1991, South Carolina Coastal Council Biologist Heyward Robinson, speaking for the agency which has jurisdiction over all of the state’s wetlands, said “In this case, we really think Pete has done his best to design a golf course in harmony with our regulations.”

Of Dye, Robinson said he has “never worked with someone so co-operative.”

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort was the first golf course to be built with a complete internal drainage system.  Dye used a similar system for nine holes of the Old Marsh course built in an environmentally sensitive area near Palm Beach, Florida.  But The Ocean Course is the first to incorporate an internal system that drains the complete golf course.

Through a series of drains and underground pipes, all water falling on tees, greens, fairways and cart paths flows back into the irrigation system.  According to Dye, more than 14 miles (75,000 feet) of pipe have been installed under The Ocean Course to recapture irrigation water and allow it to be recycled.

“Even if the marsh is only three feet away,” Dye explained, “the water drains back into the golf course, into these catch basins and down into a major series of pipes underneath the golf course.”

Through the use of pumps, Dye is able to keep the water table at two feet above sea level, the same level and the fresh groundwater.  The fairways and greens are constructed at a minimum elevation of five feet above sea level. This leaves a minimum of three feet of dry sand for filtering water that doesn’t reach the fairway and drains before this water reaches the groundwater table.

“We’re picking up 300,000 gallons of fresh water every day,” Dye said.  “We never anticipated getting that much back.  I figured we might get 50,000 to 100,000 at the most, but we’re getting almost 300,000 gallons.  That’s 50 percent of the water that we need to irrigate the golf course.”

Dye said that, considering the overall cost of the golf course construction, the cost of installing such a system – between $150,000 and $200,000 (in 1991 dollars) – should not be prohibitive, regardless of a developer’s budget.

“When you figure the cost of water,” he said, “in the long run, it amortizes itself… Over a five-year period, you save that much in water costs.”

“And if you don’t have water, or if you have limited water problem, then it’s a savior.  The third thing, from the Coastal Council’s point of view, you’re solving the only thing they could object to, the fear that maybe some of the pesticides or chemicals you’re putting onto the golf course are getting off into the marshes or the surrounding areas.  If you monitor this, and recycle this water all the time, you know exactly what you’re doing as far as what you’re putting on the golf course.”

All of this was worked out by Dye as he was building The Ocean Course.

“I went down to the Coastal Council and explained to them that this was the general theory of what we were going to do and I constantly kept them updated,” he said.  “When they came out and saw the first hole going in that way, they could see something was going to happen here that was going to set a precedent for what they might be able to set up for other courses that are in sensitive areas.”

Dye created a vast system of freshwater wetlands within the interior of the golf course.  These lagoons have been planted in native grasses and are part of the irrigation system.  The grasses help to filter the water before it is pumped back into the golf course.  And the sand that was excavated from these lagoons was used to elevate the fairways to that every hole offers a view of the ocean. Altogether, Dye has created more than 22 acres of freshwater wetlands within the golf course.

Just outside the course, in an area adjacent to the back nine, Dye restored the natural saltwater flow to Willets and Ibis Ponds and replanted them with native grasses.  Because of dikes built as part of logging operations on Kiawah many years prior to development of the island, these two large impoundments had list their saltwater characteristics and had become brackish in nature.

“There are no saltwater marshes in Nevada, very few in Indiana and damned few in Oklahoma,” Dye said.  “So you’ve got to preserve all your saltwater marshes here because this is where you find them.

“What we did was, we took an area that was kind of being degenerated and brought it back to a vital saltwater marsh.  We’ve restored close to 80 acres of saltwater marshlands.”

Also, Dye initiated extensive plantings of sea oats and other native grasses in the dune area.  The grasses, including sea oats, panic grass, American beach grass, paspalum and sweet grass help preserve the dunes against forces of erosion.  These same grasses are used in some bunker faces and along the perimeter of the tees.

These efforts have combined to make The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort a most unconventional golf course, one that has served as a standard for all golf courses built in environmentally sensitive areas.