KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Pete Dye won’t forget the gushing praise he heard from just about everyone about his new creation, The Ocean Course, as the world’s best players got ready for the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island in weather that was perfect for golf.
Then the wind blew in from the Atlantic Ocean, and that changed everything.
“They had a heck of time,” Dye said with a chuckle. “The trouble they had on those par 3s was unbelievable.”
It has taken more than two decades of tweaks – all overseen by Dye – and the PGA of America’s resolve to again make the feared course a showcase for the strongest field in golf for the PGA Championship, the final major of the year.
“It will be hard, but it will be fair,” said Roger Warren, the president of Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
Dye was commissioned more than two decades ago to fashion a course on piles and piles of sand alongside the Atlantic. He laughs now about those early, positive reviews, recalling how four-time major champion Ray Floyd told him during Ryder Cup practice the course was “the greatest thing ever,” after playing in a mild, southeasterly wind.
Few were smiling once gusts reached 20 knots.
“People ask if I designed the course like that on purpose,” Dye said.
All you have to do is look at the Ryder Cup that year to know why.
Floyd and Fred Couples hit 9-irons and wedges into the par-3 17th during practice rounds. They were hitting 3-iron and 3-wood on the weekend.
Wind carried balls into marshy hazards that would have never been in play in mild conditions. Mark Calcavecchia went 8-over par over the final four holes and lost a 4-up lead to Colin Montgomerie. Seve Ballesteros won a hole against Wayne Levi with a triple-bogey 7. Hale Irwin shot a 41 on his final nine – and still earned a halve that gave the Americans the cup in what became known as the “War on the Shore.”
Calcavecchia sat a sand dune staring at the ocean when he was done, believing he cost the United States the trophy. The lasting image of the match, though, was Bernhard Langer’s dazed expression after his missed 6-footer on the 18th hole would have allowed Europe to retain the Ryder Cup.
Floyd called it a course you should never play with a scorecard – and it took some time before anyone dared to try.
There was a Shell Wonderful World of Golf match between Annika Sorenstam and Dottie Pepper in 1996 and the World Cup in 1997 and 2003. The winning team in 1997 was Ireland, with a 26-year-old named Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley. The individual medal went to Montgomerie, one of only two times he left America with a trophy. Trevor Immelman and Rory Sabbatini won the World Cup six years later at Kiawah Island.
Perhaps the most attention the Ocean Course received came in 2000, when Robert Redford used the layout’s foggy, windswept holes as the backdrop for the mystical golf fantasy, The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
Warren was president of the PGA of America when the Ocean Course was awarded its major in 2005. He was thrilled in 1991 to watch the game’s top players scramble for success at The Ocean Course. But when he played there a few years later, Warren found out what Floyd, Irwin and others already knew.
“In many ways, I didn’t see it as being a fair golf course,” he said.
Warren understood things couldn’t stay that way if The Ocean Course hoped to lure South Carolina’s first major tournament.
Cosmetic improvements were under way before Warren’s arrival nine years ago. Fairways had been widened and sand dunes smoothed to keep more shots in play.
The fine-tuning increased the past 12 months as Dye’s crews reshaped bunkers to remedy years of blowing sand. Dye lengthened a bunker left of the green on the par-3 fifth hole so competitors might think twice about going after a back left pin. He hopes to entice golfers to go for it on the 593-yard 11th, removing high grass to form a collection area left of the green that would have been trouble in the past.
Not all of Dye’s touches are meant to help. About 10 years ago, the “Marquis de Sod” moved the 18th green 60 yards closer to the ocean, adding to the gulp factor that players feel before they get to the clubhouse.
“This course swims and it walks,” Dye said.
The course’s image makeover took a big step forward in 2001 when several golfers from that 1991 Ryder Cup returned for the UBS Warburg Cup, a now-defunct team competition for golfers 40 and over.
Calcavecchia, Irwin and Mark O’Meara were among the Americans who came back, while Nick Faldo and Langer played for Europe.
“You wish you could do it again a little better,” Irwin said back then. “I know Bernhard must feel the same way. I don’t think we played the best golf but boy, those were tough conditions.”
The course they faced won’t be anything like the current generation of stars will see next week. PGA officials set the course at 7,676 yards, the longest in major championship in history.
Calcavecchia said the Ocean Course was rough around the edges at that Ryder Cup, with players at the mercy of conditions they couldn’t control. The changes, he said, have made the course more playable.
“It’s still super tough,” he said. “But it’s not as nasty as it was in ‘91, I can promise you that.”