The 255-room Sanctuary on Kiawah Island overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.
The Ocean Course and I have had a contentious relationship. It picks on me for the weaknesses in my golf game; I pick on it for its $338 green fee and degree of difficulty. But after a recent trip to Kiawah Island, S.C., we've come to terms. I've finally removed my cap and shaken hands with the toughest course in America. From my favorite hole -- the 19th -- I ordered a dirty martini on the rocks with blue-cheese olives, and I took a seat overlooking the 18th green, where only minutes before I had hooked, sliced, chunked and yipped my way to a bogey.
In the Southern comfort of the Ryder Cup Bar in one of my favorite clubhouses in golf, the three-club wind was no longer a factor. I had a clear view of the Atlantic Ocean, the benefit of a red sunset, a plate of the crispy shrimp appetizer, a stiff drink and some stories to tell.
I still wouldn't say I love it, but I do respect it, and now I get it. You don't play the Ocean Course for good misses and giggles; you play the Ocean Course so you can commiserate with friends about how you had a decent round going -- until you hit your first tee shot.
"You have to embrace the fact that it's an aspirational and inspirational golf experience," says Roger Warren, president of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort and a former president of the PGA of America.
I embraced shots that would make a beginner look bad, two birdies that felt like eagles, and an up-and-down par on the 197-yard 17th from the fringe of the 10th green. An 88 was my score, and I'd like to think I'm a legitimate 8-handicapper.
I played the Dye tees, which are 6,475 yards. "Play it from the back tees and you might get killed," says Pete Dye, who built the course for the 1991 Ryder Cup. (The United States defeated Europe, 14½-13½, in the War by the Shore.) Dye says he built the back tees (7,606 yards) because the USGA wasn't controlling the golf ball. He was preparing for the distant future, which he was sure would include a lot of distance. "We didn't use 'em for the Ryder Cup. I really didn't think we'd use 'em for a million years. Now, 20 years later, we're using 'em."
The pros will return to the Ocean Course in August 2012 for the PGA Championship, South Carolina's first major.
Dye has been on site about once a month for a year, tweaking tees, bunkers and greens and clearing space for tents and galleries. He says the changes shouldn't make the course any easier or harder for amateurs. "It's a hard course if you're playing bad," Dye says. "The fairways are liberal, greens are receptive, but the wind causes problems. I get around OK, and I'm half of 170 years old."
There's the inspiration that Warren was talking about. When I go back, my aspiration is to keep my score under half of 170. The point being: I'll go back. Though the Ocean Course rearranges my teeth, Kiawah has few peers when it comes to U.S.-based golf resorts. It's in the same class as Pebble Beach, Sea Island, Pinehurst and The Greenbrier. The destination is a good fit for families, couples and buddies.
Old oak trees line never-ending roads, open fields and bike trails throughout the gated property, which features five golf courses, 11 restaurants, tennis courts, miles of beaches and the Sanctuary, an appropriately named 255-room luxury hotel built in 2004. There are also hundreds of villas and private homes for rent. (For details go to kiawahresort.com).
There's some debate about which is the next-best course at Kiawah. I prefer Osprey Point, a Tom Fazio design, over Turtle Point, which is one of Jack Nicklaus' first designs. Osprey has water on almost every hole, but it comes into play only if you hit a horrible shot. Turtle Point is a little cramped for my style, especially the three oceanfront holes on the back nine. Warren says he likes the Gary Player-designed Cougar Point "because I can still hit the par 5s in two." It's also the course best suited for family golf or a few holes at the end of the day. Oak Point, designed by Clyde Johnston, offers a break in the green fee because it's the only course off the island.
Tomasso at the Turtle Point clubhouse has a good bar scene, and it's the preferred spot on the island to watch sports. There are better spots for dinner. Warren is working on updating some of the resort's restaurants. He's giving each dining option a theme, such as the Southern Kitchen, which features country-fried steak, pork chops, collard greens and other "lowcountry classics." The Ocean Room at the Sanctuary is the only steakhouse in the United States to receive four-star and four-diamond ratings from Forbes and AAA, respectively. (Jackets are preferred, but not required.)
Southwest goes Southeast: The Charleston International Airport is 35 miles north of the resort. In March, Southwest Airlines added direct flights from Nashville, Baltimore, Chicago and Houston.
Family time: From June through August, on every course except the Ocean Course, kids younger than 18 and accompanied by an adult play for free after 5 p.m. (Adults pay $45.)
Ocean antidote: Try the spa at the Sanctuary. Ask for Dolly, who has been a massage therapist for 28 years and knows the meaning of "deep tissue." Treatments start at $160 for 60 minutes (including mineral bath).
Beyond the PGA, Warren admits he has an appetite for more majors. "We're considered a small market with the barriers of being an island," he says. But a year in advance of the tournament, tickets are 95 percent sold out (he expects 30,000 fans a day), as are 70 percent of the corporate sponsorships. That kind of marketing power and local support improves the Ocean Course's chances of hosting a U.S. Open and another Ryder Cup, even though the Cup has never had a repeat venue in the States. "I'd like to see that happen here," says Warren, who understands the pressures of next summer. "But first we have to prove success and performance in 2012 -- as it should be."
The first week of August you can play the Ocean Course from the back tees, set up almost as the pros will play it in the 2012 PGA Championship. The lowest net score will win a vacation package, which includes two nights of lodging and two rounds of golf for four people. Caddies will verify scores.
My caddie was Mark Bloomer, who has been looping at Kiawah for more than 10 years. He has seen six sub-par rounds at the Ocean Course and can verify that I have less than a 6 percent chance of winning that free vacation.
So, as Dan the starter said on the first tee, "May the wind be with you."
The Ocean Course's 17th hole sports new amphitheater seating.