PGA Championship: A chore by the shore

The 10th hole at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course.

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They said it couldn’t be done. And by they, that would be virtually everybody, from players and team captains to officials.

In a moment of candor, even golf-course architect Pete Dye had his doubts.

Build a Ryder Cup venue under the tightest of deadlines from scratch in the middle of swamp and marsh? Why, yes. That’s exactly what the PGA of America proposed doing, electing to move the 1991 rendition of the biennial competition from Palm Springs, Calif., to a new course on Kiawah Island, S.C. Sounds outrageous? Well, it was. And that’s not even taking into account all the adversity the project faced, from environmental concerns to Hurricane Hugo’s pummeling the three miles of isolated seashore a 21-mile drive southwest of Charleston.

“If you were prone to panic,” said former PGA executive director Jim Awtrey, “this would’ve put you under.”

Yet somehow, despite the forces seemingly working against it, Dye transformed The Ocean Course into one of America’s premier seaside courses, and the 1991 Ryder Cup was a dramatic, unmitigated success. Like a sports referee who is celebrated for not being involved in the game’s outcome, the story of the preparation of The Ocean Course has been forgotten, replaced by the indelible image of Germany’s Bernhard Langer missing the final putt of the final match at the final hole, giving the Ryder Cup to the United States. That week put Kiawah Island Golf Resort on the map, and its fame has proved to be lasting.

• • •

The story of how The Ocean Course came to be host of one of golf’s premier events is filled with nearly as much drama as the Cup itself.

Initially, the 1991 Ryder Cup had been scheduled for PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., as part of a broader licensing deal between the PGA of America and Landmark Development Co. When Awtrey became the PGA’s executive director in 1987, he expressed concerns over whether the Ryder Cup could succeed in the desert in September, when summer temperatures often haven’t fallen much from their triple-digit norms, residents stay mostly indoors and courses haven’t yet been overseeded.

“Add all those things up and it didn’t seem like it was going to be a successful event,” Awtrey said.

Television also played a role in the decision to move the event. Awtrey targeted TV as the centerpiece of his strategic plan to grow the PGA of America. The 1991 Ryder Cup marked the first time the organization received a television rights fee.

As a signal of its rising importance in the golf landscape, NBC signed on as broadcast partner for the weekend telecast, with USA Network covering Friday’s play. The British Broadcasting Corp. insisted that the Ryder Cup was an international event and that consideration should be given to European audiences, too. A five-hour time difference between England and the U.S. East Coast was bad enough, but an eight-hour difference, if the event were played on the West Coast, would diminish interest. With the lure of 211⁄2 hours of live coverage during prime viewing hours, Awtrey’s board gave him permission to consider moving the event to the Eastern time zone.

So Awtrey visited Joe Walser, Landmark’s co-founder and the man who gave Awtrey his first job in golf. Awtrey ticked off his list of reasons why the event was better suited to be played in the East and asked Walser to release the PGA from its contract.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think we can do that,’ ” Awtrey recalled.

Eventually, Walser offered a solution. Landmark had just purchased a new development in the South Carolina Lowcountry. There was some skepticism, recalled Pat Reilly, a member of the PGA of America’s board of directors at the time, that two years did not allow sufficient time for construction – nowadays, major-championship venues often are announced eight or 10 years in advance – but the PGA agreed to the move.

For the first time, the Ryder Cup had been awarded to a course that didn’t exist.

Instead of an old course, they settled for an old architect, joked Dye. In August 1988, Walser phoned Dye, who had designed Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Okla., site of the 1988 PGA Championship, for Landmark. When Dye first arrived at Kiawah, he knew he had his work cut out.

“I was looking at a swamp, and they said, ‘We’re going to have the Ryder Cup here in two years.’ I didn’t say anything. You couldn’t walk into it. It was that bad,” Dye recalled.

Some might have called it impossible to carve a course out of those seaside dunes. But Dye also realized Kiawah’s potential. In one direction were unspoiled ocean views; to the other, saltwater marshes. “I’m like a kid with a lollipop,” Dye said at the time. “This is the best piece of land that I have worked on in the Northern Hemisphere.”

Before long, Dye began pointing out potential holes to Awtrey.

“See, Jim, it doglegs off to the right and the green’s up by that mound right there,” Awtrey said, recalling Dye’s visit. “And I said, ‘Pete, I don’t see anything but sand and marsh.’ ”

Dye envisioned a routing where the first nine holes would loop clockwise to the east and the back nine would loop counterclockwise to the west. He sketched 10 holes along the Atlantic Ocean. After a lengthy permitting process, they turned the first shovel of soil in July 1989. Dye and his wife, Alice, moved to Kiawah.

• • •

Everything was progressing on schedule until Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of up to 140 mph, hit just north of Charleston in late September 1989.

At the time, the Ryder Cup was being contested at The Belfry in England. From a continent away, Awtrey and his staff watched on TV as Hugo destroyed much of Dye’s work. Back on Kiawah Island, evidence of Hugo’s fury was everywhere. Trees had blown down. Access roads were closed. Sand dunes were pummeled. Dye used a rowboat with an electric motor to navigate the course and get fuel and water so they could continue working.

Growing concern resurfaced that the course would never be ready for the Ryder Cup. Despite the setback, workers patched washouts and transplanted more than 1 million plants. The Army Corps of Engineers permitted Dye to reconstruct the dunes line. For months, a battalion of workers toiled nearly around the clock. Dye often was right alongside the laborers, steering a bulldozer, clearing brush, raking a finished green.

The PGA of America also moved the 1990 PGA Cup, a Ryder Cup-format competition for club professionals, from PGA West to Kiawah’s Turtle Point course in September. With a year to go until the Ryder Cup, this gave European officials a chance to preview the site. To a man, every person who visited The Ocean Course agreed it would never be in proper condition in time. European PGA executive director John Lindsey was the most vocal, informing Awtrey in a meeting that he intended to tell his side to cancel their travel plans.

“That was probably as upset as I got in the early years,” Awtrey said. But it wasn’t just the other side that had its doubts. After the 1991 Masters, U.S. team captain Dave Stockton invited prospective team members to Kiawah. Awtrey tried to persuade Stockton to wait. The course had just been seeded and the greens weren’t ready. Word could spread that the course wasn’t, either. Stockton and players came anyway.

Bermudagrass grows quickly in the South, and by September, the course was ready. U.S. team member Raymond Floyd called The Ocean Course “a masterpiece.”

“It looked like a million dollars,” Dye said.

When Awtrey attended the 1991 Open Championship in July, he brought photos that showed the clubhouse facility was complete and serving meals. A newly constructed, four-lane road was paved a few weeks before the Ryder Cup got under way. Under great duress, everything fell into place.

“Could we do it today?” Awtrey asked. “No way.”

But they did. Against all odds.

“Everything was going against it,” said Joe Steranka, currently the executive director of the PGA of America and a senior director under Awtrey at the time, “and yet somehow they pulled it off and it became one of the great spectacles in all of golf.”

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