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PGA Championship 2021: Just getting to the first tee is a journey at Kiawah

One of several quirks at the Ocean Course is a half-mile cart ride to be alone with your thoughts on the way out to a day of punishment.

May 21, 2021

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — For both the amateur hack and the elite professional golfer, the most nerve-wracking shot of a round can often be the first one. And at the 2021 PGA Championship, pros in the field have some extra time to think about that shot and the test of the day ahead of them as they face a near half-mile ride from the clubhouse and driving range out to the first tee.

The Ocean Course is a beast that can be stretched to the longest major setup in history. Nothing about this championship is compact, so it’s no coincidence that players and caddies have to catch a lengthy ride just to get their rounds started. Going to the first tee is the first of two lengthy cart rides, the other coming when crossing nines as players go for another almost half-mile between the ninth green and the 10th tee.

It’s one of the many unique quirks of this modern course, and not everyone is happy about it. Several players and one prominent coach began the week surprised at the haul and time it takes to get out there. And reportedly there were a few close calls on Thursday, with pros arriving just before it was their time on the tee.

There’s always grumbling about different infrastructure impediments at a major championship, but this is also a layout quirk for the Ocean Course every other week of the year. Resort guests don’t bound down the clubhouse steps to the first tee, but rather often hop in a cart with their caddies for the ride out there, too.

So how is it that the first tee ended up a full par 6 away—a 10-minute, 1,000-step walk for those hoofing it—from the clubhouse? As you might expect, this was not the plan when this course was constructed in the late 1980s.

“The Ocean Course was built on a narrow strip of land with protected wetlands all around it,” said Garrett Morrison, managing editor of The Fried Egg, where he has researched the origin story of the course. “Where the driving range is now, between the nines, it was too narrow to build golf holes going in both directions. The construction would have affected the wetlands too much. So that’s why there’s a long walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee.”

Those environmental protections also partly explain why a utilitarian driving range occupies such a coveted piece of beachfront real estate instead of some plot farther inland.

The constraints address the distance between nines, but how did we end up with a clubhouse nowhere in sight of the first tee? “Originally, the Ocean Course clubhouse was inland and much closer to the first tee,” Morrison said. “It also was relatively humble. Environmental restrictions on the property loosened up a bit in the early 2000s. The resort decided to build a new, grander clubhouse [in 2007] near the beach. The space for that was right by today’s 18th green, a pretty big hike from the first tee. But it’s a photogenic building, for sure.”

The clubhouse at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

Gary Kellner

There is a short-game area out adjacent to the first tee to at least keep the pros busy and moving once they arrive. But for those who might like to warm-up on the range, roll a few putts, and then go back to the range for a couple more full swings before the shots start to count, they’re out of luck. Allow for extra time between range and first tee or else you run the risk of pulling a David Lipsky, who incurred a two-shot penalty at the PGA Championship two years ago for being late to the first tee.

The journey to the first tee is, of course, not the world’s greatest inconvenience, but it is plenty of time to be alone with your thoughts, psych yourself out, or maybe even reset for the better between nines. On Thursday morning, David Duval cited the mental process and game-planning that goes on during that walk down to your first shot of the day. This Duval preamble came as Rory McIlroy strode onto the 10th tee and then promptly blew his first shot of the championship off the planet and into a penalty stroke.

That wasn’t the first time McIlroy started a major launching a ball to unplayability. His 2019 Open Championship at Portrush started with a tee ball out-of-bounds and a first hole that essentially ended his chances at a home victory in his first 10 minutes of play. In that instance, McIlroy told the Irish Independent that he left the range feeling good but was hit by the weight of the moment in the walk over to the tee. That was an historic home venue for McIlroy and came with a first-tee reception that he also admitted he could not have prepared himself for. That is far from the circumstance this week in Kiawah, but that experience is illustrative of how a round and even a championship can be impacted in the contemplative moments before that first lash at the ball.

Those moments will have several extra beats this week. Some players have scrolled their phones on the ride out and some try to make small chat, though like the rest of us, they undoubtedly are hoping they don’t get a chatty cab driver. Others have had a deadpan stare as they’re driven out to a day of both opportunity and punishment.

A common cliche among pros who have been there is that one of the hardest parts about leading a major championship is how long you have to wait around on Sunday before you actually get to play. You’ll hear them say they try to stay active, making up chores and activities to distract themselves from being alone with their thoughts. It’s a long morning with plenty of time to psych oneself out.

This week, that also applies to the time between the range and the first tee.