Ocean at Kiawah Island not your father's resort course

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. - It's early, the sun a weak pup just over the horizon, when the fog comes padding in off the ocean, and you take it to mean this is going to be something special.

It's like the opening scene of Taxi Driver, when director Martin Scorcese shows that gritty New York streetscape with the steam rising out of the manhole - the harbinger of a visceral experience to come.

The Ocean course at Kiawah Island doesn't stoop to marketing itself as a links course, which so many lesser courses wrongly do. It isn't a true links course, but when you make the turn and the fog makes an encore appearance, and the age-twisted, wind-gnarled, leafless oak trees appear out of the mist, you think: Who cares?

Maybe Scotland and Ireland should look like this. Maybe they should come up with a name for this kind of course and try to sell imitations over there.

This is golf architecture as art, hold the pretense. Pete Dye took a Carolina seascape already blessed by nature and used some of his subtlest strokes, which must have been difficult for an eccentric, over-the-top designer who is often loved and often equally hated for changing the way we look at golf courses.

No golf course in the world has ever improved on nature, but this one comes closer than most. Dye accomplished this by letting the location's natural beauty remain in its simplest state.

What is a seascape anyway, but dunes, water, wind and hardy growth lashed by salt spray? That's what this part of the Carolina coast was and what it still is; it's the way Dye guides you through it as you play a centuries-old game that qualifies as artistry.

There's no fancy bunkering, but there is plenty of sand, the same sand that has lay there for millenniums, which Dye had the intelligence to leave mostly untouched. Forget country club rules: take a practice swing when you land in it - and you will. Hack at it as much as you want, ground your club if you like, even in the middle of the cart paths, unspoiled by asphalt or concrete. This is one artist who doesn't mind the masses taking swipes on his canvas.

There are some typical Dye touches you will notice if you play the course, and the biggest one is its difficulty - Dye loves to penalize bad golf. This is not your father's resort course. It has been rated the most difficult resort course in the U.S.

"We let them know it's not an easy course," Kiawah spokesman Mike Vegis said of those who stay at the nearby Sanctuary and want to play Ocean. "Some of them come here and play the Ocean course exclusively, the true, hard-core masochists. Most resort players will come out here to play once, just to say they played it, and then go play the other courses."

Masochist is the correct word in many respects - Ocean has a whopping slope of 155 from the back tees.

The verdict

The Ocean is a tough course to start with, made infinitely more difficult when the wind kicks up. And it will act up because Dye's wife Alice told her husband to raise the whole shebang so we could all get a good look at the Atlantic, thereby making it more susceptible to the vagaries of the wind, which will blow in almost any direction depending on its whim.

Regulars say there can be as much as an eight-club difference on the same hole on successive days.

"I played it when the wind was howling, and it's just a nightmare, just a totally different course," said Tom Angelieri, a friend of a guest at the Sanctuary. "But, I'm one of those guys who just likes to test myself against hard courses."

The ocean is the star here: the course has more seaside holes (10) than any other course in the Northern hemisphere and you can hear the roar of the breakers on the other eight. Bring your driver because you'll be traversing more than 7,900 yards from the tips, and the course, flexible like the dunes, can be stretched to more than 8,000 yards.

Dye has tinkered with the course since its original design, making it easier for the average player. He has installed more player-friendly grass on the already-large greens, for one example.

The Ocean course is a must-play if you're in the area. It's open to the public, although those staying at the Sanctuary or one of the other accommodations get a price break. Green fees are $185 for resort guests in the offseason and $215 for non-guests. During the peak season (March 9-May 31) and September through November, it's $245 and $290.

Places to stay

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

You have virtually the entire 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 workouts.

Places 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

Hurricane Hugo wiped out many of the sand dunes when it buzzed through in 1989, and the course was inaccessible. Yet Dye managed to get on the course, and officials found him there with a bulldozer, re-building the dunes before government bureaucrats could stop him.

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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