This latest round on the Kiawah Island Ocean Course marked my chance for redemption. During my first round on the course I played with rental clubs, was intimidated by the “hardest course in the United States” moniker, and I didn’t really embrace the beautiful course. Five years later, I got another crack at it and I found the course to be much more enjoyable. We teed off at 3PM on a gorgeous South Carolina Saturday and we finished with the sun setting on our backs… Does it get any better?!
One thing that kept me from returning to the Ocean Course sooner was the price. If you want to play the course without staying at the Sanctuary Hotel on the Island, the round will run you $375. If you play before 3PM, you are then required to take a caddie. When all is said and done, you are looking at around $450. If you stay in the 5-Star hotel, your round costs less, but those savings are devoured by your hotel bill.
One tip is to play the Ocean Course as your second round of the day after playing another Kiawah Island Golf Resort course in the morning. Your “replay” rate is around $190, which is quite a good deal. The only negative is that playing one of the toughest courses in the world as your second round in a day might result in you dying of exhaustion.
The Ocean Course was ranked #43 in the World by Golf Magazine in 2013. In addition to a laundry list of other honors, the course was recently tapped to host the 2021 PGA Championship. I was able to attend the announcement press conference in the clubhouse where Pete Dye spoke about the course. It was surreal to see the legendary architect in front of his masterpiece. When asked what changes the course would undergo for 2021, he replied, “Not a single thing.”
The Kiawah Island Ocean Course was designed by Pete and Alice Dye in 1991. The course’s routing could be seen as a modern take on the traditional “out and back” links layouts in Scotland. The front nine goes out and back to the clubhouse, followed by the same on the back nine.
The only weakness in the routing is the use of carts to get from the clubhouse to the first tee, and the 9th green to the 10th tee. Dye made use of the best land on hand, but those long cart rights at the beginning and middle of the round is a little jarring and definitely feel more American than anything Scottish.
The central hub of the course is the Robert A.M. Stern designed clubhouse and the two nines run out on either side of the building. The landscape was completely flat before Dye came in to build up dunes, fairways, and greens.
You realize just how much work must have gone into building the site when looking at the expansive flat marshlands on Kiawah Island. The design team did one heck of a job. I love how the fairways are wide and well-defined on the course. It may be one of the toughest in the world, but it is also very fair. The course will only destroy you if you stray from the well-defined areas of play.
Hole #2 – 501 yards
The par 5s on the Ocean Course all seem to zig-zag. The 2nd hole is a great example of this with a fairway that runs perpendicular to the tee. All but the longest hitters are forced to play the par 5 as a three shot hole. Behind and to the right of the raised green are dead with wet marsh swallowing golf balls.
Hole #3 – 319 yards
The third hole is an example of Dye’s genius. After a long and challenging par 5, you come to this short par 4. A hybrid or 3 wood leaves a 125 yard shot into this raised and shallow green. You don’t want to miss the putting surface!
Hole #5 – 177 yards
This par 3 marks the farthest point “out” on the front 9. The large waste area isn’t really in play, but it helps the hole visually and is also a nice conservation point resulting in less grass to irrigate.
Hole #8 – 166 yards
The raised 8th green has two tiers, with the pin in the lower rear tier in the photo above. This is another raised green where you don’t want to miss in any direction, particularly over the green.
Hole #9 – 406 yards
The dogleg left par 4 9th ties up the front 9 nicely. While much of the course doesn’t seem to set up naturally for fans to watch golf, the 9th green is surrounded by a “natural” amphitheater. The sloping green would make for some interesting viewing.
Hole #10 – 360 yards
The relatively short 10th hole can vary in difficulty depending on the pin. The hole played strong downwind during our round, which added difficulty to the front edge hole placement.
Hole #11 – 506 yards
The zig-zagging par 5 11th hole is reachable in 2 for longer hitters, particularly when playing downwind. Layup shots can be awkward visually due to the raised second fairway in the layup zone. You don’t want to miss on any side of this raised green.
Hole #12 – 412 yards
Look at the size and depth of the fairway bunker on this hole! Full staircases are require to enter the hazard. Smart players stick to the left side of this hole from the tee all the way to the green, where marsh lurks right of the putting surface.
Hole #13 – 364 yards
The 13th is one of the most picturesque holes on the course. You can’t see the Atlantic, but a marshy lake runs down the entire right side of the hole. The fairway is wide and accommodating, but the water subconsciously sits in your mind on both the tee and fairway.
Hole #14 – 161 yards
The view from this tee is breathtaking, particularly if you walk all the way back to the raised PGA Championship tees at 230+ yards from the green. The putting surface is raised on all sides and you can see the large collection area off the back of the green in the photo above. This can be a terrifying hole when the wind picks up in any direction.
Hole #15 – 381 yards
The large sandy area left of the green is not visible from the raised fairway. However, those taking the more aggressive line down the right side of the fairway are rewarded with a better angle and view into the green.
Hole #17 – 182 yards
The famous par 3 17th hole certainly creates drama towards the end of the round. Does anyone else agree with me that the hole feels slightly out of place on the Ocean Course? The lake feels very manufactured to my eye, especially because it is just a few dunes away from the Atlantic Ocean. That being said, it is a very fun hole and can be very tough depending on the tee and pin position.
Hole #18 – 396 yards
The 18th hole played particularly long into the wind during our round. The light had all but disappeared and a wedding was taking place in a tent next to the clubhouse. It was tough to keep our concentration, but the picturesque dogleg right hole finishes off the round very nicely.
The Kiawah Island Ocean Course may be one of the toughest in the world, but it is also fair. Most locals say that they play the Ocean Course a few times a year, but mainly stick to other area courses for their usual weekend play. The course is very fun, but its difficulty makes it unappealing for the average weekend golfer (not to mention the prohibitive cost). All of that being said, if you are coming down to Kiawah Island for a vacation with golf on the itinerary, it would be a huge mistake to not play the Ocean Course. Use the round to soak in the gorgeous setting and gain even more respect for the professional golfers who tear up the course from 7,600+ yards! Don’t get too hung up on your score…