This year’s PGA Championship plays out on one of the country’s most distinctive golf landscapes.
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort occupies the far eastern end of a barrier island of the South Carolina shore, 15 miles due south of Charleston. The course was designed by Pete Dye and built at a furious pace, opening (barely) in time to hold the 1991 Ryder Cup, the famous “War by the Shore” at which the U.S. eked out the narrowest of victories. There the winds howled, players came to grief and spectators and viewers at home were stunned. Resort guests have been flocking ever since to a layout ranked No. 19 on the Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list.
The native site was a wild combination of tidal marshes, freshwater ponds and sand dunes. At the suggestion of Dye’s wife, Alice, the playing corridors for the holes were built up to afford views of the Atlantic Ocean to the south as well as to expose golfers to the winds. The result is an extremely challenging experience of golf in the raw. For the PGA Championship, the par-72 Ocean Course will play 7,676 yards.
The routing of the course is simple in the extreme, in the shape of an elongated figure eight. The first four holes, on the inland side of the layout, head due east. The course turns back at the fifth hole, then heads on a straight line back west for Nos. 6-13 with the ocean on the left, and the last five holes head back due west, this time with the ocean on the right. The prevailing wind is out of the west-southwest, meaning that the course tends to play downwind, then a long stretch into the wind, and it finishes on the downwind side. Whatever the direction, however, wind is a constant factor.
As for all that sand, for the first time in modern championship history all of it will play as “through the green” rather than as a hazard, or bunker. That means we’ll see unusual images of players removing rocks from around their golf balls, grounding their clubs and taking practice swings, even from well-defined sandy areas adjacent to greens.
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No. 1, Par 4, 396 yards
This is the least characteristic hole on the course, largely because it’s farthest away from the ocean and plays out of a low, narrow chute framed on the right by some of the few trees found here. No need for a driver. All that counts is getting into position left of center for a clear approach shot around (or over) a sandy area front right into this relatively easy starter hole.
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No. 2, par 5, 557 yards
A double-dogleg, with two forced carries. The first one, off the tee, isn’t an issue for the PGA Championship. The real demand here is keeping the ball in play and favoring the left side, which is why, with the hole playing down the prevailing wind, many players will opt for less than a driver. A second crossing, 100 yards short of the green, is relevant for anyone laying up. Holding the green is no simple matter because the surface is propped up and presents a shallow angle of approach just behind a large sand dune that protects it up front.
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No. 3, par 4, 390 yards
A fascinating little hole, with the chief issue being a top-hat green protected by two live oaks 35 yards short, right smack in the middle of the widest fairway on the course. Downwind, this hole might be almost drivable, but the smart play is to lay back and come at the small, convex putting surface with a short iron.
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No. 4, par 4, 458 yards
One of the hardest holes here, thanks to a narrow, marsh-lined landing area off the tee and a green canted diagonally that’s well protected short, right and long. It’s especially difficult to hold this putting surface downwind. Expect to see a lot of second shots played wide left into a low bailout of a chipping area.
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No. 5, par 3, 188 yards
Here at the far eastern end of the course, the routing starts to turn back. The long green snakes wide right into a well-protected back-left corner and usually plays with a crosswind from the right that drives approaches into the large sandy waste area along the entire left side.
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No. 6, par 4, 480 yards
This is the first of eight consecutive holes playing headlong into the prevailing wind. A long sandy waste area down the entire left tends to nudge players wide right – an effect exaggerated by the wind, and one that can leave players with a long second shot.
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No. 7, par 5, 579 yards
In typical Pete Dye fashion, the safe side far left is miles wide and the shortest, most tempting path to the green is heavily defended by deep sand on the inside right. Half the green sits like a peninsula above a sandy falloff below (and behind), making it important to control the run-out on full-bore shots into this elevated, exposed putting surface.
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No. 8, par 3, 198 yards
Another exposed, tabletop green, this one with steep falloffs all around that make it crucial for the ball to be flown in. The hole is really hard to play when the wind flips and it’s behind the golfers because the run-up on the steep, closely-mown front is small. Almost anything landing on the green bounds over.
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No. 9, par 4, 494 yards
A big sweeping dogleg left that sets up best from the right into a green that cants diagonally to the left and which will leave many approach shots running through off into the right or feeding into a little pot bunker in the back (even if it’s not technically a bunker, it’ll play like one).
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No. 10, par 4, 447 yards
A terrifying hole from the tee, as the tee shot aligns players right into a 15-foot-deep sand pit that’s 290 yards to carry. Typical Dye: Just to the left of that, if you carry that sand, is a speed slot in the fairway that feeds you way ahead into the ideal approach zone. Yank the drive a touch and the fairway dead ends into gnarly beach grass.
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No. 11, par 5, 593 yards
This is the mirror image of the par-5 second hole, thanks to a double dogleg that goes right on the tee shot and left into the green, in both cases tacking along severely punitive sand obstacles. The green used to be framed by high dunes but has been opened for ideal spectator viewing on what promises to be an exciting hole, given the approach bunkers 40 yards short and the large chipping area for recovery from the left of the green.
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No. 12, par 4, 412 yards
Straightaway, with the fairway pinched more narrowly than ever by marsh right and sandy waste and bunkers left; there’s a good chance that at least one day of the PGA Championship (probably the weekend) the tee will be moved way up and the hole will play as a circa 325-yard, drivable par 4. That’s why officials also added bunker-like pits of sand in the neck of the approach into the green – a putting surface that’s tilted toward a water-filled canal that touches the right of the green.
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No. 13, par 4, 497 yards
Seat belts, please! Dye originally built tees way back on the far side of the marsh here, “just in case” they thought he was nuts. Well, they were right. Mark it down: This will be the hardest hole on the course thanks to a diagonal drive across a narrow channel that laps the entire right and comes into play dramatically off the tee and again on the second shot. As if that weren’t enough into a prevailing wind from the right, the fairway virtually has been shut on the left by five sand-filled pits 300 yards out that will catch a power draw hit from the tee.
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No. 14, par 3, 238 yards
It’s really hard to play target golf in a links environment, yet that’s what players will be expected to do at this newly lengthened hole. The hole actually is harder downwind than upwind thanks to a perched green on a slight diagonal left that rolls off steeply on the far side, and the near side brings a steep sandy area into play. Landing the ball on this green is hard enough; getting it to stop is the real battle.
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No. 15, par 4, 444 yards
Lots of landing area here, though most of it is on the near side of a defile in the fairway at 310 yards out, which downwind means that many players will chose between laying back safely (leaving a 175-yard approach) or risking trouble while trying to bust a drive through to the other side (leaving a 125-yard approach). With ocean beachfront dunes looming on the right and wrapping around the back of the green, the hole makes for a theatrical amphitheater.
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No. 16, par 5, 581 yards
The tee shot plays out over a lagoon, leaving golfers confronting a classic example of offset hazards on opposite sides that create all sorts of options. The safe play is short left, leaving a partially obscured third shot; the bolder line flirts with a high dune and blind bunker on the right but leaves an ideal shelf for a little third shot with an important choice on the second shot. Usually, greenside bunkers are not bad landing areas for second shots, but the depth and scale of this one on the left leaves a long, awkward recovery to a small green.
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No. 17, par 3, 223 yards
Not likely to play to its full length, as it’s hard enough from the 200-yard tees whence Mark Calcavecchia cold-topped his 2-iron into the pond in a match with Colin Montgomerie during the closing stages of the 1991 Ryder Cup. Dye, a genius with angles, aligns his tees here along one axis and aligns the green on a parallel axis, creating a maddening line of approach for the golfer who’s trying to calculate the combined effects of wind, anxiety and ego.
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No. 18, par 4, 501 yards
Over the years, Dye has moved this hole much closer to the Atlantic Ocean: first by shifting the green, then more recently by nudging the tee into the dunes. It’s now too long of a carry to try to cut the dogleg right by blowing it over the corner. Thus, players will be favoring the left and center and facing a 200-yard approach shot to a putting surface that invites a long run-up.