KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — For the second consecutive season the PGA Championship comes to the fringes of Charles Howell’s childhood backyard, but Kiawah’s Ocean Course might as well be on the other side of the world for the native Augustan.
“I remember the 1991 Ryder Cup and watching some of that on TV, but other than that I have no history with it whatsoever,” Howell said of the extent of his familiarity with the venue that’s only a couple hours from his hometown. “I hadn’t played it until Monday.”
The closest Howell had ever been to the Ocean Course was 26 years ago when he accompanied his father to a conference on the island. Pete Dye hadn’t yet built the gruelling seaside venue, and the 7-year-old Howell only hit balls at nearby Turtle Point with the 7-iron he’d been given as an introduction to the game.
But a lack of local knowledge doesn’t mean Howell is uncomfortable as he embarks on his 37th career major start on Thursday.
“I like being in the South,” Howell said with a smile on the eve of the 94th PGA Championship.
The Ocean Course wasn’t exactly what Howell expected to find when he played his first practice round on Monday. The soft conditions because of heavy rains obviously were the biggest surprise on a course adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean, but it’s the layout that didn’t fit his expectations the most.
“There’s really no tricky holes out there,” he said. “I expected a little bit more linksy and blindish shots and you don’t really get that. With a good yardage book and one or two rounds around here you’re pretty good.
“I actually like it. It looks a little bit like Seaside at Sea Island. It’s got some similar looks to Whistling Straits. I think if you’ve played those two tournaments you’ve seen almost every hole out here.”
Howell was surprised to find the salt-resistant paspalum grass greens at Kiawah. He’s had experience on the unique surface before at Mayakoba Golf Course where the PGA Tour stops in Mexico.
“They’re really good – really good,” Howell said of the greens.
But the weather – with thunderstorms forecast for the rest of the week and warm temperatures in the mid- to upper 80s – remains the wild card on a course as exposed as Kiawah.
“I’d say it’s going to be a golf course that is highly weather dependent,” he said. “You get the wind blowing, the cross winds, and it will get tough pretty quick. If it’s calm I think you’ll see some pretty low scores, actually.”
Howell is a little puzzled with the PGA’s decision to play all of the sandy areas at Kiawah as waste areas considering that the bunkering on the Ocean Course seems far more defined than at Whistling Straits, where Dustin Johnson famously was kept out of a PGA playoff in 2010 for grounding his club in a trampled bunker well outside the gallery ropes.
What concerns Howell the most this week is that caddies have been given the option on whether or not to even rake the sand, meaning an obvious and commonly visited bunker like the one fronting the par-3 17th green could see a player’s hopes buried in a deep foot print.
“I understand why they did it but I don’t think it’s necessary,” Howell said of the preemptive ruling. “I think they’re well-defined enough. At Whistling Straits, they could have done it more than here. It’s the caddie’s option to rake the bunker? Hypothetically, if you don’t rake the bunker left of 17, I mean ... wow. That’s the more alarming part than the fact we’re going to play them all as waste areas, that raking is optional.”
With two weeks off to work on every facet of his game since tying for 64th at the British Open in July, Howell believes he’s as ready as anyone to claim the Wanamaker Trophy and extend the streak of different major winners to 17.
“You can argue that this is the deepest field of any major,” Howell said. “So it’s the best field on a golf course that really nobody has played.
“My game is getting better now. I don’t think in golf you have to be that far off to make it look more off. But I had a decent British Open without scoring particularly well and I’ve had two weeks off to work on it. So the game feels pretty good coming into this.”