The difficult 18th hole at The Ocean Course demands precision play. (Photo: Getty Images)
The difficult 18th hole at The Ocean Course demands precision play. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dye's Ocean Course has matured into one of the best

In a scant two years, Pete Dye created a brilliant, if not maddening, golf course called The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, S.C. More than 15 years later, it is considered one of the elite layouts in the United States.

By Bradley S. Klein, Special to

Some deadlines are more pressing than others. In the history of golf course architecture, no promise of an opening date has weighed so heavily than the one that hung over Pete Dye's head for the two years he was designing and building The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.

The 1991 Ryder Cup had been scheduled to be played there long before the course even existed. And here it was, just two years before the event, and all he had out on the far eastern edge of a barrier island south of Charleston, S.C., was a perplexing topographic mishmash of wind-swept dunes, tidal ponds and marshes.

When he started, the property looked like nothing more than the set piece for a Hollywood movie about shipwreck survivors. Funny thing that, because when The Ocean Course finally debuted, it played about the same way, with golfers struggling to keep from collapsing and the whole world watching breathlessly as the best players from the European and the U.S. Ryder Cup teams got bowled over by the elements -- and their own nerves.

In typical Pete Dye fashion, his stunning design got both roasted and praised in the golf press, often in the same article. Genius, as it turns out, is all about stretching the limits and breaking new ground. At The Ocean Course he did more than that. In two years he created a brilliant, if maddening layout. Then he spent the next 15 years tweaking it some more.

Dye didn't design The Ocean Course. He built it in the field, which is precisely how he went about revolutionizing architecture when carving out Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., in 1964, The Golf Club in New Albany, Ohio, in 1967, Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C., in 1970, and the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in 1982. Likewise at Kiawah, he relied upon little more than a stick-figure routing plan as a starting point. It's a good thing he didn't overplan, since at the outset of the project, Hurricane Hugo came along and walloped the Charleston area, turning Kiawah Island into a battered beachfront and virtually denuding the intended site of vegetation.

A big part of the construction process entailed stabilizing the wind-blown dunes. Sea oats and beach grasses had to be painstakingly re-established, often by hand, with upward of 1 million plants grown in to re-create the dunes ecology.

What ultimately passed for detailed construction documents on The Ocean Course were basically done after the holes evolved in the ground. The basic character of the layout emerged from hundreds of man hours spent atop bulldozers, track hoes and trenchers. Dye himself, serving as general contractor, had rented all the equipment locally, then actually lived on site during construction, as did his chief associate for the project, Jason McCoy. Together, they commanded an army of 100 laborers, who spent a year building up dune ridges and shaping features to make them work for golf.

The routing itself was uncommonly simple: a big clockwise loop that returned to the clubhouse, followed by an equally big counterclockwise loop for the back nine. The routing meant that holes 5-9 and 14-18 played alongside the ocean.

• Blackwolf Run, Kohler,Wis.
• Crooked Stick GC, Carmel, Ind.
• Dye Course at The PGA GC, Port St. Lucie, Fla.
• The Golf Club, New Albany, Ohio
• Harbour Town Golf Links, Hilton Head, S.C.
• The Honors Course, Ooltewah,Tenn.
• Oak Tree GC, Edmond, Okla.
• The Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, S.C.
• TPC Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
• Straits Course, Kohler,Wis.
Take a tour of The Ocean Course!

The original plan was to emulate classical linksland and keep the holes down below, in the hollows. It was Alice Dye, Pete's wife and the person who actually ran his home-grown design business, who had the idea to prop the holes up to bring the ocean into view throughout the round. The result not only was an impressive visual treat but also one that would make wind a constant factor that golfers had to battle. When sprigging of the Bermudagrass started in August 1990, the raw site looked like a lunar landscape that had been blitzed by Rommel's army. Dye dismissed as irrelevant any concerns that the course wouldn't look natural. "Of course it's manufactured," he said. "If it were natural it wouldn't be a golf course."

But it also was hard to play. The tees were not greatly elevated; on the contrary, they were scattered about in the dunes in discrete angles, thus avoiding the Robert Trent Jones runway look and making the holes feel as if they emerged out of native dunescape. Given the dramatic nature of the landforms Dye created, it wasn't always easy spotting the landing area or the proper angle of attack. It didn't help playability that approaches into greens often ran through the Tifdwarf Bermudagrass surrounds (the same turf type as the greens) into sandy waste areas or, worse, into heavily grassed dunes.

Dye eventually changed the turf type of the approaches to the same 419 Bermuda used for the fairways. The new surrounds helped to serve as somewhat of a brake for overly bold approaches and at least kept them in play. Dye also eventually widened some of the landing areas, raised tees and made the fairways marginally more receptive. And for dramatic purposes, he also moved the green on the par-4 18th hole about 50 yards right, toward the ocean, thus bringing the ultimate hazard more into sight (and for some, into play).

Never one to rest with his completed work, even when it's highly regarded, Dye continued to tinker with the Ocean Course, making sure that it remains at the forefront of industry standards. That's why in 2003 he converted the greens to a specially cultivated variant of salt-tolerant Seashore Paspalum called OC03 (named after The Ocean Course). The turf is sturdier in the face of the wind and sea spray, and yet its surface can be tightly cropped without grain to provide smooth, speedy putting conditions. And when the 2012 PGA Championship comes to this site, you can bet Pete Dye will not have rested until he's tweaked the course for that major, too.

Today, The Ocean Course at Kiawah remains firmly ensconced among the elite U.S. courses. Playing it always is a test of nerve. But it also is a lovely stroll along and atop precious beach land. The Ocean Course at Kiawah just might be the last golf course built in the eastern U.S. with a majority of its holes on the oceanfront.

Bradley S. Klein writes about golf course architecture for Golfweek magazine. This story published with permission from the official journal of the 68th Senior PGA Championship.


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