Proper Golf

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: The Ocean Course

The Ocean Course
Kiawah Island, SC
Architect: Pete and Alice Dye, 1991

A fabulous walk along this beach requires the assistance
of a shuttle ride at the start of each 9

Pete and Alice Dye's The Ocean Course opened just in time for the 1991 Ryder Cup which will forever be known as "The War by the Shore". As dictated by it is name, the most obvious starting point for any review of The Ocean Course would be pointing out its location. With 10 holes set directly on the Atlantic Coast, and the remaining 8 holes also parallel the water, it boasts the most Ocean side golf holes of any course in the Northern Hemisphere. When the ocean, or the other water hazards on the back nine, aren't directly in play, it is still an amazing setting complete with real sandy dunes and a constant wind that was the most important aspect of the oceanside course considered by the design team.

The safe route on #1 is over the stairs, but Dye starts right with his eye
-catching angles, and balls are often drawn into the waste area on the right

One could not possibly attempt to describe the intricacies of the course without multiple plays due to the wind. As the caddies will tell you, it is possible to hit 3-wood one day, where you may hit 7-iron the next. Given that The Ocean Course was built to be one of the hardest courses in the world Pete and Alice Dye created a golf course of magnificent scale reminiscent of Bethpage Black, and The Course at Yale in order to provide the most difficult challenges for the best players in the world, and still a resort course where 36-handicaps would at least be able to play the game while facing a three club wind in their face. The Ocean Course, through its many sets of tees and remarkably wide platforms of fairway which have been created to optimize the views of the natural surrounds, the Dye's give the player a unique experience with the golf course every single time.

Stuck behind one of the many hazards on the twisting fairway of #2.
The cross hazard is just in front of the tree

In order to keep the strategic interest up on a relatively linear version of a figure-8 routing, Dye has designed: crooked fairways that resemble corkscrews, offsets tees and green sites that bend around corners that most would never have even considered. All design choices appear to be in the name of variety, and difficultly, yet still the course remains remarkably playable.

Hole #2 is a wonderful example of how players are given multiple options from the tee, ample landing area, no matter which line they choose. Golfers also have the option whether to take on the cross hazard that divides the fairway into two. Amazingly the divide is no more than 15 yards, yet it always seems to play such a crucial part in the strategy of the par-5. Downwind, aggressive players can get home in two shots by cutting across bunkers, but most are left with an interesting decision. Trying to avoid the trees and bunkers that Pete Dye has placed as hazards carefully guarding the best angle into the green for lay-up shots isn't easy either on the country's hardest golf course.

More hazards breaking up the direct line between tee and green #4

As with most great golf courses that are also extremely difficult, the player is able to somewhat control the level of difficultly based on a series of risk/reward problems throughout the round. At The Ocean Course, a lot of the flexibility comes from the variety in teeing grounds, the rest comes from the line the player chooses. Again, drawing comparisons to the great diagonal carry hazards of A.W. Tillinghast at Bethpage Black and the punishing consequences of the flat bottom bunkers C.B. Macdonald designed at Yale, the Dye's use sandy waste areas on virtually every hole to provide some sort of risk for those who seek danger.

Options on the tee at #7, cut the corner or go the long way around.

Since opening in '91 there have continually been changes made to the course. Most of these changes have been attempts at keeping The Ocean Course playable. If you look at older pictures of the course, a lot of the grass faces on the bunkers or waste areas are new. Also some of the sandy brush around the green complexes have been replaced with chipping areas. As one of the caddies explained to me, these changes aren't exactly making the course a lot easier, but rather when hosting tournaments, they don't want championships being decided by rules committees examining plugged balls. Also anything to limit the time spent searching for lost balls helps out the paying customer as well. Pete Dye is constantly coming back to oversee changes.

#9 is very accepting of putts from off the green as well as bump and run shots

One of the most important features of The Ocean Course is its acceptance to the running approach. With miles and miles of pipe buried in the sand, the drainage system collects and recycles all the run off from the course back through the irrigation system, protecting the surrounding coastal environment. The course is now grassed with a version of Paspalum which is very tolerant to salt and brackish water. This strain of grass originating in South Africa also makes the ground game come alive on the wonderful undulating property that rare for this low-lying area of the country, the key factor in transforming a good seaside layout into a great one.

A beautifully picturesque risk/reward tee shot on #10 opens the back nine

The course really starts to heat up once you reach #13 tee. At this point the water is no longer something to oggle at, it is now a full on hazard and strategic design feature. The teeing ground here is aligned straight down the waters edge, but there is plenty of room on the left if the "Volcano Bunkers" can be avoided. A technique used on many Dye courses, the green is built out onto the waters edge with bulkheading, asking the golfer to take more risks on his approach to all pins on the right half of the green. Some might call #13 a version of the C.B. MacDonald's Cape Hole, and that may be true, but over the years Mr. Dye has developed quite a reputation for himself by drawing even the best golfers into his visual traps through his use of allusive angles, especially with water and hardline edges (bulkheads and railroad ties are among his favorites).

The moderately adventurous line on #13 is between the shelter and "Volcano
Bunkers", any shot right of the shelter requires nearly 300 yards of carry

From #14 on, right handed golfers must fight off the added distraction of the crashing waves directly in your face. #14-#18 get take the golfer closer and closer to the waters edge as you make your way back East towards the clubhouse. #14, a very difficult par-3, has the added difficulty of having to remember that you have just changed directions and are playing into a different wind. With plenty of grassy chipping area to the right, Pete and Alice Dye bring in so many options into the equation for the recovery as parts of this green will run away from you. Both the par-4 #15 and three shot par-5 #16 can offer a golfer a final chance at birdie. It is only after multiple plays that one can see how the greens have been designed to wrap around the large and steep waste areas, making some pin positions extremely difficult to get close to with longer caries and harder angles.

Ground contours invite a running draw from behind #15

The final two holes in Kiawah always provide plenty of excitement. Mildly reminiscent of the Dye's other work at TPC Sawgrass, #17 is a treacherous par-3 over water. While there is clearly some bailout area on the left to make the carry shorter, many average golfers will still be hitting driver off the tee when into the wind, an almost certain disaster, but not without the chance for truly memorable shot.

Hopefully you calculated the wind properly in order to carry up to 220 yards over water

#18 is no slouch either, although it does provide a significant advantage for those capable and willing to take on the dogleg. Balls that can just sneak around the corner of the bunker often catch a big slope where balls will trickle up to thirty yards closer to the green. The genius of #18 is that Dye has manufactured the slope so if a ball is played slightly left to go around the bunker, it must travel a lot further to catch the same slope and distance advantage. The final green is sandwiched between the clubhouse and ocean, while on a domed plateau, making a running approach shot from well back in the fairway still an option to get home.

A drive over this bunker will likely lead to a victory in the 2011 PGA Championship

What makes The Ocean Course such a fabulous golf course is that even though it is brutally difficult, it provides so much variety between the wind, tees and pin locations that you could play it everyday and never get bored. Many golfers who do not find pleasure in the quirk and intricacies that makes The Ocean Course often have only a single round on the course, or made the mistake of playing from the wrong tee markers. The Ocean Course is so far and away the best course on the Kiawah Island, don't waste your time at Turtle, Osprey or Cougar; The Ocean Course has everything a world class golf course should have... they just charge for it!

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