The Pete Dye Ocean Course at Kiawah Island
This is a story and golf course review about the experience of an average baby boomer amateur golfer at the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course at Kiawah Island. Almost every golfer knows the pedigree of The Ocean Course. Host to the 1991 Ryder Cup “War by the Shore,” and the 2012 PGA Championship.
The course is on many “best of” lists, but if being in the Top 5 on both Golf and Golf Digest’s public course list doesn’t sell you, nothing else will.
The Fallacy with Golf Course Reviews
I’ve read dozens of course reviews by golf professionals, and scratch (or better) amateurs. I’ve read course reviews by those who are paid to do nothing but play golf courses and give course reviews (a job that many have lined up for, the line being about as long as the waiting list for Masters tickets).
I read some of those reviews when a buddy and I started planning a trip to drive to Kiawah and play the iconic Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course.
However, each of the course reviews I saw were by people who routinely shoot around par, play from the tips, and hit a driver around 300 yards. In other words, nothing like the great majority of golfers. I don’t understand that.
Why does any golf course use the top 5% of golfing talent to give a course review, and assume that translates to the other 95% of golfers that play the game? Half the reviews I see about any golf course, anywhere, start out with the exact same three words: “From the tips…”
I don’t get it.
A Review FOR the Average Golfer, BY an Average Golfer
As with most things in life, we don’t consider ourselves to be “average.” Just as at Lake Wobegon, where “All of the children are above average,” most of us put ourselves in that same “above average” category…whatever we think that means.
Therefore, for purposes of this review, I’m classifying myself as an “average” golfer. Someone whose index fluctuates between 11 and 14, who hits it 230-240 off the tee, who has a less than stellar short-game, and doesn’t practice as much as he should. And is a Baby Boomer.
Which, from everything I can ascertain, describes the majority of golfers who play the game.
The Ocean Course Review
Dear Ocean Course: I did not play from the tips. None of us did, even though the other three guys had played college golf. I didn’t even see the tips, unless we were walking by them to get to our set of tees. My buddy played from the Ocean Tees (6779 yds); a two-some we were paired with played from the Dye tees (6475 yds), and yours truly played from the Kiawah Tees (6202 yds). Therefore, I cannot begin this, in any good conscience, with “From the tips…”
I’m twice the age of my buddy and more than that ahead of the other two guys. Just another confirmation that there is an inexorable inverse relationship between age and distance. And in case you’re wondering, there are two sets of tees shorter than the Kiawah Tees. Which are plenty long enough, especially on the last five holes. But more about that later.
The Ocean Course is not a “links” course in the strict interpretation of “links,” but it does sit next to the ocean, is relatively flat, and has wind as a major defense. So it has many of the hallmarks of any links golf course.
Every hole is bordered by waste sandy areas. For the most part, you’re in the fairway, which are generously wide, or you’re in waste areas. There are no “bunkers,” therefore grounding your club is allowed anywhere, including around the green. Most waste areas are compacted sand or mostly so; playing from them is not terribly difficult. However, the lie from off the fairway will be hit-or-miss, based on whether the previous golfer raked (or didn’t) his previous shot.
But that wasn’t the couse’s toughest defense. The fairways, and areas around the greens were tightly mowed. I’ve played courses where the greens would compare to the green surrounds at Kiawah. In other words, chipping was problematic. The other guys in the foursome were much better chippers than I am, but each of them skulled and chunked a short shot or two. Those tightly mowed areas required a perfect strike. I learned pretty early to make my hybrid my friend and rely on the run-up shot.
And we all developed a new appreciation for how the professionals can play from around the greens on tour.
We teed off in late February at 8:30 on a clear, cool-but-thankfully-not-cold day. We shuttled to the first tee, which is a good quarter mile from the driving range and clubhouse, and started the round on an easy par-4. The number 15 handicap hole, in fact. A few nerves, and the futile effort to hit it as far as the other three guys resulted in a push-slice into the sandy/waste area which borders every hole. A snowman to start. Lovely.
It got better though. I bogeyed two and three (where all four of us were putting for birdie), and parred four. And parred eight. At that point I was confident I was going to break 100, which was my goal when I started.
The weather was remarkably warm, my buddy wore shorts, I was in long pants but just a golf shirt and was actually quite warm through the first seven holes. The wind was constant but not strong. Just enough to keep you aware and factor it in when making club selections.
We got to the halfway house, grabbed drinks and snacks, jumped back on a shuttle cart, and were driven another quarter mile or more to the number 10 tee.
The driving range and first nine holes are on the eastern side of the Ocean Course clubhouse. Holes one through four are inland, paralleling the Atlantic eastbound. Hole #5 is a par-3 toward the ocean, and holes six through nine border the ocean back west toward the clubhouse (and also are, generally speaking, with the prevailing breeze).
Number ten is on the western side of the clubhouse. Just as the first four holes are inland heading east, holes ten-thirteen are inland heading west.
And then you make the turn for home. Into the wind.
Somewhere about the time we made the turn, the weather decided to make a turn also. Clouds rolled in, and the temperature dropped a good ten degrees. Plus, the wind picked up to a steady 20 m.p.h. clip with gusts close to 30, and I went from being warm on #7 to wishing I had brought a jacket on #14.
The 14th hole is a par-3 that played at 151 yards for me. There was a caddie working for the two buddies playing with Shawn and myself, and as I was always hitting last, since I was playing the shortest set of tees, I asked him how much he judged the wind to be. “Two clubs, maybe three.” I took three extra, which was a four-iron, and was just short.
All of us were struggling with the wind, which was whipping at this point. On a couple of tee shots, I had trouble maintaining my balance. One of the guys hit a drive on 16 that started as a fade, and ended, I think, in the ocean 100 yards to our right.
On the famous par-3 seventeenth hole over water- the green where it seemed no one in the Ryder Cup matches could come close to hitting on the final day- none of us could either. No one could accept how much more club it took into that wind. I hit the bottom of the bulkhead, another guy did also, a couple others were shorter than that. We all got over from the drop zone, however.
And then there was the iconic eighteenth with the clubhouse just off the green. A 390-yard par 4 for me. I hit a good, solid drive. And a good, solid 3-hybrid. And I was still 75 yards short. A 52-degree wedge to the front of the green, and a 30-footer that dropped in for par! (I have witnesses!)
With the wind blowing like that, especially with the temperature in the low fifties, I estimate that two-over for those last five holes, even for the professional golfer, would equate to par or better.
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
- This course review is aimed at the average baby boomer golfer. Don’t think about playing this course from the tips. Like that sign says at Bethpage Black, “…which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers,” this course is difficult enough at modest length.
- If you haven’t played the course before, take a caddie. Shawn had played it a few times so he knew where to aim and where to hit it and I used his course knowledge.
- Be prepared to walk. Carts are only allowed after noon, it’s mandatory cart path only, and a forecaddie is required if you do take a cart. Plus, you’ll really fully experience the course only if you walk.
- Take a camera. There are several elevated tees that give a panorama of the course, or of the hole ahead.
- Walk across the bridge and tee off over the canal from the back tees on #13, even if you’re not playing the back tees. The view is worth it.</Embed from Getty Imagesl
- Take advantage of the specials they run during the February and March season. You certainly are gambling on the weather, but we played the Osprey Course (Fazio design) on Saturday and the Ocean Course on Sunday and saved hundreds of dollars by playing in February.
- Kiawah is a beautiful place, with five golf courses, several miles of bike and walking trails, a nature center, tennis center, and much more. If time (and money) allows, book an extra couple of days and take advantage of some of the other amenities.