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The wind was whipping hard enough Wednesday at the Ocean Course to blow sand out of the bunkers. (Photo: The PGA of America)
The wind was whipping hard enough Wednesday at the Ocean Course to blow sand out of the bunkers. (Photo: The PGA of America)

The answer at Ocean Course blowing in the wind

If Wednesday was any indication of what the field can expect during the 68th Senior PGA Championship, players had better bring their "A" game and a chin strap for their hats. Befuddling and buffeting winds made an already treacherous Ocean Course more difficult, which has some in the field licking their chops and others shaking their heads.

By Lauren Deason, PGATOUR.com Editorial Coordinator

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- The word of the day Wednesday at the Senior PGA Championship? That'd definitely be "wind." It's almost Bubba in Forrest Gump-like around these parts, with phrases like gusty winds, breezy winds, light winds, strong winds, one-club winds, multi-club winds being uttered.

In fact, the written weather report for the week at Kiawah Island Golf Resort seems to have run out of synonyms for the word. But the players themselves can't stop talking about it, knowing they'll have four straight days of unpredictable gusts and breezes on the 7,201-yard Ocean Course, which was built less than two decades ago but already has a reputation for being one of the toughest in America.

"The length of the course, you can kind of throw that out. It's 7,200 yards but the wind is the story here," said Jay Haas, a South Carolina resident who has played the course half a dozen times in the past but who hasn't seen it blow as hard as it did Wednesday. "Yesterday there was basically no wind and it was still a club. Ten to 12 miles an hour is a pretty calm day out here."

The course certainly isn't lacking in spectacular scenery, especially since course designer Pete Dye altered his original plans in 1991 when wife Alice suggested raising the 18 holes above the sand dunes to allow for majestic views of the Atlantic Ocean. But with those views comes that nasty price -- game-altering winds.

"When you play a course like the Ocean Course, or you play in wind that can shift, you have to have a lift-and-shift mentality," said Hale Irwin, who saw wind from four different directions during the 1991 Ryder Cup played here. "You have to have flexibility in your game. You have to have been there, done that, experienced this."

Irwin was a vital member of that '91 U.S. Ryder Cup team that edged Europe on the final hole after a missed putt by Irwin's singles opponent Bernhard Langer. Irwin offers his unique perspective on the course changes, since he and his teammates were some of the first to ever play the venue.

"It was very raw (in 1991). You had a fairway that had a little bit of scruffy grass and sand. Then you had Pete's delights out there," said Irwin. "There's been some modifications, certainly some addition of those -- I don't know what to call those bunkers, they're not even bunkers, they're holes, lifted up holes."

Irwin noted, too, that grass has now grown in some areas and some of the course has softened, so there are probably more locations to aim for these days. But, changes in the bunkers plus -- and that pesky little word pops up again -- wind will make it quite a challenge.

"Depending on what happens with the wind, as you can see with any hard, by-the-sea golf course, it's affected by wind. Any different direction, it could manufacture some scores that will be unbelievably high," said Irwin.
 
Mark O'Meara, traditionally a strong wind player with five career wins at Pebble Beach, the 1985 Hawaiian Open and the 1998 British Open under his belt, feels good about his chances in his first Champions Tour major.

"When the wind is blowing like it is out there, it's a tough test," O'Meara said. "There's been times where it comes the other direction and it's interesting. It's like in that aspect it is a true links course because one day you can come out and hit a driver, 4-iron on the first hole, a 405-yard par 4, and the next day it might be a 3-wood and a sand wedge."

Links course or not -- Loren Roberts thinks it doesn't qualify as a U.S. version despite it's coastal proximity and sand dunes because "there's so many forced carries out here" -- is a subject up for debate.

But there's little doubt that winds will play a factor, as they typically do on seaside links courses. The Wednesday weather report predicted east-northeast winds averaging 15-25 miles per hour but with potential for 30-mph gusts. If that keeps up, expect Roberts and company to alter their strategy a little.

"The holes play so differently on this golf course depending on what direction the wind is blowing, it's really hard to come up with one kind of game plan that you want to play by. You have to go just by what you get every day when you get here," said Roberts, traditionally a low-ball hitter. "If it keeps blowing like this, it could be a war of attrition."

Roberts, who's long been known for his excellent putting skills, will take both the wind and the paspalum greens -- a type he thinks suits his style because it retains moisture better and doesn't have any grain to it -- into account this week. The Champions Tour really only faces paspalum surfaces in Hawaii, so it further adds to the course's toughness.

"It's a pretty unique, relatively newer type grass," O'Meara said of the seashore grass. "This will be the first time that I've actually putted on paspalum greens in competition. It's a different type of blade, a little bit thicker blade, but it doesn't have much grain out there, which is really unique."

The Senior PGA Championship boasts a strong field, with the likes of O'Meara, Roberts, Haas, Irwin, other returnees from the 1991 Ryder Cup squad and most of the best active players on the Champions Tour. But O'Meara for one is relieved to see that a certain Champions Tour star who seems to have luck on the paspalum grass is not amongst the contenders.

"Fred Funk won in Hawaii earlier this year on paspalum on the Champions Tour (the Turtle Bay Championship) and then he won the PGA TOUR event (the Mayakoba Golf Classic at Riviera Maya-Cancun) down in Mexico. That was on paspalum. So is Freddie playing here?" asked O'Meara, who then learned Funk would be competing on the PGA TOUR at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.

"I like that," he joked. "Let him play Colonial. It's one less guy we have to worry about. But they have a great field here this week."

Though he'll have to face a strong field, the elements and a unique putting surface, O'Meara isn't worried about the unpredictability. In fact, the changing wind conditions will be welcomed by the Champions Tour rookie.

"To me, that's kind of what golf's all about, to have change of the elements depict how the course is going to play."

 

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