Course Spotlight

The Ocean Course Overview: The Variety

By Andy Johnson, The Fried Egg
Published on

Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg

Editor's Note: This is part two of a five-part series that overviews The Ocean Course in advance of the 2021 PGA Championship. Andy Johnson is the Founder of The Fried Egg, a website and podcast that covers golf course architecture and professional golf.

Variety is the spice of life, or so they say. It’s also a trait that many of the world’s greatest golf courses share. 
This year’s PGA Championship host, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, has outstanding variety in its design, particularly across its four excellent par 3s. Each of these holes has a different orientation to the wind, tests a different type of tee shot, and possesses a distinct set of design features.
Direction, distance, design
Ocean Course architect Pete Dye was uniquely skilled at creating par-3 variety. His secret sauce was routing each one-shot hole to play in a different direction. 
As covered in part one of this series, the most important characteristic of the Ocean Course, besides its setting, is the wind. It's rarely calm on Kiawah Island, and the wind doesn't have a prevailing direction. This means that holes of the same scorecard yardage can play to very different actual yardages if, say, one goes east and the other west. So by laying out each par 3 at the Ocean Course in a unique direction, Dye allowed Mother Nature to provide ample variety. Couple this routing trick with four distinctive hole designs, and you have a set of par 3s that could be considered the best of Dye’s career.
Because the course sits on a narrow strip of land, 16 of 18 holes travel either east or west. While every hole finds slight shifts in direction, the wind affects many of them similarly. But there are two holes that don’t go in either of the predominant directions, both par 3s: the 5th, which plays south, and the 17th, which plays northeast. Meanwhile, No. 14 runs east with the Ocean Course’s finishing stretch, and No. 8 sits along the westward return loop of the front nine. 
Standing over the tee shot on each of these holes, you’re definitely not thinking, “Oh, this feels just like the last par 3.” Instead, you will be confronting a new situation—a different wind, yardage, and design.
Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg
Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg
Hole 5 - Par 3 - 207 yards
After venturing east along the beautiful Lowcountry tidal marshes, the course reaches the end of the island and begins to turn around with the 5th. The hole faces due south, giving players their first full look at the Atlantic Ocean. Don’t let the yardage fool you: No. 5 has one of the largest, longest greens on the course, allowing the hole to play anywhere from 175 to 235 yards. The green has an hourglass shape that recalls the 17th at Pebble Beach, and it angles from right to left. A ridge divides the two halves of the hourglass, with the front much larger than the back. This green design offers “getable” pins in the front and extremely demanding ones in the back. In addition, the angle of the green encourages a right-to-left tee shot, and a back bunker awaits any player who attacks a back flag but bails out right.
Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg
Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg
Hole 8 - 197 yards
The 8th hole has a lot in common with the “volcano” design pioneered by Donald Ross. As the name suggests, a volcano green looks like a miniature mountain and repels misses in every direction. With its edges rolling away and its back hard against the marsh, the 8th green presents a small, intimidating target, only 15 yards wide. This is a do-or-die shot. If you’re not on the green, you’re likely scrambling from the sand or the junk well below the putting surface.
Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg
Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg
Hole 14 - 194 yards
If all it had was its location, the 14th would be one of the most memorable holes at the Ocean Course. It’s the first hole that runs right along the beach, and it kicks off the course’s iconic closing stretch. But the design of No. 14 has real substance. It’s almost exactly as long as the 8th, but it travels in the exact opposite direction. The green, according to Dye’s own account in Bury Me in a Pot Bunker, was modeled on the famous Redan template, running away and to the left. If the pin is in the back, players must land their tee shots well short in order to get close. Misses short left will find a deep bunker, and anything short right will leave uncomfortable recovery chips. The best mistake is to go long, ensuring an uphill chip or putt.
Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg
Photo by Andy Johnson / The Fried Egg
Hole 17 - 221 yards
This imposing penultimate hole has seen its share of disasters, most notably at the 1991 Ryder Cup. (Mark Calcavecchia and Bernhard Langer can tell you all about that.) A long par 3, the 17th plays over a lake that Alice Dye, Pete’s wife, recommended in order to add a dramatic element. On one of the most difficult courses in the world, this is arguably the most demanding shot. It’s long, and it has a wind direction that players haven’t seen yet. Plus, the green is angled from left to right between the dunes and the lake, punishing the typical misses for right-handers: short right and long left. Unlike the 5th and 14th, the 17th rewards a left-to-right ball flight. Par is a tremendous score.
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