Ocean Course is a flawed monster from golf's most mischievous man
KIAWAH ISLAND -- Pete Dye? Don't get me started. He's a prince among men, and when it comes to pasture plowing he's a hands-down (and hands-on) genius. My vote helped put Pete in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and there's nobody with whom I'd rather share a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride to the PGA Championship.
But since he's not actually sitting beside me as we crawl toward Kiawah Island, I'm going to rant about his Ocean Course.
The problem, as SI's Gary Van Sickle so adroitly pointed out yesterday, is that the Ocean Course is "linksy" without being an actual links. It's right on the sea, separated from the beach by a band of sea grasses and sand, but the fairways and greens do not sit on firm, fast linksland. The paspalum sward, especially when it's wet, is soft and clingy. Furthermore, the greens are exposed to the wind, fronted by bunkers and scalloped to facilitate drainage; they repel golf balls.
Did I mention that the Ocean Course is really, really long? It plays 7,610 yards from the I'm-kidding-myself tees.
None of which is a problem on a doldrums day like Thursday, when the sea breeze was barely perceptible. Forty-four pros broke par in the first round of the PGA, and they did it by smacking humongous drives onto the generous fairways and firing darts onto the clingy paspalum greens.
On Friday, however, the wind picked up and Kiawah's ocean environment reasserted itself. It would have been a totally great test of golf but for one thing -- the absence of a links course. Real links fairways are firm and bouncy in all conditions, allowing the skilled golfer to play low shots under the wind. Real links greens are protected from the wind by shielding dunes; they provide openings for pitch-and-run shots. Their contours turn great shots toward the hole.
The Ocean Course, sad to say, provides no such options. In Friday's gusty winds, the PGA field averaged a tournament-record 78.1 strokes per round, more than a stroke higher than the 54-year-old mark held by Pennsylvania's Llanerch Country Club. It was brutal fun for those of us who enjoy a good golf wreck, but it was hardly a fair test. Denied their full repertoire of links shots, the world's greatest golfers had to rely on their quotidian arsenal of high-trajectory shots.
Not surprisingly, most of them wound up looking like chumps. Ryder Cuppers missed the cut. Matt Kuchar -- Mr. Consistency! A Top-10 player! -- shot a second-round 82.
It's true, a handful of players were up to the challenge. Tiger Woods played brilliantly and drained some long putts to share the second-round lead with 69-shooter Vijay Singh. Phil Mickelson gave a scrambling clinic, getting up-and-down eight times out of ten to shoot 71 and creep onto the leaderboard. But any objective observer -- I nominate myself -- must conclude that the rest of the scoring was random. That's because Pete's Paspalum Patch pretty much negated shotmaking and course management. (Dare I use the word "luck"?)
Fans of the Ocean Course -- and there are several -- will find my critique unfair. You can't have true links conditions, they argue, in South Carolina's steam-laundry climate. Rye grass won't grow; you're stuck with Bermuda grass, zoysia, or the wonderfully salt-tolerant paspalum.
Point taken, but all the more reason to shelter your greens and make them more receptive to approach shots. A reasonable man might also cut down on the forced carries and push his lateral hazards a little farther to the side.
Am I saying that Pete Dye is not a reasonable man? Of course not. But I know him to be a mischievous man. I think half the devilment of the Ocean Course is simply Pete being Pete. But if you gave the great man a flood-plain site, I'm confident he wouldn't put his fairways and greens on the lowest ground.
That's why I'm at a loss to understand why Pete forced parkland-golf elements onto Kiawah's links-golf environment. The result is a course that oscillates between soft and unplayable for the pros and is totally vexing for amateurs of all abilities.
That said, I hope it blows like hell on Sunday. It would be a hoot to see someone win with a final-round 78.