Gary Player takes advantage of 'mulligan' at Cougar Point

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Cougar Point has had so many face lifts it makes Joan Rivers look like a fresh-faced teenager.

Cougar was the first course built at golf-happy Kiawah Island back in 1976 when land there was selling for less than $10 million per square foot. In fact, they were actually struggling to sell real estate.

A tried-and-true method to sell resort land is to bring in a big-name golf course designer, and so Kiawah did — Gary Player. Player was commissioned to build a par-62 executive course, only to have the owner change horses in mid-stream and decide he wanted a full-blown course.

Player switched gears and came up with Marsh Point, a short, tricked-up 6,250-yard layout that showed off multiple cross hazards, fairways that sloped toward the dozens of water hazards and small, severely undulating greens. Player is known for some funky layouts, but even he was not pleased. Nobody else liked it either.

In 1996, the new owner gave Player a mulligan and Player returned the favor, providing his design services for free. The course was enlarged and totally re-designed, stretching to a more respectable 6,875 yards.

Player enlarged and smoothed out the greens and took away the mounds bordering many of the fairways. He opened the greens in front to hold bump-and-run shots and generally made the course much more playable.

Resort players liked the changes and so did the media. Golf Digest named it among its "top 10 new courses" for the year and gave it 4 ½ stars in its "places to play" list.

"This is one of the more playable courses he's done," said Kiawah spokesman Mike Vegis. "He's been known to have quirky courses, but this one turned out well."

It's certainly an aesthetically pleasing course, but then again, it would be tough to build a course on Kiawah that wasn't pretty, the Black Knight's first effort notwithstanding.

The middle of the front nine plays along the Kiawah River and the holes look out over the broad expanse of salt water marsh, changing colors with the seasons. The island is home to a diverse wildlife population and it isn't unusual to spot bobcats, deer, river otters and, of course, alligators.

Player came up with a good mix of holes, with some long par-4s and short, more strategic par-4s. The par-5s are interesting, particularly No. 15: it's reachable in two with a good tee shot and your second shot will travel over water to the green. If you opt for the safer route, make sure to hit it past the two big oaks to have a clear shot at the green.

The verdict

Almost $4 million was spent to get Cougar to its present state, and it was money well spent. Despite the recognition from Golf Digest, it's an under-rated resort course that you can score well on.

The long par-4s are fat in the fairways so you can swing away and the shorter ones have some strategy that make you think, but not too hard since you're here to relax. You have to hit to certain areas to have good angles in to the green.

There aren't really any forced carries, though the two par-5s have carries over water on the second shot. Both can be reached in two and if not, what the heck, you can still get a birdie chance if you're a good wedge man.

The other two par-5s — Nos. 9 and 11 — only the big boys reach in two. All the par-5s have big greens that grab and hold your long irons. After all, this is a resort course.

There are some negative quirks resulting from the course being reworked so many times. The distance between some holes can be trying if you're a walker and there is more traffic noise than the other courses on the island, where you mostly hear the sound of the surf.

Where to stay

The Sanctuary opened last year to a great deal of acclaim, replacing the much more modest hotel on the property, and it is an impressive building. With wide-planked, oak parquet floors, it's like stepping back to a simpler time when they took time with their architecture. The hotel is going after a five-star rating and will probably get it — the service is excellent, sometimes bordering on smothering.

You have virtually the whole island at your disposal, either by foot, bicycle or car; there are 26 miles of bike trails and bikes are available for guests. With only two commercial enterprises on the island — the Sanctuary and a real estate company — it's a good place to cruise and look at all the critters. The place has more alligators per square foot than the Everglades.

It has a spa and fitness center, of course, with 12 massage, facial, body treatment and steam rooms with domed ceilings and hardwood floors, and a full-service salon. There's also a 65-foot-long indoor pool and a special studio for yoga, tai chi and other new-age endeavors.

Where to eat

The Ocean Room is the swanky restaurant on the grounds, with jackets required (they have some if you're slothful and low-brow enough to have forgotten to bring your own).

The chef's name is advertised so you know it must be up-scale. It specializes in "New American "cuisine and promises an "inspired evening of dining." There's a lot of mahogany and fancy ironwork with views of the Atlantic, plus plush, oversized chairs next to a fireplace.

The Jasmine Porch is more casual, serving "Lowcountry" dishes and fresh seafood. Try the roast corn and baby crab bisque. It also has a great breakfast buffet.

The Loggerhead Grill and Beaches and Cream are seasonal restaurants and the Lobby Bar is where the nightlife on the island happens, such as it is. There's piano entertainment Tuesday through Saturday.

Fast fact

The name Kiawah refers to the Indians who lived in the area in the 1600s until they were wiped out by the white man's weapons and diseases.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

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.

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