What to Expect When You’re Playing The Ocean Course

As told to Mike Vegis by Ocean Course caddie, Pierce Buster:

The bags are packed and the plans are made. FINALLY, you are headed to Kiawah Island to play the famed Ocean Course.  You have heard countless stories, both inspiring and terrifying, about the challenge that awaits you.  Friends, neighbors, colleagues, have all reported back to you a wide variety of stories and experiences about their trip around the site of the upcoming 2012 PGA Championship.  With prime golf season fast approaching, some information about what to expect when coming to play The Ocean Course may prove to be both useful and appreciated. We are not in Kansas anymore!

The Ocean Course
No. 9, The Ocean Course at Sunrise

When coming to The Ocean Course for the first time, the most important thing to bring, other than the essentials, is an open-minded approach to a round of golf.  Once here, you will quickly realize that this is not your typical golf experience, nor will you be able to play The Ocean Course in the same manner that you play your home club.  Through 18 holes from any of the five sets of tees (always choosing accordingly of course!) you will encounter things you have yet to see in your golfing life.  You will be required to try things that you have never tried before.  Whether it is due to the consistently inconsistent winds, the variety of short game scenarios, or the firmness of the greens, you will be forced to expand on your traditional method of attack. The Ocean Course offers what few other golf courses can – the ability to see the ocean from each of our 18 beautiful holes (if you know or are told where to look from).

With an unparalleled placement along the Atlantic Ocean, The Ocean Course’s first line of defense is the wind.  A breeze is almost constant on The Ocean Course and can range from the manageable 8 – 12 mph to an unthinkable 50 – 60 mph.  While a wind is almost constant, the direction is almost as inconstant.  On back-to-back days at The Ocean Course, it’s not unusual to play two entirely different wind velocities and wind directions.  Holes that were into a 10 mph breeze one day might have the tail wind of a 22 mph gust the next, giving architect Pete Dye perfect reason for laying the course out as he did.  In the two most prominent wind directions (east to west or west to east), The Ocean Course’s layout will challenge you to roughly 9 holes into the wind and reward you with 9 holes with the wind.

The occasional cross breeze from just off the ocean is rare, but does occur.  In fact, during the Ryder Cup practice rounds, Bernhard Langer made a hole-in-one on No. 17 with a 5 or 6 iron with a trailing wind.  The night before the tournament, a front moved through and the wind shifted and freshened to the point that he had to hit between a 3 iron and a 3 wood during the actual tournament.  Managing this first line of defense will be helpful in your first trip around The Ocean Course. The course’s second line of defense ‘lies’ within the uniqueness of our sand areas.  At The Ocean Course, we have absolutely no “bunkers.”  That sounds incredibly tantalizing doesn’t it? 

Not so fast my friends. The Ocean Course features what few other golf courses anywhere in the U.S. feature, the ‘transition area.’  (The term waste bunker originated at Harbour Town.  During construction, Pete Dye was checking the course when he spotted the local sewer patrol fighting a losing battle with a broken pipe near Harbour Town’s border.  With raw sewage about to pour over the area, he suggested the workers pump it into a long, narrow depression that was to be used for a bunker.  As the wastewater filled the bunker, somehow the term waste bunker was born, and it has been used to designate such areas ever since.  This is why, here on Kiawah Island, we prefer the term “Transition Area.”)  The rulebook defines these areas to be played “through the green,” simply meaning that typical sand trap rules do not apply.  As a transition area is not a hazard, you are permitted to ground the club (no Dustin Johnson jokes please), take practice swings, and remove loose impediments just as you would be in a fairway.

While that sounds as if it would make these shots a breeze, this local rule is in place for one very important reason.  The consistency of the transition areas changes dramatically from hole to hole and even from transition area to transition area on individual holes.  You will find some to be soft, like traditional sand traps, some to be as hard as dried clay, and everything in between.  Within these areas, you will find pebbles, seashells, and a wide array of other things that the wind and tide kick up, making the implementation of this local rule an absolute must.  Again, varying from traditional methods, the manner in which you execute shots from our transition areas changes almost as much as the areas themselves, and creates another unique feature to challenge players of any skill level.

Lastly, The Ocean Course is guarded by another unique feature, the firmness of the greens.  While other golf courses are beginning to implement it, The Ocean Course was one of the first courses to use a new type of grass called ‘Seashore Paspalum.’  Paspalum is a cousin of Bermuda grass and is completely salt tolerant, allowing it to thrive in ocean side scenarios where other grasses would fail.  However, unlike Bermuda grass, Paspalum has virtually no grain as the blades grow vertically and does not follow the sun throughout the day.  While the lack of grain allows for fast speeds, the wind and the summer heat create the firmness.  At times, high lofted wedge shots do not even create ball marks, presenting yet another unique challenge to the first time player.

Scared Yet? Don’t Be! While The Ocean Course presents uniquely daunting challenges, it also offers unparalleled and unimaginable beauty and enjoyment.  Few places in the world allow land and sea to come together to form such a natural and breathtaking scene than Kiawah Island.  The Ocean Course is carved through ocean-side marshland, keeping a completely natural look and allowing an unequaled combination of golf, beauty, and nature.  While the challenges may loom large, the moments in which you stop and think ‘this would make a beautiful picture’ are even more bountiful. Along those lines, both the front and the back 9s of The Ocean Course offer different physical features.  The front nine is set amongst marshland and trees creating a very unique feel and, for a moment, making you almost forget you are less than 500 yards from the Atlantic Ocean.  Through the first nine holes, you will quickly notice, not only the tidal ponds and creeks, but also the effect the wind has on the trees and other plant life growing in and around the marsh.

However, the wind didn’t create the unique shape of these Live Oaks.  The near-constant salt spray from the ocean acts as a growth retardant on the oceanfront side of the tree, giving them a wind-swept look. The second nine features very few trees, extensive dunes and more holes in full view of the ocean, including the last five being virtually on the beach.  Not only are the final five holes set right alongside the Atlantic Ocean, they are also quite possibly the best, most rewarding final five holes in all of golf, setting up what is sure to be a tremendously exciting Sunday afternoon in August.  People are familiar with the famous par-3s in golf; #17 at TPC Sawgrass, #16 at Augusta National, #16 at TPC Scottsdale, etc.  While those are great and exciting holes, The Ocean Course features two par-3s that should be included on these lists, and they are both located on the back nine.  Holes #14, and more famously, #17 are two of the most difficult, most scenic, and most rewarding par-3s anywhere in the world and add a tremendous amount to the experience and the beauty of The Ocean Course experience.  Add to that that these holes are slated to play at 238 yards and 223 yards respectively during the PGA Championship, and it is clear why these holes should be tallied as two of the best in the world.

Final Thoughts: So you’ve read this article, you’ve heard the stories from your buddies, and you remain ready to come play The Ocean Course and test your ability.  While the level of difficulty is high, the experience is more than worth the challenge and will leave you with an amazingly unique golf experience and an opportunity to return home to your buddies with stories of birdies, beauty, and record scores.  The most important information I can offer to the first timer is this, the bark is worse than the bite.  What do I mean?  The Ocean Course is not nearly as daunting as you’ve likely heard and is more breathtakingly beautiful that you might expect.  Once again, when packing for your first trip to The Ocean Course, the most important thing you can include, other than the golf essentials, is an open minded approach to the round, a willingness to try new things, and a heavy dose of patience.  Oh, and a camera with fully charged batteries might be good too.  Welcome to Kiawah! Click through for more information on The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.