Hurricanes, heartbreak and high scores: the story of Kiawah Island

·8 min read

If you happen to stand outside the clubhouse at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course next Sunday evening, you’ll see one of the country’s most beautiful courses stretched out along the Atlantic coast. Warm wind will be blowing, breezes and gusts alike, rippling the grass along the sand dunes that separate the beach from the fairways. The sun will be setting on another PGA Championship. It’s one of the more peaceful scenes in golf.

Unless you just got done playing. If that’s the case, you’re probably limping off the island with a few words that Kiawah won’t use to promote the Ocean Course in the future.

Kiawah is a spectacular South Carolina gem, a course that’s hosted one of the most contentious Ryder Cups ever, and one of the most dominant major performances ever. Named for a now-extinct tribe of Native Americans who had resided there for millennia, it’s remote — 30 surface-street miles from Charleston — and it’s got the muscle of a U.S. Open venue. Only here, the primary threat doesn’t come from the punishing rough on the ground; it comes from the unpredictable winds in the sky.

“I think this golf course is probably possibly the toughest championship course on a day-to-day basis that these players will ever see, especially if the wind blows a little bit,” Curtis Strange said last week. “If we have weather roll through here, wind coming off that Atlantic, it could be very, very hard. It could be really hard. We’ve seen that in the past.”

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is one of golf's gems. (Gary Kellner/The PGA of America via Getty Images)
The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island is one of golf's gems. (Gary Kellner/The PGA of America via Getty Images)

Designed by Pete Dye, whose name also evokes a curse or two among players, the Ocean Course runs in a figure-eight formation. Every hole has a view of the Atlantic, and this week, it’s playing 7,876 yards — 200 yards longer than the 2012 PGA, and the longest major championship course to date.

Golf Digest has deemed Kiawah’s track the toughest in the country. “The Ocean Course, strung along the Atlantic coastline with fairways and greens perched above sand, sea oats and sweetgrass, is perhaps (Dye’s) most Dye-abolical design,” Golf Digest wrote. “With forced carries over marshes (and) endless waste bunkers … the Ocean is a rare course that can bring tears and fears even to Tour pros.”

While the course is laid out like an Open Championship-style European links course, there’s one crucial difference: the greens are elevated six or more feet. That gives players a view of the ocean and fans a cinematic view of the players. More importantly for the purposes of the tournament, it means players can’t simply roll the ball up onto the green as in the Open Championship; they’ll need to fly it almost every time. And once they’re up there, they’ll be contending with the wind on every putt.

The wind. That’s where this course gets truly demonic. There is no prevailing wind at Kiawah, a long, thin island that runs east to west. Instead, breezes and gusts can come from any direction. A hole that’s playing downwind on Thursday can be playing straight into the teeth of the wind on Sunday … or even later in the afternoon on Thursday.

Kiawah was built to host the 1991 Ryder Cup. As in, the course didn’t even exist before 1991. The PGA of America decided in 1987 to move the event from PGA West California to South Carolina to dodge triple-digit heat and accommodate European viewing audiences, but that meant finding — or creating — a suitable venue. The PGA negotiated a deal with the owner of PGA West to relocate to another of the developer’s properties … an as-yet-undeveloped spit of land in coastal South Carolina.

Ian Woosnam on the final day of the 1991 Ryder Cup. (Stephen Munday /Allsport)
Ian Woosnam on the final day of the 1991 Ryder Cup. (Stephen Munday /Allsport)

Groundbreaking on the oceanside property had been underway in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hammered the South Carolina coast — coincidentally enough, the same weekend as the 1989 Ryder Cup at The Belfry in England. The eye of the hurricane struck Isle of Palms, S.C., about 15 miles up the coast from Kiawah, but the storm’s force still undid nearly all of the work already done on the property.

“Hugo made it easier to build the Ocean Course,” George Frye, director of golf maintenance at Kiawah in the late 1980s, told author Curt Sampson in 2012. “We only had a general [construction] permit. Pete went out and did what he wanted. No one had time to worry about what was going on at the Ocean Course. This whole county was torn all to hell.”

Dye had two years to work, and he did so virtually around the clock, despite heavy doubts from both sides. As Golfweek noted this week, European officials who visited the site in 1990 were so dismayed at the condition of the in-progress construction that they briefly considered withdrawing entirely. An American contingent led by captain Dave Stockton visited right after the 1991 Masters, and expressed similar doubts about the course.

But Dye knew what he was doing, and by the time the Ryder Cup rolled around in September, the course was in pristine condition. It delivered one of the great matches in Ryder Cup history, a bombastic back-and-forth dubbed “The War By The Shore.”

Played in the shadow of the Gulf War and the end of the Cold War, at a time when U.S. nationalism was at a particularly vocal peak, the Ryder Cup leveled up in 1991. Accusations of gamesmanship and/or poor sportsmanship abounded. Seve Ballesteros contended Paul Azinger and partner Chip Beck improperly changed balls midway through his Friday foursomes round; Azinger denied the charge, but later admitted to it when the chance to be penalized had passed. Raymond Floyd threatened Ballesteros for coincidentally coughing during Floyd’s backswing on Saturday. And the U.S. team pulled an injured but also overmatched Steve Pate from Sunday singles, halving the match and giving the American team a half-point the Europeans didn’t believe they deserved.

The tournament came down to the final putt, a six-footer by Europe’s Bernhard Langer. When he pushed the putt just past the right lip the hole, the U.S. won 14 ½ to 13 ½, instantly enshrining Kiawah Island among the Ryder Cup’s most memorable locales.

“If you go back and look at any of the video from the Ryder Cup that was there, anything can happen on this golf course,” Andy North said. “I mean, you can be 4-under par with six holes to play and shoot 75. I mean, that can happen here.”

Rory McIlroy, triumphant at Kiawah in 2012.  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy, triumphant at Kiawah in 2012. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

The PGA Championship first teed off in Kiawah in 2012, in the mosquito-ridden thick of a lowcountry summer. The Ryder Cup warriors of 1991 had long since retired, but Kiawah took a bite out of a new generation of players. The tournament ended up playing like a U.S. Open, with only one player finishing in under -5. Of course, that player happened to be Rory McIlroy, who finished a record-breaking eight strokes ahead of the pack.

“It's been great to win my first major last year and to back that up with another one this year; I can't ask for any more,” McIlroy said after the victory at Kiawah. “I just want to keep working hard, keep practicing, and hopefully there's a few more of these in my closet when my career finishes.” He's won two more majors to date.

Which brings us to 2021, and yet another generation of players is getting a first look at Kiawah, and realizing what lies ahead … and above. In 2012, five of the course’s six hardest holes were on the back nine, four of those in the final six. The last five holes could, depending on wind direction, play straight into the wind to wrap up the tournament.

“I played it for the first time [Monday],” Tony Finau said Tuesday. “It seemed more like a U.S. Open golf course to me, I think, if I'm being honest. I tipped it out. I wanted to play it at its max length. But I thought there were some long holes. There was enough wind [Monday] to cause some problems, so I thought it was quite tough.”

“The biggest challenge when you have a place like this, that's narrow targets and windy,” Jon Rahm said Tuesday, "is just having a clear picture and full commitment on the shot. It's what you've got to do. You've got to pick a shot and be fully committed to it, otherwise it's going to be impossible to get around this golf course.”

“I wouldn't say the Ocean Course is one that you venture to for fun. I come down here for vacation with my family,” Kevin Kisner said. “(I'd) rather be there by 14 tee at the beach club hanging out than standing on the 14th tee.”

Come Sunday evening, when the sun is setting out past the far edge of the second nine, someone will hoist the Wanamaker Trophy in triumph. After battling 72 holes at Kiawah, they’ll have earned it.

The Wanamaker Trophy, the PGA Championship's prize. (Gary Kellner/The PGA of America via Getty Images)
The Wanamaker Trophy, the PGA Championship's prize. (Gary Kellner/The PGA of America via Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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