KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Late on Monday afternoon, a weary-looking club professional who has qualified for the 94th PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course was entering the clubhouse after a practice round when another club pro was walking out. Synchronized shakes of the head were in order, no words necessary.
Finally, though, something needed to be said.
“This course is way too hard,” said one.
“Tell me about it,” came the reply.
There’s a reason Golf Digest has named these links along the Atlantic Ocean the toughest golf course in America. If you take into account its course rating (79.6) and slope (155), the Ocean Course is so difficult a test of golf that it’s driven grown men to tears — literally, and quite memorably.
Major championship golf comes to South Carolina for the first time with this week’s PGA Championship, but the Ocean Course is no stranger to hosting important international events. It held the 1991 Ryder Cup a few weeks after opening, and was twice the venue for the World Cup, in 1997 and 2003.
With length, lots of sand, and a steady, strong wind blowing in off the coast, it will take someone sharp in all areas to have a chance to win on the Ocean Course. As the PGA Championship gets set to start Thursday, the field of play, not just someone’s form, will play a large role in determining who wins this tournament.
“Just a demanding course. Back then, and even now, it’s a very demanding course, precise golf course where you’ve got to keep it in play and, you know, wait for your birdies,” said British Open champion Ernie Els, one of the few players here this week who has played competitive golf on the Ocean Course. He represented South Africa in the 1997 World Cup.
Like most championship courses, this one has changed over time. New tees have been added, bunkers built and removed. The biggest difference is the grass on the greens. It’s called paspalum, isn’t used much, and definitely takes a little time getting used to. For those who have played on paspalum, it could be a slight advantage.
“The Bear’s Club actually has paspalum,” Rory McIlroy said, referring to a popular club in Florida where a number of top tour pros belong. “We practice on paspalum all the time, me, Luke [Donald], Keegan [Bradley], Dustin [Johnson]. We are used to how it reacts and we practice on that stuff, so it’s actually quite nice.
“It’s very spiny. When you see guys chipping off greens and hitting wedge shots, it bites a lot. Even when the greens are firm, it just really grabs the ball. So you can be aggressive with your chip shots and definitely aggressive with your wedge shots, too.”
How aggressive might depend on the wind, how much rain falls, and how difficult the PGA of America decides to set up the course. With multiple tee boxes, the Ocean Course can play as long as 7,937 yards.
It’s been rainy for much of the week already — more is forecast — so the firm, fast conditions that Ocean Course designer Pete Dye envisioned probably won’t be possible. Without much roll off the tee, longer hitters will have a shorter time of it. Not necessarily easier, but shorter.
Another change is that the PGA of America has determined there are no bunkers on the course during the tournament. Lots of sand, yes. But no bunkers, which means whenever a player’s ball lands in one of the sandy areas, he’ll be able to take practice swings, ground his club, and remove loose impediments. Two years ago, in a similar spot at Whistling Straits, Johnson grounded his club on the final hole while in the lead and was given a two-shot penalty, costing him a chance at victory.
Of course, every other year the PGA Championship has Ryder Cup implications, and there’s no better spot to be than at Kiawah Island, where the ’91 matches turned what had been a congenial gathering into a full-throated throwdown, with camouflage, accusations of cheating, and a weeping Mark Calcavecchia (he halved his Sunday singles match after losing the last four holes) taking center stage.
If you want drama, the Ocean Course should deliver.
“I think it’s a tougher challenge now than it was in those days,” said Jose Maria Olazabal, this year’s European Ryder Cup captain and the only player in the field who participated in the 1991 matches.
Tiger Woods is the only US player to officially secure a Ryder Cup spot this year based on the points list; the top eight after the PGA will make the team, and US captain Davis Love will then add four more members the day after the Deutsche Bank Championship ends.
Jason Dufner, Bubba Watson, Bradley, Webb Simpson, Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, and Phil Mickelson round out the current top eight, with players such as Hunter Mahan (ninth), Steve Stricker (10th), Jim Furyk (11th), and Rickie Fowler (12th) hoping to qualify with strong showings at the PGA.
It won’t be easy. Four trips around the Ocean Course certainly will see to that.