Pete Dye swallowed hard as Hurricane Hugo and its 130 m.ph. winds swirled north toward Kiawah Island, some 21 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina. It was September 1989, and his team had just begun construction on the Ocean Course.
The highly anticipated layout was awarded the 1991 Ryder Cup Matches before ground had even been broken. The PGA was counting on Dye to carve greatness from this extraordinary landscape — and to do so quickly. Even the slightest delay could be disastrous.
Hugo had other plans. The hurricane brought construction to a screeching halt and left the island a shell of its former self. Access roads were submerged underwater, sand dunes reshaped, oaks stripped and palmettos decapitated. The course, most thought, would never be ready. Dye promised it would, and his team persevered, eager to prove the skeptics wrong. Long, arduous work days — and even some floodlit work nights — ensued, and bit by bit the layout took shape.
The rest, of course, is well-documented history. True to his word, Dye finished the Ocean Course in time for the Ryder Cup, which turned out to be one of the most riveting and emotional tournaments in modern competition.
The Kiawah Island Golf and Tennis Resort not only survived Hugo, but has thrived ever since. And it’s not alone. Two other resorts in the Charleston Lowcountry have also risen up the ranks, thanks in part to major renovations since Hugo’s departure: The Conference Resort at Seabrook Island, just minutes south of Kiawah, and the Wild Dunes Resort, about 20 miles northeast on the Isle of Palms.
Though neither has the acreage nor the environmental diversity to compete with Kiawah, each possesses its own charm and stellar courses. Adding to the appeal of all three resorts is their close proximity to Charleston, a classic Southern town with a rich history just a 30- minute drive away.
Kiawah is king here though, and it doesn’t appear it will relinquish its crown anytime soon. It is the state’s, and arguably the southeast’s (with a nod to Pinehurst), premier golf resort, showcasing five exceptional courses.
The island also offers a variety of accommodations — the 150-room oceanfront Kiawah Inn, numerous beach and golf villas and 600 private homes — and will break ground this spring on a $105-million, 311-room luxury hotel.
The resort also has remained committed to preserving the environment. And for good reason. This 10,000 acre barrier island, which derived its name from the Kiawah Indian tribe that inhabited this territory in the 17th century, is teeming with wildlife. It’s home to more than 200 species of birds, 30 species of reptiles and amphibians and 18 species of mammals, many of which are often spotted on (or above) the golf courses.
The variety of environs on the island explains in part why each course here is a unique experience. A five-minute drive in almost any direction may have you crossing a wooden bridge over an expanse of salt-water marsh — through which the resort offers guided kayak tours — under a shady oak-covered pass, or on the Atlantic coastline.
As you might expect, the closest course to the island’s 10-mile long beach is the Ocean Course. Reminiscent of British Isles-style links, the layout runs parallel to the ocean and winds through sandy dunes. Like most epic tracks, however, admission doesn’t come cheap. As a resort guest, green fees will cost you an additional $80 on top of any stay-and-play package you have booked; outsiders must cough up $245 during peak season. All of Kiawah’s courses are open to the public, though guests do receive discounted green fees and preferred tee times.
But don’t think twice: if you only play one round at Kiawah, play the Ocean Course. It’s majestic. Forget the golf — just for a minute — and you realize what is so special about this delicate strip of land on the northeastern tip of the island. The layout offers panoramic views of the Atlantic, golden saltwater marshes, sea oat- and sweet grass-covered dunes, and refreshingly, very few homes (though some of the grandiose homes that do spot the course take the space of what two or three modest abodes might fill). None, however, are visible on the front nine, which blends in wonderfully with its natural surroundings.
What is most magical about the Ocean Course, however, is what you can’t see — the unpredictable gusts of wind frenziedly dancing overhead. Because there are no prevailing winds, each hole and each shot can play differently from one day to the next.
Give Dye his due. He did a masterful job in crafting the course to make it playable in these conditions — even for the less gifted player. The generously sized greens are large enough to hold low-trajectory shots when the wind forces a long-iron approach, and the fairways for the most part are wide enough to accommodate a less than perfect tee shot. But if you do miss the fairway just slightly — and this is part of why the course is sloped a whopping 152 from the tips — locating your ball in the thick clumps of sea grass is often a futile chore. The Ocean Course is the only Kiawah track that offers forecaddies — their trained eyes can provide priceless assistance, so make use of them.
After a fairly benign opener, the examination begins on the grueling second, third and fourth holes.The second hole, a par five and one of the more interesting routings on the course, will have you scratching your head before every shot. The tee shot over marsh lures you to cut off as much of a dogleg left as you can stomach — there’s trouble all down the left side — while the second shot tempts you to clear another stretch of marsh about 100 yards shy of the narrow and elevated green. The number-one handicap, par-four fourth requires two carries over marsh, and can be just plain nasty when the wind is up. Dye is returning to reshape this hole into a par three, because the two marsh crossings have been deemed unfair.
The front nine returns to the clubhouse, but if you’re a walker — hoofing it is welcomed at the Ocean Course — it’s a long hike to the tenth tee; a staffer, however, will happily whisk you there by cart (and also back to the clubhouse from the 18th). Between the nines is a practice area and an actual 19th hole.
The extra par four, though not in use, was built specifically for “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” parts of which were filmed on the island.
The back nine runs closer to the sea and emits a greater feel of links golf. The holes wind through a variety of sea grasses and large sand dunes. Though many of the tractor-formed fairways have sharp, unnatural-looking edges — not uncommon for a Dye design — which detract somewhat from the natural flow, this nine is as genuine a stretch of links as any on the east coast.
Dye’s wife Alice suggested placing an eight-acre lake between the tee boxes and green on the penultimate hole, the magnificent and now world-famous 200-yard par three. Few golf fans will forget the sight of numerous Europeans and Americans plunking multiple tee shots into this lake on the final afternoon of the 1991 Ryder Cup. Since then, thousands have tried to better the efforts of their heroes on the fateful 17th, most to no avail. Just one year after the Ryder Cup, the lake was dredged and 34,000 golf balls were recovered. “We don’t sell balls here,” they joke at the golf shop, “we only rent them.”
In stark contrast to the Ocean Course’s unkempt feel is Osprey Point, Tom Fazio’s immaculately manicured parkland layout. At just over 6,089 yards from the white tees, it’s not overpowering for the middle-handicapper, and if you can hit your irons straight, pars and better will follow. Fazio is a master of luring you to take chances, however. Three par fours on the course play to less than 350 yards — from the championship tees. But inaccurate shots on each can spell trouble. A pair of par threes, the 161-yard third and the 168-yard 11th, are two of the most attractive holes on the course. Both require a carry over a large expanse of salt marsh and are protected by front greenside bunkers. The 11th also features one of the most interesting greens on the course — a deep but narrow surface with a natural backboard on the left end that feeds tee shots (and putts) from back to front. Water is a factor on no less than a dozen holes.
Heading south from Osprey, you’ll find Jack Nicklaus’s Turtle Point. Another parkland (for the most part) course, Turtle explodes rather unexpectedly onto the oceanfront at the par-three 14th. Though the ocean holes are superb, a number of homes encroach on the fairways, at times making you feel like you’re hitting recovery shots from someone’s back yard. A new clubhouse and teaching facility also are under construction at Turtle and should be completed by year’s end.
The final two layouts on Kiawah are Cougar Point and Oak Point, which is actually located just outside the island gates. Cougar Point, a Gary Player design, was built on the site of the former Marsh Point Golf Course, also a Player routing and Kiawah’s first loop. Built in 1976, Marsh Point was originally a par-62 executive course. Player returned in 1996 to lengthen and strengthen his layout, creating a 6,523-yard beauty with forgiving fairways, open-faced greens and scenic marshes. Oak Point, the newest addition to Kiawah and a Clyde Johnston design, was built on a former indigo and cotton plantation. It’s got a bit of everything: salt marshes, riverside hole, Scottish-style bunkers, live oaks and palmettos.
Within a lob wedge of the Kiawah entrance are the gates to The Conference Resort on Seabrook Island. A charming canopy of live oaks hang over much of Seabrook’s access road, creating a sense of seclusion and privacy before you even get out of your car. It’s a private equity club (with about 1,200 members) and a stay-and-play resort, which means unless you’re a resident of the island or staying at the 1,100-acre resort, Seabrook’s two golf courses (and the entire island for that matter) are off limits. This exclusivity means less crowds and more of a country club feel.
The golf at Seabrook may be one of the Lowcountry’s best kept secrets. Nowhere in the Charleston area will you find bentgrass greens other than on Seabrook’s Crooked Oaks course. During a $2.3 million renovation in 1999, the club replaced its Bermuda greens with Crenshaw bentgrass, a risky venture considering the difficulty of maintaining bentgrass in the often mercilessly hot Carolinian climate. They did however, and installed a sub-air system under each of the greens which can both pump cool air and drain excess water. The investment has paid off and today the greens roll beautifully.
Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., this layout is one of the most heavily wooded in the area. The course’s namesake, a large crooked oak, comes into play down the left side of the fairway on the challenging par-four fourth. A well-positioned drive must either clear the top of the oak or draw around it. The approach shot must carry a sizable marsh to a medium-sized green. The eighth, a 355-yard dogleg left par four, may the best hole on the front nine.
Ocean Winds, Seabrook’s second offering, is a Willard Byrd design and the more difficult of the two tracks. Like Turtle Point, it evolves from parkland to seaside, and back to parkland.
Things start to get interesting on the 389-yard par-four fourth. From the turn in a hard dogleg right, you’re left with 175 yards to reach a green guarded left and center by bunkers. The 13th, a straightaway par four, is the first hole to play directly toward the ocean and that means battling the prevailing wind. From the green you get your first glimpse of the Atlantic sparkling behind a field of myrtle trees. The hole plays over a salt marsh and the green is fronted by two large bunkers.
On the northern tip of the Isle of Palms, about an hour’s drive north of Kiawah and Seabrook, and 20 minutes from downtown Charleston, is Wild Dunes. Closer to Seabrook in size but more like Kiawah in atmosphere, both courses and one of its beaches are open to the public. The results of Hugo, such as the wind-burned oaks and rebuilt dunes, which pounded the Isle of Palms perhaps harder than any part of Charleston, still linger.
The Links Course, the main attraction at Wild Dunes and Tom Fazio’s first solo project, features massive sand dunes and two unforgettable ocean holes, the 17th and 18th.
The par four 17th, positioned directly parallel to the Atlantic, requires two strong shots into a left-to-right wind for any chance at par. The closer, a 489-yard par five, also along the coastline, is a classic. It can play as a two-shotter depending on the wind, but three carefully placed shots will take the dunes out of play.
After Hugo obliterated the Harbor Course, Fazio returned and essentially started again from scratch. Today the course resembles nothing of its former self. Once a par 72, it’s now a par 70 with a trio of par threes on each side. The Harbor’s first two holes may be the Lowcountry’s most formidable one-two punch. On the narrow par-five opener any shot pulled left will find water. The same holds true for the unforgiving second hole, a 437-yard par four. The back nine features one of the best-looking holes on either course, the 416-yard par-four 17th.
While it’s difficult to avoid the wind anywhere in the Lowcountry, don’t let that scare you away — negotiating the breeze is all part of the challenge. Keep in mind that resort golf here is open for play year-round. So though you may curse the wind on a chilly morning in February, it can be your best friend on a steamy day in August.
Alan Bastable is an Associate Editor of The Met Golfer magazine.