KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C.—My first reaction, after stepping onto the Ocean Course this week for the first time, was to laugh out loud. Pete Dye, that rascally dog!
Dye, golf’s most mischievous architect (TPC Sawgrass in Florida, Whistling Straits in Wisconsin), has been fiddling with his monstrous masterpiece here, which sits on a barrier island near Charleston, since 1991. It was hard enough for the Ryder Cup that year, now known as the “War by the Shore.” Since then Dye has made it longer, tougher and even more exposed to the unpredictable seaside winds. For Thursday’s first round at the PGA Championship, gusts of 20 mph are expected, with stronger winds over the weekend.
The course is 100% artificial, which is what makes you laugh. It looks natural. It looks at first blush like a classic links of the British Isles. But in fact the Ocean Course is a clever American links replica. Every dune, every swale, every sandy waste area, every raised fairway and every complex green sprang entirely from Dye’s fevered imagination.
“I describe it as a links course through the air,” Graeme McDowell said Wednesday. “When it blows here, the wind is a massive factor, you know, strength and direction, but it certainly does not play linksy along the ground.”
Players describe the paspalum grass, planted on and around the greens a decade ago for its salt-water tolerance, as “sticky.” The spiny grain of the grass, which runs the way water does, down and away from the elevated greens, “grabs” low-running pitch and chip shots (to use Rory McIlroy’s verb). Although most of the greens have open connections to the fairways, the long bump-and-run shots so often seen at British Opens will be a rarity here.
This week the course will play even slower, and longer, than it usually does because of recent heavy rains, which are forecast to continue sporadically through the weekend. Top players lament such conditions, because in theory they bring lesser lights into contention.
“I like the test of a firm golf course. It brings more shot-making into the equation. You have to throw the ball up with just the right spin,” Tiger Woods said Tuesday. “With it a bit softer like this, the greens will be holding.”
It may seem peevish to complain that the course generally acknowledged as the toughest in America (the Ocean Course’s Slope rating is 155 and its course rating is 79.6 from the extreme tips) is not tough enough, but the truth is that, for the pros, Dye’s masterpiece can be had.
Dye strikes fear in ordinary golfers’ hearts by making the challenges look more fearsome than they really are, but the pros aren’t as easy to scare. The view from the tee of the 223-yard, par-three 17th hole, for instance, is pure intimidation. It plays over water, which continues to the right of the green.
To the left of the green are two bunkers that appear of Himalayan proportions. Between these two hazards, the green seems tiny, but in fact it’s 10,000 square feet large.
Dye also fools golfers, by skewing angles and sight lines, into thinking that the landing areas for tee shots are much narrower than they really are. The green complexes are vast and feature-rich—steep falloffs, vast bunkers, cruel ridges—but from the right spot in the fairway, approach shots for the pros aren’t off the charts in degree of difficulty. Dennis Watson’s winning score at the 2007 Senior PGA Championship was nine-under par. Colin Montgomerie shot 22 under par in taking the individual title at the 1997 World Cup of Golf. That event, it must be said, was played in unusually calm conditions.
“It all depends on the wind,” Nick Faldo told me Tuesday.
Woods, with his three victories this year, is the clear favorite to win his 15th major and his first since 2008, but he’ll need to close strong like he always did in his pre-crisis prime. Woods put himself into early contention this year at both the U.S. and British Opens, but got off to a horrific start in the third round at Olympic and carded a devastating triple bogey in his final round last month at Lytham & St. Annes.
Among the other usual suspects—Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, McIlroy, Jason Dufner, Ernie Els, Keegan Bradley—who knows? Different winners have taken the last 16 consecutive majors, which makes any projection dubious. But here’s a tip: Woods, Donald, McIlroy, Bradley and Dustin Johnson all play regularly at Jack Nicklaus’s Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., which has paspalum greens like those at the Ocean Course. As advantages go on an unpredictable course in unpredictable weather, that’s as good as tips get.
Write to John Paul Newport at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared August 9, 2012, on page D10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The PGA Meets Pete Dye’s Tricks.