2002: Raters get art lessons at Ocean Course, Cassique

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C.

When 60 Golfweek course raters gather, you know you’re in for some serious archi-talk-ture. Such was the case recently during the fifth annual Raters Cup, held this time at Kiawah Island Resort.

The road show is a central element in the education of our team on nuances of design, maintenance, ecology and sound golf course development. Golfweek is the only magazine in the country whose course raters regularly meet for such soirees. At these gatherings, there’s plenty of golf, but also presentations each evening and always a long, rambling – and occasionally contentious – afternoon workshop at which folks debate and discuss their views. The result, we hope, is better course rating.

Previous meetings have taken place at Daufuskie Island, S.C., Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Reynolds Plantation in Georgia and French Lick Springs Resort/Victoria National Golf Club in southern Indiana. Although we normally try to play at both classical (pre-1960) and modern (1960 and after) courses, this time around we gorged ourselves on strictly modern fare.

The immediate occasion was the reopening of the recently renovated Ocean Course, Pete Dye’s design gem that was the site of the 1991 Ryder Cup. The Ocean Course had just emerged from a $2.5 million upgrade, and we were the first to play it since its three-month shutdown. Thanks in large measure to the efforts of superintendent Kevin Wiles, the Ocean Course underwent a turf makeover that includes the grow-in of TifEagle greens, Bermuda 419 fairways and SeaIsle I paspalum teeing grounds. Along the way, the putting greens were modified slightly from their previous severity to accommodate the faster speeds of the new cultivar. The Ocean Course’s 18th green also was resituated 50 yards to the right of its original location, positioning it closer to the ocean for a more dramatic approach shot.

The biggest change was in the form of rebuilt tees that are now about 2 feet higher than before. The effect is stunning: much better vistas of fairway landing areas and of the ocean from just about every hole. Previously, play backed up quickly on the opening holes as a result of bad sight lines and several hard-to-see, mid-fairway wetlands hazards.

Years of negotiating with more than a dozen regulatory agencies brokered some accommodations. Instead of getting blocked up early with an anxiety that would stick with you the whole round, you can now appreciate the full breadth of these holes and play accordingly. As with all matters of design, small changes can have powerful effects.

A number of speakers explained the dynamics of the operation – each from a very different perspective. Dye impressed everyone with his homespun, self-effacing humor and account of how he built a course and opened it (just) in time for the Ryder Cup. Land planner and architect Mark Permar, who worked with Kiawah Development Partners, gave a detailed account of an eco-friendly development philosophy that preserved generous setbacks along beachfront and wildlife areas for alligators and pelicans, and limited build-out to only half of the allowable land. The resort’s longtime director of golf, Tommy Cuthbert, explained the ongoing improvements to the resort’s five golf courses. And Kiawah Island Club’s superintendent, Tommy Witt, CGCS, spoke about the environmental constraints of having to struggle with poor water quality – in his case, high mineral/salt content.

The surprise of the event was a day spent at Cassique, a private club on land adjoining Kiawah Island. There, we saw bold, almost angular mounds arising from an otherwise flat site. The look was jarring at first, until we realized that the features evoked the stark dunes landscape of a Ballybunion or Lahinch. Instead of the pop-up pyramids one sees on some highly stylized, artsy courses, these were part of interesting playing surfaces that made good strategic sense.

Nominal credit for the Cassique design goes to Tom Watson, though in fact much of the site work and conceptual planning was done by landscape architect (and former assistant golf professional) Charles Arrington, who is on staff with Kiawah Development Partners.

The first 10 holes of Cassique wound their way through these faux dunes, then gave way on Nos. 11-14 to native maritime oak groves, followed by marshy lowlands on Nos. 15-17. The 18th hole swept back inland and came to rest at a gracious clubhouse. The building, designed by the Connecticut-based firm of Shope Reno Wharton Associates, looked and felt inside like a 19th century English country garden mansion.

Art can be playful. There’s no need to be garish and spend millions of dollars on phony waterfalls. As the raters group discovered at Kiawah, architecture at its best involves elements that work within, not against, nature.

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