Review: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Course Name: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Designer: Pete Dye/Alice Dye (1991)

Location: Kiawah Island, South Carolina

History: The first course built for a specific event, a then unknown Ocean Course opened just a few weeks before the 1991 Ryder Cup. This epic and contentious “War by the Shore” ended with a tight American victory and immediately thrusted The Ocean Course on the map as a beautiful and challenging design. As Kiawah Island expanded in the 1990s, four additional courses from Fazio, Nicklaus, Player, and Johnston were built at the Kiawah Island Resort, but The Ocean Course remains its prized gem.

Considered by many the most difficult course in America, The Ocean Course has also hosted a World Cup of Golf, PGA Club Professional Championship, Senior PGA Championship, and the 2012 PGA Championship where Rory McIlroy became the youngest winner ever. The PGA Championship is slated to return to Kiawah in 2021. The course can also be seen in the 2000 movie The Legend of Bagger Vance. The Ocean Course has earned numerous awards in its short history and currently owns the following:

  • #43 Best Course in the World – Golf Digest (2018)
  • #54 Best Course in the World – Golf Magazine (2017)
  • #24 Best Course in America – Golf Digest (2019)
  • #25 Best Course in America – Golf Magazine (2017)
  • #13 Best Modern Course in America – Golfweek (2019)
  • #4 Best Public Course in America – Golf Digest (2019)
  • #6 Best Public Course in America – Golf Magazine (2017)
  • #1 Best Course in South Carolina – Golf Digest (2019)
  • #1 Best Public Course in South Carolina – Golf Magazine (2016)
  • #1 Best Public Course in South Carolina – Golfweek (2019)

Conditions: 9/10, Despite playing during the winter, The Ocean Course was beautifully green because it overseeds in the offseason. The whole course is comprised of Paspalum grass, which is a unique strain that tolerates salt water and is thus perfect for the setting. While it’s hard to get Paspalum rolling greater than 12 on the stimpmeter, the greens roll extremely true and the fairways and teeboxes play like Bermuda. There are many, many bunkers at The Ocean Course, but most play as waste areas and are therefore much harder and firmer than normal bunkers.

Value: 3/10, The Ocean Course is one of the most expensive golf rounds on the planet at around $350 per round plus caddie fees. While there are discounted replay, military, and offseason rates, a round here is sure to put a dent in the wallet.

Scorecard:

Tee                     Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Tournament    72           7356               76.8              153

Ocean               72           6779               73.9              148

Dye                   72           6475               72.4              139

Kiawah             72          6202                71.1              134

Governors        72          5859                69.1             132

Carolina            72          5327                72.2             130

Hole Descriptions: Let’s talk about Pete Dye for a second. While his designs rank highly, I feel he’s a bit underappreciated because he is the antithesis to today’s modern minimalist philosophies. Indeed, Dye moved a lot of earth at The Ocean Course and the very similar Whistling Straits, but his courses are generally breathtaking and very challenging. Another reason Dye might be disrespected is because many of his top courses are public, but I actually find this honorable that so many of his Major Championship courses are open for all to play. I feel very fortunate to have played many of his best, and give him a lot of credit for bringing golf architecture out of the dark ages of the 1940s-1960s.

At The Ocean Course, Dye had an extraordinary setting to work with on the northernmost edge of Kiawah Island. Building a course on the beach and its dunes carries some logistical challenges, but Dye was able to maximize the land’s potential by creating a “figure-eight” layout just like Whistling Straits. Holes 1-4 and 10-13 play away from the central clubhouse while 6-9 and 15-18 run along the beach back towards the clubhouse. Smartly taking the advice of his wife Alice, Pete raised the fairways and greens on the holes further from the Ocean so that all holes would offer excellent views. The two nines are quite some distance from each other and require a cart ride to access, but the layout itself is a very nice walk on sandy terrain. I cannot think of a weak hole on the property, but I did find the front and back sides very different with the front playing more off the water through African Savannah-like wetland and the back playing on the beach with one of the best closing stretches in the world.

Like most Dye courses, The Ocean Course has a fearsome reputation. The driving factor behind this is the wind that usually rips off the water and really interferes with your ballflight. We played on about as calm a day as possible, but the impact the wind has is evident, as most of the trees on the front nine are growing away from the ocean due to constant wind damage. Because the wind is usually so unforgiving, Dye actually sculpted rather generous fairways and I appreciate how there are very few blind shots on the course. If you play the appropriate tees (highly recommend), length and forced carries also shouldn’t be much of the issue. Because the wind was down, I thought the hardest part of the course is the fact that most of the greens are elevated and surrounded by tight lies. For a course with so much wind, it’s a bit cruel that the aerial approach is required so frequently.

The opening hole is the furthest from the Ocean as a 365 yard straightaway par 4. Despite its short length, this holes features a fairly intimidating teeshot with an immediate 110 yard forced carry over dunes to a narrow fairway guarded on both sides by a natural waste bunker. Trees down the right at 220 yards may block out your approach to a tiny back-to-front sloped green guarded by a bunker short and water hazard right.

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A good rule of thumb is that I’ll enjoy any course with a Rolex Clock
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The par 4 1st with its fairway rising out of the waste bunker

At 501 yards, the par 5 2nd is a memorable and difficult hole. This teeshot is terrifying to a fairway angled left that requires a massive forced carry of up to 200 yards over marshland and water. There’s more room the further right you go, but this leaves you in a rough spot for your second shot. From the fairway, this hole continues left and forces you to make another decision whether or not to lay-up or carry a creek that crosses the fairway about 130 yards short of the green. Although longer hitters can reach in two, this elevated green is surrounded by numerous deep bunkers short and left and is very undulating. This is one of the most unique and best par fives I’ve ever played.

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The intimidating view from the 2nd teebox
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My playing partner in a sticky situation
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The approach at 2 – Note how windswept the trees are

The 3rd hole is the shortest par 4 on the course at just 319 yards. This is an extremely fun hole featuring another mild forced carry to a fairway turning to the left. A long waste bunker runs down the left for the entire landing area and culminates with a tall tree that would be difficult to carry from this bunker. The defining feature of this hole is a tiny volcano green guarded by steep slopes on all sides. A missed green here leaves a tremendously difficult up-and-down and many golfers will struggle to even keep their ball on the green. Rory McIlroy infamously got his ball stuck in a tree here going for the green, but this tree (which was in the middle of the fairway at about 260 yards) had been taken down by the time I played. I am unaware whether they plan to replant the tree, but I feel the hole is better (and fairer) without it.

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The par 4 3rd provides another difficult teeshot
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The excellent volcano green at 3

The number 1 handicap 4th hole plays a more reasonable 401 yards from the Dye tees but is still a formidable challenge with an immediate 130 yard carry over marshland. The fairway here is quite generous but three cavernous pot bunkers dot the right side of the fairway at 200, 220, and 240 yards respectively. The fairway ends abruptly at about 270 yards with another creek you must carry on the approach. This green is wide and shallow with three bunkers short and one long. A par here gains a shot on the field.

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The very intimidating teeshot on the par 4 4th
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Approach from just short of the hazard

The 5th hole is the first of a fantastic set of par threes at 177 yards. With the beach directly on your left, this hole features a diagonal hourglass-shaped green with a central ridge most likely inspired by Pebble Beach’s 17th. A bailout area exists to the right while bunkers guard long and short. This is the largest green on the course meaning the hole can play a variety of different ways depending on the pin and wind.

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The par 3 5th

The 345 yard par 4 6th is one of the easier holes on the course as a slender dogleg left. While the fairway is tight, there’s no forced carry and the only real danger off the tee is waste bunkers lining both sides. This approach plays slightly uphill to a deep, multi-tiered, back-to-front sloped green lined by a bunker left.

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The dogleg left par 4 6th
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Approach from the 6th waste bunker

At 493 yards, the reachable 7th is the shortest par 5 on the course and again one of the easier holes. This teeshot presents the golfer with two options – hit the wide fairway to the left or try to cut the corner and carry a giant waste bunker down the right at 240 yards. From here, the hole plays rather straightforward with a tight fairway lined by waste bunkers on both sides and trees down the right. An elevated, undulating green adds some teeth to an otherwise vanilla hole.

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The generous teeshot on the par 5 7th
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The approach at 7

The 8th hole is another beautiful par 3 at 166 yards. This hole looks simple enough but its narrow two-tiered green is quite elevated and a deep waste bunker guards the entire right side. Water looms behind this green but shouldn’t be in play.

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The par 3 8th demands precision

The 406 yard 9th hole is another nice par 4 and admittedly one I didn’t experience fully after blocking one OB off the tee. This sleek dogleg left features a generous fairway lined by a waste bunker down the left and rough and marshland right the entire way. A tiny pot bunker dots the right fairway at about 280 yards but is more a visual illusion than common hazard. This large green is lined by waste bunker down the left and features subtle undulations.

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The par 4 9th
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The approach at 9

Although I enjoyed the front nine, it’s the world-class back nine that truly makes The Ocean Course shine. The 10th hole provides arguably the best birdie chance as a 360 yard straightaway par 4. I really liked this hole which features an 110 yard forced carry to a narrow left fairway and 200 yard forced carry over a cliff of bunker to a wider fairway. This is the first blind shot on the day and a small creek runs down the right for its entire length. Once you scale the bunker, you get a beautiful view of a small green that sits in almost a natural punchbowl. Deep bunkers surround this green on three sides.

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The blind 10th teeshot
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Be prepared for plenty of nature on The Ocean Course
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Climbing onto the 10th fairway
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The 10th approach reminds me of Streamsong

At 506 yards, the par 5 11th plays a whole lot longer than that. Just like the previous hole, this hole features a bunker-lined fairway down the left and a 210 yard forced carry over another cavernous bunker right if you want to find a wider portion of the fairway. The left side is definitely the better play, however, as a creek runs down the right side the entire way and several devastating pot-bunkers loom down the right starting at 240 yards. The lay-up area narrows and turns to the right before running back to the left with an elevated green. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the peculiar actions of the golfers we were paired up with on this hole. Up to this point, they had been quiet and playing very poorly, but inexplicably both of them walked off this green before we had even finished out and were never seen again. Apparently their father-in-law owns a house on the 11th hole and they only decided to play 11 without letting us know or even saying goodbye. What a waste of money and poor display of etiquette, but my playing partner and I lucked out and experienced the epic final stretch at a brisk pace all to ourselves.

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The par 5 11th
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Dye employs fescue-lined potbunkers on several holes at The Ocean Course
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The approach to the elevated green at 11

The 412 yard 12th hole is the longest par 4 on the course from the Dye Tees but doesn’t play that way running straight downhill. Featuring the largest fairway on the course initially, bunkers on either side at 240 yards mark the start of the fairway narrowing significantly with water down the right and a waste bunker left. This approach plays downhill to a small green lined by water right and a bunker left. Perhaps I’m biased by unknowingly crushing a drive into the water hazard here, but this gets my vote for least impressive hole on a tremendous back nine.

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You don’t really get much of a visual on the 12th tee

The terrific 364 yard par 4 13th reminds me of a more difficult version of the 14th at Dye’s Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin. An elevated teebox begins this dramatic Cape hole to a fairway running horizontally away from the golfer. No matter the line, you must carry a water hazard and the further right you go, the longer the carry. Distance control is an absolute must as this shallow fairway is lined by deep bunkers for those who run through. Once safely in the short grass, this hole plays relatively straightforward to a narrow green that sits perilously on the water’s edge. Despite its short length, anything but two precise strikes here will likely result in double or worse.

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The par 4 13th is a great risk/reward hole
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The intimidating approach at 13

It’s a testament to the strength of the design that there’s no real consensus standout holes at The Ocean Course. With that being said, my personal favorite is the 14th, a terrific one-shotter that rivals any in the world. This 161 yard hole acts as a “transition hole” in the figure-eight layout and plays directly towards the Ocean, yielding one of the most picturesque views on the course. The elevated Redan-like green here is very challenging and guarded by a deep bunker left and steep slopes short and right.

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Unfortunately fog obscured the view here but you can usually see for miles on a clear day

Holes 15-18 run directly on the beach in the same direction, making for a memorable finish. The 381 yard par 4 15th is certainly the easiest of the bunch and actually plays as the 18th handicap for men. Running straightaway, tall dunes and beach line the right while a waste bunker runs down the left all the way to the green. This small green plays somewhat like a Redan, sloping right-to-left away from two bunkers on the right.

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The par 4 15th literally plays on the beach
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Walking up to the 15th green

The par 5 16th hole is a real marathon at a prodigious 540 yards straightaway. The longest hole on the Ocean Course features an intimidating drive over a pond to a fairway jutting diagonally left. It doesn’t take much of a carry to find the right side of the fairway but those who hit it left will need at least 250 yards to carry the hazard. From here, the fairway snakes around huge waste bunkers on either side to a generous lay-up area. Similarly to the 11th at Whistling Straits, this green is elevated and features a giant waste bunker with islands of grass short left. This hole must be an absolute monster into the wind.

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The par 5 16th from the teebox
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Anyone who hits it right on 16 will find the largest* bunker on the course
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The 2nd shot at 16
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Just short of the 16th green

The 17th hole might be the most famous (or infamous) at The Ocean Course after it flogged the pros in howling winds at the 1991 Ryder Cup. At 182 yards and longer from the Tips, this beastly hole is the longest and toughest par 3 on the course. This hole features an all-carry teeshot over water to an awkwardly-angled green that runs diagonally away from you. By nature of this angle, the green is very shallow and you only have a few yards to work with before you run through or worse, fall short into the hazard. There’s a bailout left, but long is almost equally as bad with two deep bunkers and fescue directly behind this green. This is certainly a memorable hole and a good one, but it seems a bit out of place on The Ocean Course. I imagine a hole like this would be better suited at a course like TPC Sawgrass. Of note, Mark Calcavecchia had a meltdown here at the Ryder Cup, making a 6 in Singles after a topped shank into the hazard.

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The gorgeous par 3 17th

The Ocean Course closes in grand fashion with the fantastic 396 yard 18th, one of the best finishing holes anywhere. With the beautiful clubhouse in the background, this hole requires an 110 yard forced carry to a generous fairway lined by fescue left and a collection of mounds and bunkers down the right. In 2002, Pete Dye moved this green about 25 yards closer to the Ocean so now the approach runs to the right down a power slot to a large green that subtly slopes back-to-front. Dye believes this is the best par 4 on the course and I’m inclined to agree.

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The epic par 4 18th
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A myriad of trouble awaits those who miss right on 18
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The final approach with the clubhouse onlooking

General Comments: The Shinnecock-inspired clubhouse stretches majestically on the beach and features breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean as you peer through the back entrance. There’s a fantastic restaurant and outdoor patio chairs open to the public and I really got the sense this was a family-friendly atmosphere with tons of little kids running on the practice green.

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The Ocean Course clubhouse and practice green
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These patio chairs are ideal for a post-round cocktail

For practice facilities, there’s a giant range and large practice green directly next to the clubhouse. Pace of play was strong when we played on a dreary winter day. Caddies are mandatory before noon, but you may carry your own bag afterwards. Although it would save money, I strongly recommend taking one of their excellent caddies.

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The giant grass range at The Ocean Course

Verdict: In a glorious setting literally on the beach, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort packs a terrific combination of beauty and difficulty as the winds constantly rip off the Atlantic Ocean. There are no weak holes on the course and a terrific figure-eight routing makes for a wonderful and diverse walk. This is certainly one of Dye’s best and is clearly an elite option for public golfers. A trip to Charleston/Kiawah for any serious golfer is not complete without playing the famed Ocean Course.

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Thankfully we played on a relatively calm day

3 thoughts on “Review: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort

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