Kiawah Island Golf Resort remains a Carolina Lowcountry highlight

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. - Perhaps no other golf resort in the country has grown more spectacular in the past five years, and done it more thoughtfully, than the Kiawah Island Golf Resort off the coast of South Carolina.

Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort
The Sanctuary Hotel at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort is within steps of the beach.
Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island Golf ResortOcean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort - Hole 18Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort - ClubhouseSanctuary Spa at Kiawah Island Golf Resort
If you go

In the race to add amenities, some resorts lose touch with their surroundings, looking like manufactured playgrounds.

Thoughtful, cautious development has always set Kiawah Island apart. Just 45 minutes from Charleston, the barrier island's unique topography of towering trees, sand dunes, salt marshes, miles of beaches and the crashing ocean surf make for a photographer's dream. Kiawah Island Golf Resort has grown into a world-class destination - complete with a five-star hotel, five-star spa and five-star golf course - without intruding on the charms of the surrounding Lowcountry.

Change never comes that quickly at Kiawah. After all, the 255-room Sanctuary Hotel opened in 2004 after more than a decade of planning. The seaside mansion, a Mobile 5-Star award-winner two straight years, seems to kiss the surf without trespassing upon the beach.

The first floor was raised 20 feet to provide unobstructed ocean views, a concept legendary architect Pete Dye used in building Kiawah Island's famed Ocean course as well. Two grand staircases on either side of the lobby are complimented by three-story murals of the marshes. Most of the rooms, decorated with four-poster beds and ample space, offer balconies that open to a courtyard and the ocean.

The resort continues to be among the country's leaders in the "green" movement with its environmental practices. Kiawah's other green movement, its five golf courses, are similarly lauded. The Ocean course, site of the 1991 Ryder Cup Matches (known as the 'War by the Shore') and the 2012 PGA Championship, is one of the miracles of modern design. The completion of the $22-million Ocean course clubhouse in late 2007 greatly enhanced one of the purest golf experiences in America. There are spots inside the Ryder Cup bar where guests can watch the sun come up and the sunset on the horizon without moving.

The 24,000-square-foot clubhouse provides the perfect place to unwind after battling the ferocious 8,000-yard beast. Caddies warn players that the Ocean course plays at least 10 shots harder than their home track.

Dye's Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort

Golf Digest rated it the toughest golf course in America in 2007, but that should come with a caveat. The Ocean course will only feel cruelly unfair if you make two deadly mistakes: playing from the wrong tees or teeing it up without a caddie (there is no extra charge for a caddie after your greens fee, just a $65 recommended tip). Dicey weather - and howling winds - can also change your fortunes for the worse.

The Ocean course has certain elements of links golf, like stiff winds and long putts. But the layout plays more like a links hybrid, with difficult-to-hold elevated greens, massive waste bunkers and a harrowing carry over water to the 17th green - all characteristics of American resort golf.

Some players in the 2007 Senior PGA Championship complained about the course's steep bunker faces, so they might be revamped in time for the 2012 PGA Championship, according to resort spokesman Michael Vegis. No matter what changes occur between now and then, the course will be a fearsome test for the world's best golfers.

Kiawah's other golf courses

The other four courses at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, including Jack Nicklaus' Turtle Point, Gary Player's Cougar Point and Tom Fazio's Osprey Point, are so dramatically normal they provide quite a contrast. All are rated at least 4 stars by Golf Digest. Osprey Point delivers some of the most picturesque holes on the island, notably the par-3 third and 11th holes and the monstrous par-4 ninth. The latter is forgiving off the tee, making it a local favorite.

Turtle Point, designed in 1991 after Nicklaus finished working with Dye at Harbor Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C., wanders through forest before climaxing with three beachfront holes. The green on the par-3 14th sits wedged between resort villas on the left and dunes on the right. Hooked tee shots on the 385-yard No. 14 will fly the fence along the dunes, ending up on the beach. The 179-yard 16th is the strongest hole of the three, demanding a confident swing to avoid the natural scrub and a front bunker.

Kiawah Island Golf Resort's Southern hospitality

Away from the courses, resort guests are pampered with service that lives up to the highest standards of Southern hospitality.

The restaurant scene at the resort was recently revamped, adding even more variety. The clubhouse at Turtle Point now houses Tomasso, an Italian-themed eatery serving family favorites like pizza and spaghetti. With the addition of the Atlantic Room inside the Ocean course clubhouse two years ago, Kiawah Island is transforming the Sanctuary's Ocean Room into a high-end steakhouse along the lines of Ruth's Chris. Golfers are sure to welcome the change.

Kiawah Island Golf Resort's luxurious spa continues to add treatments that highlight a connection to Mother Nature. The "signature massage" mixes heated grain- and herb-filled wraps, used to relax the muscles, with traditional massage. Be sure to arrive early (and stay late) to take advantage of a soothing mineral hot tub inside the locker room.

Guests almost always feel much better afterward, refreshed and ready to return to the real world. Or better yet, they are replenished enough to seek revenge against that fickle Ocean course.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations 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 Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment