Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Ocean Course

This morning the 2012 PGA Championship will get underway at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island.

Besides the professional golfers and the 30,000 daily spectators, hundreds of golf writers will have descended on Kiawah to tell the story. Part of this story is The Ocean Course, of which much will be said as each writer gives his or her thoughts in detail of what the course is all about.

But The Ocean Course is not so much what it is, but rather what it is not.

Forget the comparison to Scottish links style courses, forget what you heard or read, the only thing The Ocean Course has in common with the famed courses across the pond is that there are 18 holes and that you start at number one.

This is not Carnoustie or Royal Birkdale names synonymous with pot bunkers, cold misty rain and screaming winds along the sea. The Ocean Course is void of pot bunkers; rather the entire course is surrounded by massive waste bunkers, which allows a player to "ground" his club, which is assuming one can find his ball which to strike at with said club, as the sand and sea oats tend to "swallow" errant shots.

The entire course is one big sand dune, and therefore The Ocean Course is in a state of continual change. Everything is moving. The dunes move and greens move and the fairways move. It is not unheard of to find sand where the day before there was grass.

Walking along the ocean side of the driving range this morning there are noticeable areas of sand incursion. Those guys with leaf blowers in the distance are not blowing leaves they are battling the sand.

Most courses left uncared for would still look like golf courses in a dozen years, The Ocean Course would simply vanish, covered over by the sand.

The sand will be the lasting image of the 2012 PGA Championship and patrons would be well advised to wear flops rather than golf shoes. This is a place where the wind relentlessly whips the sand to a powdery fluffy un-walkable mass of beach.

The wind, it builds through out the afternoon, pushing sand across the shore, sand that gets into your shoes, your golf bag and into that ham and cheese sandwich you brought from home.

There are no road holes, or stone bridges, there are no stones, or rocky over looks, just sand.

The Ocean Course is without the familiar spectator fleet offshore, those watching from home will not see video of gleaning white million dollar yachts anchored as a backdrop to the 18th hole, a standard at Hilton Head's Heritage Golf Classic. The gentle slope of Kiawah's North Beach continues into the ocean for more than two miles making it too shallow for anything but the smallest of watercraft.

This weekend will have rain like a links course, but it is a hot, humid, smothering rain and with it lightning that will send fans and officials running for cover.

The Ocean Course has a sound all its own, the sound is of the constant ocean breeze rushing across the sea oats and dunes of the South Carolina coast. This tells of an endless progression of erosion at work a process of endless change.

The Ocean Course has been robbed of those sounds most familiar to golf fans, the sounds of song birds, and of a gentle wind caressing the Georgia Pines indigenous to Augusta and of the roar of the gallery heard each April.

Those who have been to August know how the cheers rise up from Amen Corner, but along the Ocean Course much of the gallery roar will be diminished and muffled by the dunes and the ocean. And there are no song birds only laughing gulls whose voices are carried away on the wind.

And just because it is along the ocean doesn't mean it is like
Pebble Beach with amazing views that span across hundreds of square miles in the crisp afternoon air of the northern California coastline.

At mid day, on Kiawah Island you can’t see down the coast for more than a half of a mile, for the salt spray lifts into the air and rolls inland atop of the heat that ripples across the beach in shimmering waves that make objects fade, and disappear into the mist.

The Ocean Course does not have Augusta's pines, or any trees for that matter, so there is no shade, no respite from the onslaught of the August sun, not even a lone Cyprus offering picture postcard photo ops.

There are no afternoon shadows for golf commentators to discuss on live television, while Tiger Woods paces back and forth across a green.

Where Augusta has perfectly shaped azaleas and the roads to Royal Troon have expertly trimmed hedges of English boxwood and heather the Ocean Course has brush trimmed by Mother Nature and she does an ugly job. The wind along the Ocean Course has sculpted the scrub brush in a ragged, torn and dramatic style, a continuation of the sand flowing across the beach and the winds of change.

Unlike links courses of Scotland, here there are water hazards on The Ocean Course and plenty of them, some large, some deceptively small, and others that come and go on the tides. The most notable is the pond on 17 which has claimed many victims including Fred Couples and Payne Stewart during the 91 Ryder Cup.

And it is best not to try and "fish" out a water ball, since that floating log is not a log at all, but a 9 foot alligator nick-named Elvis.  And Elvis has relatives, no less than a counted 14 floating silently in the marsh along the road to the patron entrance, which explains why there are no fences surrounding the course as none are needed with “Clan Elvis” on duty.

This is not St. Andrew's Old Course, were a shot is frequently played from the fairway one over, as here sand, water or tidal marsh divide every fairway. There is no US Open deep rough, if you miss a fairway you are in the sand, water or tidal marsh.

It is not Pebble Beach which is a do able 6,828 yards or Augusta National which has be stretched to 7,435 yards in recent years, The Ocean Course totals out at an un-godly 7,676 yards.

While the fairways and greens are a magnificent emerald green, this is not Augusta, the grass is not Bent or even Bermuda it is “Paspalum” with a touch of common crab grass both which thrive in the hot humid South and along the coast where the salt air penetrates everything. The grass is spongy and has a good bit of bounce, bounce that reacts to spin in unpredictable ways.

The air is warm and moist and the idea of playing in this weather is neither, appealing or fascinating. This is not the Bethpage Black where the wind whips and then subsides, thus backing away from a shot because the wind picked up is futile as the wind will only continue to build.

We describe the air along  the southern barrier islands with words, like thick, and heavy, we say it is so thick you can cut it with a knife, we explain that the humid air smothers the fairways in dew each morning. But the air in fact is hot and thin, and golf balls tend to sink rather than sail as they do in colder air.

In the evening the wind shifts, settles and dies, and for long periods there is no wind, not a breath and the humidity hangs in the air much the way the Spanish moss hangs dripping from the Live Oak trees that surround gracious mansions with spacious southern verandas, where lemonade and sweet tea is served up like fireflies on a moonless night.

And overnight the dampness collects on the greens and the fairways, on the railings of the Ocean Course Club House and anything else that is left outside will become soaked with dew by daybreak.

Towels will be in abundance in the morning hours. The grounds crew will pull garden hoses down the fairways to break up the dew. And the dampness will give way again to the summer heat.

The Ocean Course is not a tourist “drive by” golf course like Pebble Beach, or a public trust accessible to all like St. Andrews. The only road to the course is goes through not one but two security gates which means this will likely be the only time many will see the Ocean Course up close and yet it is a public course open to anyone who is willing to lay down the greens fee in excess of $250.00

August, along the barrier islands of South Carolina has a rhythm all its own. Life moves slowly, those of us who live here year around understand this fact.  We too, move slowly, we talk slower, and we walk a round of golf without urgency, as if we are simply listening to sound of the ocean with its deafening and constant hiss, and an occasional low rumble.

The PGA Championship will be won by understanding this slow rhythm, by embracing the wind and the heat of August in the South. Feel the warmth, accept the humidity, wind and the sand and breath in all in, relax and the course will be yours, challenge it, rush headlong into it and you will spend your day in frustration.

On Sunday in the fading light of a summer's evening along this windswept South Carolina beach, long after the echoes of the crowds have departed and the pros have all gone home racing into the skies in their private jets, the Ocean Course will remain in the haze, and salt spray and in the dunes there is nothing but the wind and the sound of the Ocean Course at work, moving, forever changing and waiting.


Anonymous said...

I would like to see someone with a local connection win, and not an oversized ego like Tiger Woods.

Anonymous said...

"The PGA Championship will be won by understanding this slow rhythm, by embracing the wind and the heat of August in the South. Feel the warmth, accept the humidity, wind and the sand and breath in all in, relax and the course will be yours, challenge it, rush headlong into it and you will spend your day in frustration."

So true!