KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – There’s a bronze statue of Pete Dye on a landscaped circular lawn in front of the Ocean Course Clubhouse at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. The legendary architect of the famous course carries an impish grin on his face and a golf club in his right hand, like an explorer’s walking stick. With his left, rather than beckoning visitors into the course’s embrace, he’s pointing directly away from it, toward the parking lot and the winding driveway that leads several miles back toward the less-remote, more civilized parts of the island.
Turn back before it’s too late.
Beyond here be dragons.
We ignore him at our own expense, in dollars and golf balls.
For almost every golfer who tees it up there, The Ocean Course does indeed bring the pain. Mere mortals are not its target audience, as it was built for the 1991 Ryder Cup and other championship-golf duty, which has included the 2012 and 2021 PGA Championships.
Few championship courses have been so reliably tough on the best golfers in the world when called upon to test them as The Ocean Course. All three of its high-profile events have been memorable in different ways, but all have been particularly strenuous challenges. The match-play format concealed some of the carnage during the game-changing ’91 Ryder Cup, but not much. In 2012, even though Rory McIlroy waltzed to victory by eight shots, only 20 total players broke par for 72 holes, and only McIlroy and runner-up David Lynn did better than -4 for the tournament. And only 16 broke par in 2021, when Phil Mickelson won.
As a first-time visitor, I was taken aback at learning what actually makes The Ocean Course so ornery. Even though most every hole looks like an island shrouded in marsh, water and dunes, it’s not overly difficult to get in play off the tee, especially if you play the right set. Where the course punishes you again and again is on approach to the greens, which shrug not-quite-good-enough full shots down steep slopes and into bunkers. Not only do you need to know your carry distances into The Ocean Course’s greens, you need to be able to flight and shape the ball low and high, left and right, to suit the conditions that will meet it upon impact.
The severity of many of the drop-offs means that missing in the correct spot is more important here than almost anywhere else I have played. It is on this level that despite its capacity to daze players a bit, The Ocean Course answers one of the most important questions that determines a course’s greatness: Does it make me want to be a better golfer? This is the secret behind the smile on the face of Dye’s statue: you’re going to get beaten up a bit, but if you’re resilient, you’re going to long to come back for another chance. Of all the courses I’ve played for the first time in 2022, The Ocean Course is the one I most want another crack at.
Kiawah Island’s other resort golf courses
Though it is by far the most famous, The Ocean Course is just part of Kiawah Island’s golf story. Its other 72 holes of guest-accessible golf – Turtle Point, Osprey Point, Cougar Point, Oak Point – provide plenty of on- and off-ramps to and from the resort’s heavyweight test. On my visit, staggered course aerification schedules kept me from playing Cougar Point, but area golf minds I trust seem to like it best among the rest of Kiawah’s courses ever since a Gary Player-led 2017 renovation effort improved the Black Knight’s original 1996 design, with several holes that enjoy long-range marsh views and fun, undulating greens.
I found similar pleasures at Osprey Point, A 1988 Tom Fazio design that received its own renovation by its original architect in 2014. Osprey Point sits apart from the bulk of Fazio’s work in my estimation because it is one of about a dozen courses where Mike Strantz was a main on-the-ground figure during construction. As at other courses where this was the case, there is a greater sense of expressiveness, occasional randomness and asymmetry to the shaping here that gives several holes some valuable character. The long par-3 11th, with its heaving green against a pond, stands out as a hole I’d love to play every day for a week to see all the different hole locations, while I’d gladly take in a sunrise over the marshes beside the par-3 3rd.
For difficulty, Turtle Point ranks second on the island to The Ocean Course. Built in 1981 by Jack Nicklaus, it was the first course to open on Kiawah. A 2016 revision mellowed out some of its nastier edges, but it’s still quite a test thanks to the narrow, angled greens that characterize Nicklaus’ 80s courses. The incorporation of three oceanside holes requires a bit of routing gymnastics, but it’s a fun diversion, especially the vaguely Reverse Redan-like par-3 16th.
Until my trip, the only Kiawah course I had played was the one that’s not even on the island: the oft-overlooked, Clyde Johnston-designed Oak Point. My recollection from playing it in a junior tournament in the mid-Oughts was hazy. Like the resort’s other courses, though, Oak Point underwent its own renovation in 2015, which involved the reconfiguring of a few holes that knit the course together nicely. It’s not too difficult, with spacious, mostly mellow greens. The confines tighten up at the 14th hole, which makes the eventual release onto the march for the long par-4 18th exciting. Oak Point makes for an excellent first or last round of a Kiawah trip.
Kiawah Island Golf Resort: Other notes
Kiawah’s status as both a resort community and a popular second-home spot means that its lodging possibilities are extensive. Families can rent houses, couples can rent any of dozens of villas located throughout the property, or those wanting more upscale, full-service digs love the oceanfront Sanctuary hotel, which was built in the 1990s but manages to feel like it’s been there a century. Buddy groups can also reserve cottages astride The Ocean Course’s practice range for a golf-immersive experience.
Like many of its peer resorts, Kiawah has stepped up its culinary game of late, in part by theming its different clubhouse restaurants differently. Osprey Point’s is home to Cherrywood BBQ & Ale house, with a menu centered on ‘cue and craft beers. The Turtle Point clubhouse has Tomasso, an upscale contemporary Italian concept. The Player’s Pub at the Cougar Point clubhouse is more in line with most 19th-hole restaurants, and is a solid version of it, with outdoor seating overlooking the 18th green. The Ocean Course has two restaurants: the seafood-forward Atlantic Room and the Ryder Cup Bar, which made our list of favorite 19th-holes earlier this summer. The Sanctuary has its own host of eateries.
Nearby Charleston is one of America’s best food cities, though, so foodies should stretch their legs a bit. Practically next door to Oak Point is Kinfolk, which serves Nashville-style hot chicken that is a revelation of addictive, peppery heat. And at The Tattooed Moose, the divine Duck Club sandwich’s most famous fans include Food Network’s Guy Fieri.
Getting off-island for golf is not a bad idea, either. If you can get a tee time at the Charleston Municipal Golf Course – ‘Muni,’ to its legions of fans – it’s a must-play now that it’s been lovingly revamped by architect Troy Miller, who lives 200 yards from the first tee.
Driving around Kiawah can be tricky during the daytime; at night, it can be maddening. Luckily, the resort provides transportation between guests’ accommodations and the various clubhouse and hotel restaurants and amenities well into the evenings.
Kiawah Island has two other golf courses: the private Cassique and River layouts, which are part of the Kiawah Island Club. Rumor has it the club is exploring building a third course for its members a few miles off-island. KIC will host the USGA's U.S. Four-Ball Championship in May 2023.