Punch Shots: Where the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island ranks among major venues following thrilling 2021 PGA Championship

The Ocean Course's second PGA Championship was one for the ages. Our staff reacts to the epic major and debates the Pete Dye design's merits against other major venues.
Phil Mickelson makes his putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship held at the Ocean Course of Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island delivered a historic 103rd PGA Championship with the crowning an unlikely champion: Phil Mickelson, who at 50 years, 11 months of age is the oldest major champion ever, doing so on the longest major championship venue ever set up. A week's worth of tension on Pete Dye's harrowing oceanside layout was released on the 18th hole Sunday afternoon as a raucous crowd engulfed Mickelson and Brooks Koepka on their way to the green.

We're not as familiar with the Ocean Course compared to some other tried-and-true public major venues like Pebble Beach, St. Andrews or Pinehurst No. 2. But there was clearly a reason why the PGA wanted to get back to Kiawah Island quickly after 2012, despite a runaway winner and the island's logistical challenges compared to other venues with big-city infrastructure. Since that event, there were some small changes made to the course, including some new back tees added. The move of the event to May was a gift to Kiawah too, a much more comfortable month and also one where the spring coastal winds could play an even more integral role.

The GolfPass staff was watching the action the whole way with an eye on the field and also how the Pete Dye design, set up by the PGA of America's Kerry Haigh, held up. In the aftermath of Kiawah's triumphant return to the major spotlight, we're debating where the Ocean Course ranks among today's best major championship venues.

Watch Phil Mickelson's best shots from the 103rd PGA Championship at PGAChampionship.com.

Brandon Tucker: Wind, routing instill a true major test

Dye's notorious Ocean Course layout combined with steady breezes over 15 mph was a gift to any viewer who relishes the chance to watch pros visibly wince in thought over so many shots. This year's PGA Championship had the type of length and severity you might expect more at a U.S. Open.

But Kiawah didn't have hack-out rough or pinched fairways. There was plenty of opportunity for shotmaking. The landing zones were actually reasonably generous, and if a ball was found dry, the chance for a recovery was usually there.

There are a lot of things that are links-like about the Ocean Course: the breezes whipping a narrow, St. Andrews-like out-and-back routing along the barrier island. TV towers and drone imagery delivered a greater sense of place to the viewer as waves lapped and beaches glistened in the background. By the weekend, there were lovely brown areas in the fairway that indicated firming turf.

There are also the obvious non-links qualities of the Ocean Course like wetlands, palm and oak trees, stickier Paspalum turf and elevated greens creating its own distinction.

I like to see majors yield a 72-hole score of around 280 strokes. Off its latest staging, the Ocean Course in my mind trumps every recent public major championship venue in the U.S. (I'd still probably rather play Pebble Beach myself if given the chance, but watching pros try to get up and down at Kiawah is marvelous). I would put it behind Muirfield and Carnoustie as current venues that can still challenge the game's best players and give the viewer a proper mix of carnage and heroics on an inspiring property from the game's best players. I'd throw Chambers Bay into the discussion as well given the 2015 U.S. Open's surreal Sunday drama, and hope the USGA returns soon. I'm also certainly eager to see if Torrey Pines can deliver another epic event next month despite Tiger Woods' absence Maybe hometown Phil plays a part in a finish for the ages there, too.

The Ocean's shortcomings compared to its illustrious peers? Perhaps that it can probably never create the type of raucous amphitheaters of parkland venues like Valhalla or Bethpage Black or Augusta. The finish doesn't have the pageantry of St. Andrews or Pebble Beach. And Dye's iconic holes are mostly elsewhere. But the most compelling thing to me about the Ocean Course was the sum of its parts: the razor-thin margin of error on every approach shot and the dance between power and precision off every tee emphasized by a clever figure-eight routing and the day-by-day drama of the wind direction. As if all these elements weren't enough to keep the viewer on edge, we had Mickelson's high-wire act the whole week.

The Ocean Course isn't on the PGA Championship's list of confirmed future sites, but I'd suspect it will find its way onto the rotation in the next decade, especially as long as the major is held in May (perhaps 2030?).

Jason Scott Deegan: No more forgetting about the Ocean Course

Bryson DeChambeau plays from a sand area on the second hole during the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship held at the Ocean Course of Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

Given the epic fairytale finish - Mickelson's rollercoaster ride, for once, doesn't crash and burn - there's a lot of Twitter chatter that what we just witnessed might be the "best" major ever, at least in terms of entertainment value. Was it better than Nicklaus at the '86 Masters or Tiger in 2019? Those are just the modern examples being bandied about. The Twitterverse isn't exactly the place to get historical perspective. It's for hot takes and wisecracks. But the conversation is valid.

The Ocean Course dazzled. We saw on the front nine what it can do to pros - create wild two-shot swings in the blink of an eye. That left Mickelson's five-shot lead on the back nine feeling like a much narrower margin given his penchant for foul balls off the tee at the wrong time. There isn't a hole out there that is a gimme. Although the third was drivable during the final round, Mickelson made bogey. (And who can forget Rory McIlroy's ball stuck in the tree at the 2012 PGA?).

I was thrilled to see the pros take some serious lumps on the 13th. That tee shot ranks among the most intimidating I've ever played. All the bunkers and dunes on the left force you to challenge the right side where the water lurks. One gust of wind or timid pass and your ball is swimming with the gators.

I'm not sure it came across on TV, but for those who haven't played the Ocean Course, so many of its greens are cruelly elevated. They're almost like Pinehurst No. 2's saucer-shaped greens in that they fall off in all directions. The pros can get up and down from these surrounds. The rest of us can't.

They say that great courses produce memorable moments and deserving champions. Consider Kiawah's resume: The War by The Shore at the 1991 Ryder Cup; McIlroy's runaway in 2012; Mickelson's magic at age 50+. Whenever people ask me what my favorite courses are, I tend to forget to add the Ocean Course to the short list. With its combination of architectural brilliance, tournament pedigree and stunningly serene setting, it deserves to be included.

Tim Gavrich: Mickelson sails to PGA title

I agree with my esteemed colleagues - the Ocean Course has cemented its place very high up among the very best major championship sites. Thanks be to architect Pete Dye, who with crucial input from wife Alice laid out a course that manages to gesture toward the game's origins while simultaneously retaining a uniquely modern and American sensibility. The result is a course with a sense of timelessness that few golf courses possess.

Think about it - what other great American golf courses feature a mid-round run of nine holes that all head in the same direction? That's the sort of thing you see in Scotland, but in South Carolina? And yet it works, because the Dyes did what all elite architects do: take full advantage of the land given while turning the limitations it imposes into something special.

Once the wind turned against the players through this critical stretch on Sunday, we saw the genius in it. Phil Mickelson's audacious approach to the 10th tacked across the hurting wind like an America's Cup winning sailboat and came to rest just past the pin, letting him surge to a four-stroke lead at the time. The shot was not without risk, starting out over sand, but by using the wind to help rather than fight against it in vain as the chasers did, Mickelson found himself in harmony with the course's late creators, rather than at odds with them. When great golfers and great golf courses meet, the results are sublime.

If I had one nit to pick about the Ocean Course, it would be about the greens - not their contouring, which I agree is fabulous, but the Paspalum turf they use. The 17th green was already looking like a leopard on Thursday; on Sunday both Koepka's and Mickelson's putts bounced a great deal. Tolerance of salty air and soil is why the course uses Paspalum, which makes sense for the fairways and roughs, but I found myself wondering if trying to make a Bermuda variant work on the greens might be a worthwhile pursuit before Kiawah hosts its next PGA, which should happen as soon as possible.

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Does Phil's win push him into top 10 all-time?
12 Min Read
May 12, 2015
Golfers love to play where the pros play. Why not play where they face the most pressure? These 32 courses that hosted a major championship are open to the public. Here are the courses I'd like to play the most.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,100 courses and written about golf destinations in 25 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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Punch Shots: Where the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island ranks among major venues following thrilling 2021 PGA Championship