Eubanks: Ocean Course the Ultimate Test

Ocean Course Kiawah Island
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The beautiful and intimidating par-five 16th at the Ocean Course, Kiawah Island, S.C.
Steve Eubanks

Series: Eubanks

Published: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 | 10:05 p.m.

The visuals still hit the rawest of nerves.

There was Mark Calcavecchia: barefoot, weeping, inconsolable, and seemingly on the verge of marching into the waves to end it all.

And Hale Irwin: angry and anguished, his fate no longer in his hands.

There was Payne Stewart hiding his face, afraid to see the final seconds of the longest week of his life.

And then the grimace of Bernhard Langer, his knees buckling as he failed to make the longest five-foot par putt in golf.

More than two decades later, those images from the 1991 Ryder Cup, the "War by the Shore," on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, still cook up emotions in all who love the game. As well they should. That was the week the Ryder Cup entered the modern era and became more than just a golf event -- the week that shouting and flag waving, chanting USA, or singing "Ole,Ole, Ole" became standard fare.

Many people also remember the golf course. Again, for good reason.

"I think it’s one of the most visually intimidating golf courses you’ll ever play," said former PGA Champion Paul Azinger,who was on that 1991 U.S. team. "It is very difficult."

Nick Faldo said, "If we had to play this place with a pencil and a scorecard, we might never finish."

But a pencil and a scorecard is exactly what the players in the 94th PGA Championship will carry with them next week as they brave the Ocean Course for the first time in a major championship.

"I think people remember the Ryder Cup and remember how tough the golf course played that week," said Stephen Youngner, the head professional at the Ocean Course. "And if the wind picks up, it is very difficult. But it’s also fair."

Tough but fair is all anyone wants from a major championship venue, and the Ocean Course delivers. Sitting on the eastern tip of Kiawah and elevated so that ten holes are directly on the ocean and eight have Atlanti views, the layout has the look and feel of some of the world’s toughest links. Imagine Carnoustie in Coastal Carolina, and you’ll understand what the players will face.

But unlike traditional links, the Ocean Course cannot be played along the ground. There will be no stinger 2-irons running out 100 yards, and no bump-and-run approaches that land 30 yards short of the greens. Like most Pete Dye designs, the Ocean Course must be played in the air.

Dye has been back numerous times to soften the course since it debuted in 1991. Much of the high grass that gobbled up shots hit marginally off line during the Ryder Cup has been cut back or eliminated altogether. There are still plenty of run-offs, undulations, and forced carries to small targets, but there are also generous landing areas for well-played shots and bail-out zones which make holes more difficult, but still playable.

Good shots don’t necessarily yield easy birdies, but well-struck shots are not repelled either. You don't hit a five-iron that you think is perfect only to watch it ricochet into a hazard never to be seen again. Like all great courses, this one gives you a line where middle- to high handicappers can make bogeys or double bogeys without losing too many balls. But to make pars or birdies, you have to take greater risks, and you have to execute shots flawlessly.

"The genius of what Pete Dye did out there requires several rounds to figure out," Azinger said. "As a matter of fact, when we were preparing for the Ryder Cup I absolutely hated that course for the first three or four rounds. Then I began to see the strategy and the philosophy and the method to the madness. By the end of the week, I fell in love with the place. And there are not a lot of courses like that."

There also aren’t a lot of courses facing as many championship challenges. For starters, the Ocean Course is 1.2 miles long but only 500 yards across at its widest point. The front nine runs along the salt marshes and the back through the dunes along the sea. You could count the trees on your fingers and toes, and the wind blows from all directions, often shifting two or three times in the course of a round.

"There will be some logistical challenges, to be sure," Youngner acknowledged. "This is not going to be a championship where you have a lot of people following groups. This will be much more of a pick-a-spot-and-watch sort of championship."

Certainly a lot will be made of the PGA’s decision to play all sand areas as waste bunkers, even those at the greensides. You can’t blame them. The last thing anyone wants is another hiccup like the one that cost Dustin Johnson a spot in the 2010 playoff. It will be jarring to see players taking practice swings, grounding their clubs and removing loose impediments in the bunkers, at least for the first day or so. But after that, the beauty, brilliance, and bare-knuckle bawdiness of the golf course should capture everyone’s attention.

"It’s always hard, it’s always intimidating, and the wind will always be the great defender of that golf course," Azinger said. "But if you hit good shots out there, they remain good shots.

"And you better hit a bunch of them. Because if you don’t, that place will eat you alive."