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The Ocean Course at Kiawah resort: New clubhouse and tees improve on golf perfection

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
The Ocean Course - New Clubhouse
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New clubhouse at Ocean course is low key, with grand views. (Tim McDonald/GolfPublisher.com)

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. - The only thing the famed Ocean course at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort was missing heretofore was a matching clubhouse, and now that it has one, let's hope it can hang on to it.

One of the main attractions of the Pete Dye-designed jewel is its naturalness, the way it seems to merge with the raw, beautiful area where coastal South Carolina meets the Atlantic Ocean on the island. It looks like something out of Ireland or Scotland, only with sunshine.

In fact, the course is so much of a piece with that natural fabric, it will occasionally threaten to become part of it. Kiawah officials have to continually monitor erosion; two years ago, Kiawah town officials were forced to dig up a million cubic yards of sand from one area of the island and dump it on the beach near the course, as erosion was threatening parts of the layout.

Not to worry, the course and the new, $22 million clubhouse are still intact. The clubhouse, opened in time for this year's Senior Championship, does its job, blending in with the seascape and giving those inside, in the bar or restaurant, panoramic views of the beach and ocean.

"It was designed to look like it had been here for 60 or 70 years," Head Professional Stephen Youngner said. "It wasn't supposed to be a looming structure. We wanted it to fit into the dunes."

That it does - with its brick exterior, wood shingles and low-slung roof, it looks like a ritzy cottage on the beach, complete with wraparound porches. They're going to add a wind gauge, so you can have direct evidence of your excuse when you walk off No. 18.

Neither man nor nature have done much to change the course, which has been acknowledged as one of the best - and most difficult - in the world.

It is just as long and treacherous as it was when it was selected, even before it was built, to host the 1991 Ryder Cup.

In fact, the course can be stretched to 7,900 yards. Seems a bit much, doesn't it?

"Of course, unless there's some dramatic change of equipment, we'll never play it at that distance," Youngner said.

Still, it's good to know that if they ever come up with an atomic driver for John Daly, the Ocean course will be waiting.

Despite the fact the course plays around, through and over the dunes, there are, technically, no sand traps. All the sand is treated as a natural hazard and therefore, you can ground your club any time you see fit. Nor is there any out of bounds.

It's a typical Dye design in that there are a lot of visually intimidating elements and hazards - deep, nasty pot bunkers, trees in fairways, elevated greens that fall off the seventh level of hell - and you find yourself cowed, playing to safe spots - Dye has beaten you already.

The raised, rolling fairways, with their sharp edges dropping off to sand and dune vegetation, look like they were sculpted in the mad architect's back yard laboratory and dropped onto the sand, following the contours of the dunes.

If you miss the fairway, you pay the price.

Still, it's a fair course if you choose your tees wisely, and that involves what I believe is the biggest, recent change to the course.

Ocean officials have added another tee box, one that plays 6,400 yards, perfect for your average, decent, resort hacker. Before that tee was added, golfers were forced to choose between 6,000 and 6,800 yards, too short and too long for your mid-handicapper, especially when the winds howl off the Atlantic, as they so frequently do.

Ocean Course at Kiawah: The Verdict

What a lot of people may not know about the Ocean course, with its brutish reputation, is its affinity for the fairer sex.

"That's because of the collaborative effort between Pete and his wife, Alice," Youngner said. "That's probably the least known aspect of the course. It's very friendly to women golfers."

The Ocean course is always a treat to play, whether the wind is blowing or not. There are those resort guests who don't enjoy getting bludgeoned by it and who stick the Kiawah Island Golf Resort's other four courses, but many of the island's residents come back again and again, if not every week, to get their dose of difficulty.

"It's a challenge," said golfer and Kiawah Island resident Bill Taylor. "It's just a challenge. I'm still looking to break 80. It's just a course where you have to bring your "A" game."

The Ocean course is a walking-only facility before noon.

The Sanctuary hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort

The Sanctuary, the resort hotel at Kiawah, is one of the most genteel settings imaginable, for anyone other than the wealthy, aristocratic gentry. The hotel itself can only be described as splendid, a five-diamond winner in 2007.

This isn't one of those mammoth, gaudy oceanfront hotels you may find in, say Myrtle Beach. It's a mansion really, with wide, elegant staircases, beautiful oak floors and, almost always, views of the Atlantic Ocean which it fronts.

The hotel has 255 rooms, with the smallest of the "King" rooms 520 square feet, all comfortably furnished with four-poster beds, and all the amenities you would expect from a resort consistently ranked one of the best in the country. There's a luxury spa, of course, as well as a variety of outdoor activities for the family.

There are also beachfront rental homes with private docks and luxury villas.

The service at Kiawah is as good or better than any golf resort where I've ever stayed.

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The Ocean Course - FairwaysThe Ocean Course - Sunshine

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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