Preparing a Course to Host a Major

Jeff Stone
The Ocean Course Superintendent Jeff Stone

When it comes to preparing a course to host a major golf championship, The Ocean Course Superintendent Jeff Stone is no stranger to the game. He began his career at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in 1990, the year before The Ocean Course opened to host the famous 1991 Ryder Cup. In 2003 he became head superintendent at The Ocean Course, the same year it hosted the World Cup, and was closely involved when Pete Dye made renovations to the course a year later. In 2007, the course hosted the 68th Senior PGA Championship, the second major to be contested on the course.

Then came the moment of truth when it was announced that The Ocean Course would host the 2012 PGA Championship, the event that challenges the best field in professional golf. With the eyes of the world tuned into Kiawah Island and The Ocean Course, Stone was fully aware of the momentousness of the occasion. And he was tasked with overseeing preparations to ensure the course was in tip-top condition. The course conditions drew rave reviews from the pros, including from a young Rory McIlroy who stormed to a record-setting victory.

Skip forward nine years, and Stone is once again tasked with preparing the course to host another PGA Championship. Is it a case of déjà vu? “The biggest difference for me between 2012 and 2021 is I’m enjoying the process a lot more just because in ’12 it was new and I felt a lot of angst. I’d been through other tournaments, but this was my first Major.”

The other significant difference between ’12 and ’21: the time of year. The last time the Championship was contested at The Ocean Course, it was played in its original dates during the sweltering, humid dog-days of August. In 2017, the PGA announced that going forward subsequent Championships would occur in May, as it will in 2021.

“The biggest difference is we’re coming out of the winter time and are in a seasonal transition,” Stone explains. “We’ll have a rye grass ruff that we wouldn’t have in August, and the threat of tropical weather is virtually impossible, but we should also have winds for a good set-up.” Still, the general approach remains the same. “Getting the course ready for a May event is pretty much the same as what we would be doing in August: Fine-tuning the turf, looking at firming up the collar around the greens and firming up the greens themselves. But the biggest thing will be the weather. It should be a little cooler, less humid, and a much more enjoyable time to enjoy watching golf.”

Unless you find yourself in the thick of it, it’s hard to comprehend the amount of prep work involved in hosting a weeklong golf Championship. It doesn’t come together overnight. “The prep work really started back in 2019 when we did a little bit of maintenance on the tees. We laser-leveled the tees, we added a little bit of length on hole number 6 by adding a back tee. We added back tees on number 12 just to change a little bit of a sight line. We added a teardrop tea on 18 to create a little bit more of an angle. We added a few oak trees back to where original ones had died. Most notably we lost a live oak on number three — Rory’s oak, which we were able to replace with a near identical tree from right here on the property. All the replacement trees we were able to transplant from the property, so they were already conditioned to the environment, so that made it a much easier transition and helps ensure survivability because they were born and raised right here on the course.”

The process of prepping a course is a highly collaborative effort between the host course and the PGA of America’s team, headed by Chief Championships Officer Kerry Haigh. Haigh, whose history with The Ocean Course predates the course’s existence, when Pete Dye was building it to host the ’91 Ryder Cup. “I first met Kerry back in 1991 during Ryder Cup when I was an assistant and it was just a passing introduction,” recalls Stone, “but I really got to know him during the PGA Professional Championship in 2005. He’s a true pro at what he does and he’s very cognizant of the playing conditions at the course, and that helps us present the golf course in the best light and the best championship form possible. The PGA staff under him are a reflection of Kerry. True professionals, and they really do a great job of communication with my department, which makes it easier for us to alleviate any issues we may have infrastructure wise. So they are real pleasure to work with.”

When all is said and done, Stone relishes the satisfaction that comes as the main reward for all the countless hours of prep work. “The biggest thing is you see the Championship on TV for four days, but you don’t realize how much work goes into making those four days possible. Two years’ worth of work for four days of golf. It’s a lot of work, but those of us who are working in it every day really get a lot out of it. It’s exciting.”