Ocean Course at Kiawah
John & Jeannine Henebry
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The remarkable thing about the South Carolina Lowcountry isn't the golf or the food -- both of which are as strong and diverse as the voices in a choir -- or even the people, who are just plain good folks. It's the light, which makes you feel as if you've stepped into a Matisse landscape. Shine that light on landscapes by Pete Dye and Tom Fazio and you get something special.

The capital of the Lowcountry is Charleston, and from the airport it's 20 miles east to RiverTowne Country Club, a 7,200-yard course designed by Arnold Palmer. RiverTowne had two strikes against it before I got there. First -- and with apologies to TaylorMade and FootJoy -- I'm no fan of mashing words together. Second, I'm just as skeptical of quasi-Anglophilia when it comes to naming golf courses, particularly those opened in 2002, not 1802. (We can debate this when the British Open is staged at Ye Olde Course or MuirFielde.)

If the opening shot sets the tone for a round, then RiverTowne's is a bit too emblematic. The hazard-strewn, angled fairway at the 403-yard 1st hole would be a quirky start even if you knew the target line, never mind for 'Towne virgins, like my two travel buddies and myself. This is not the only point in the round when you question the King: There are oddly placed mounds, a tree that obstructs half the fairway off the 11th tee, and a perilously narrow approach on the long, elevated par-4 13th. Like its name, RiverTowne tries too hard to impress and instead comes across as awkward. Still, it's occasionally fun and a good snack track before the meat of the order arrives.

Charleston is the culinary capital of the South and the meat of the order here is seafood. We stopped by Hank's Seafood Restaurant in the cobblestone market district. My pals are small of stature but stout of stomach and the waiter was bug-eyed at the girth of our order. Hey, it was fuel for the hour-long drive to Kiawah Island Resort.

Too many people know this coastal haven only as the venue of the nastiest Ryder Cup in history but the infamous "War by the Shore" in 1991 might be the last time voices were raised in this genteel part of the country. Kiawah, a GOLF MAGAZINE Silver Medal Resort, proves that there's a distinction between discernment and snobbery.

There are five courses open to resort guests here. Our first outing was at Fazio's Osprey Point. This 6,871-yard track has a wealth of holes that fire both the aesthetic and golf imagination. Take the 175-yard 3rd, which is all carry over a marsh to a green surrounded by withered cedars. Poor ball striking here will teach you the truth behind a playful warning offered in the pro shop: "We don't sell balls here, we just rent 'em."

After lunch we cruised over to Cougar Point, a 6,875-yard Gary Player design on the island's western tip. Cougar turns out to be a real cool cat. That is until you reach the 11th, where it turns into something feral and slinky with wetlands and marshes encroaching onto the field of play. A few awkward holes on the finishing stretch -- a strangled lay-up area on the 542-yard 15th and a strangely conceived 415-yard closing hole -- declaw the layout a little. Despite that, it's mostly high marks for the second-most low-key course on the Kiawah rota. (Low-profile honors belong to Oak Point, Clyde Johnston's Everyman track a few miles away.)

Our appetites were exclusively for golf and food. But for those interested in something other than 36 holes a day, the island has a postcard-perfect 10-mile beach and enough bike trails to create a Tour de Kiawah. We opted to conserve energy for the Ocean Course.

Dye's masterpiece is a daunting examination over 7,296 yards (the slope from the tips is 155, the maximum USGA allowance) and has been known to make grown men cry. The usually unflappable Mark Calcavecchia was left weeping on the beach in 1991. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Crib Sheet: Lowcountry Lowdown
Kiawah Island Resort
Greens fees $95-$170, $78-$140 for resort guests (Cougar Point);
$190-$272, $162-$231 for guests (Ocean Course);
$108-$185, $89-$153 for guests (Osprey Point);
$108-$185, $89-$153 for guests (Turtle Point)
888-854-2924; kiawahresort.com

RiverTowne Country Club
Greens fees $70-$110
843-216-3777; rivertownecountryclub.com

Wild Dunes
Greens fees (Links) $140-$185, $90-$135 for resort guests
843-886-2164; wilddunes.com

For more information visit charleston.com.

The cart ride from the practice range to the 1st tee takes 30 seconds, but in that short span you travel back in time. The opening hole of this Paleozoic powerhouse is as stirring a start as you'll find anywhere. From the get-go the course has an epic quality that transcends mere scale, although the scale is immense, in part to accommodate the frequently ferocious wind. We caught the most unruffled day you could imagine, and the course was manageable thanks to a combination of the weather, the many open-front greens and Dye's softening of the layout over the past two years, which included thinning some gnarly dune grass. It's still hard as the dickens but didn't bring us to our knees, not even at the 528-yard 2nd, which demands two long carries over marshland. The only severe gust of wind rose as my 3-wood shot fell toward the flagstick at the 197-yard 17th, the very hole where Calc hit one off the hosel and crumbled when he needed only a double bogey to beat Colin Montgomerie. The cry of "Go in the jar!" from one of my partners so angered the golf gods that a sudden draft instead knocked my ball into the water -- and it wasn't even my hubris. Never mind: This is truly one of the titanic tests in golf.

After playing the Ocean Course, anything short of Pebble Beach will be a letdown for the afternoon round. But to be fair, Jack Nicklaus's 7,061-yard Turtle Point makes for a pleasing digestif after a sumptuous 18-course feast. Turtle Point is flat topographically and emotionally, but it's nice to be able to say that a Nicklaus course isn't too hard and doesn't require long, high fades. Even Jack seems to have caught Kiawah's mellow vibe.

The Sanctuary, Kiawah's much-anticipated, $125 million hotel, is set to open June 15. This invites the question, Sanctuary from what? The entire island is a haven from everyday stresses. About 150 oak and palmetto trees were removed from the hotel site during construction, planted elsewhere on the island, then returned to bracket the driveway. It's that kind of environmental sensitivity on which Kiawah has built its reputation. And how could quality not be the name of the game when The Sanctuary's food and beverage director is named Vijay Singh?

We returned to Charleston without enough daylight to take in the cultural highlights that make the Holy City one of the South's most enduring destinations. So we ended up at Tristan in the French Quarter, a two-time winner of Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence. No argument here. The pan-Asian fare more than makes up for a whiff of self-congratulatory hipness in the decor.

Just north of the city on the Isle of Palms, the 6,722-yard Links course at Wild Dunes Resort was Fazio's first solo design. The back nine at the GOLF MAGAZINE Silver Medalist sparkles, its gorgeous closing trio along the ocean concluding with the 501-yard 18th, which arcs much too gracefully to call a dogleg-right. Fazio's ascent began with Wild Dunes, but it's here that our journey ended.

The sun dips below the horizon, and again you see that distinctive Lowcountry gloaming, the quarter-turn of the kaleidoscope that creates the relaxing, soft focus. This light will live long enough in the mind's eye to beckon you back for some superb golf.

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