Tweets and nightmares: The infamous Kiawah media shuttle of the 2012 PGA Championship
The legend of a logistcal mess that was ripe for the "dawn of golf Twitter."
Montana Pritchard/PGA of America
English writer Izaak Walton said, “Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.” Walton died in 1683 but I suspect if he’d held on for another 329 years, he’d have found the precise inverse of this on a shuttle of frustrated golf media members at the 2012 PGA Championship.
There are certain images and developments at a PGA Championship that distill the week and stay with us over time: the rainbow over Davis Love III at Winged Foot; Sergio Garcia scissor-kicking down the fairway at Medinah; Tiger going toe-to-toe with Bob May at Valhalla . . . and the Kiawah media shuttle of 2012.
Sure, Rory McIlroy won that PGA Championship by a record margin, but the lasting golf pop culture memento seems to be another record reference point. That’s the media experience of the interminable shuttles from Charleston down two lane roads out to the farthest tip of Kiawah Island, where The Ocean Course sits up against the Atlantic Ocean. The tweets, wails, and war stories became enough of a cult joke that the popular account No Laying Up cited the shuttle just last month as soon as the Masters concluded. It is ingrained in Golf Twitter lexicon.
It is also now a unit of time in the unofficial golf almanac. Even today, you’ll hear references made to “the Kiawah shuttle” when someone is artistically trying to convey that a task, trip, or J.B. Holmes pre-shot routine might take some time.
Sportswriters, especially golf writers, can carry the reputation of an irascible cohort. There may be complaints about press box views, the free press food, parking, accommodations, airport inconveniences and airline mishaps. And yes, shuttles. So was the Kiawah shuttle, which now goes down in lore, actually that bad or an instance of the scribe crying wolf? Does the almost decade-long Twitter myth actually match the reality of what happened?
“It was just a total clusterf**k -- that’s the only word for it,” says Alan Shipnuck, then writing for Sports Illustrated and who has spent 25 years on the golf beat. “These shuttle rides were taking two and a half hours, each way. That’s a big chunk of your day!”
“It was the all-time logistical screw-up,” added Shipnuck, a convincing witness that it was that bad. “Whoever thought it would be a good idea to put a bunch of reporters hours from the venue, knowing that we’re the bitchiest group of humans on the planet, who are going to complain about everything and anything even under the best of circumstances, it was just a colossal misjudgement on the part of the PGA of America.”
In 2021, the legend of the Kiawah shuttle is like a piece of abstract art, its interpretations and meanings molded and varying over time to different audiences. In its original form, however, it was a bus ride from the 2012 media hotel, the Courtyard Charleston Waterfront (multiple members of the media contacted for this were quick to point out that this traveling horde never misses a chance to collect Marriott points). This is about a 35 minute ride to Kiawah but then another 20 minutes to get to the Ocean Course at the end of the island, according to investigative reporting (cursory Google Maps searching).
The most common estimate for the ride was a two to two-and-a-half-hour one-way ride, though in the interest of fair and balanced journalism, there was a Stephanie Wei tweet for a 76 minute ride out after the final round and a Bob Weeks tweet hailing a 72-minute trip. The maximum estimate I heard tossed out there was 3 hours, but the memories may come with some artistic license nine years later. The 72 and 76 minute reports were the outliers, however, with more pained cries about two-plus hours on the bus.
The passage of time and the trauma of the moment may cloud the memory, but nine years on, there are recollections of shuttles stuck in the mud, overworked shuttles billowing smoke, and one shuttle that got lost and may still be out there puttering along to nowhere. There are still giggles about a shuttle that broke down and was passed by a subsequent bus with reporters waving out the window like a smirking Kevin McCallister to their stranded colleagues on the side of the road.
At one point, Shipnuck says he decided to abandon the “flotilla of negativity” and take his rental car, although that car then broke down on the trip out there. “Was mercury in retrograde? Something was going on,” he said.
The shuttle agita really peaked with the legendary Dan Jenkins emerging as a sort of Che figurehead for the shuttle protestations. Dave Shedloski noted that Jenkins paid one driver $100 after he took an alternate route that got the scribes there in under two hours.
Jenkins, an icon who had traveled to and seen more men’s major championship golf than anyone, now also had a Twitter account at his disposal. As Shipnuck noted, this 2012 PGA came at the “dawn of Golf Twitter” when even the old guard riding the bus had just started to really adopt the platform. “If this was five years earlier, they would have gotten away with it,” he added.
But it was not five years earlier and the assembled press could load their grievances into the Twitter cannon.
“Thank God, in the end we had a good winner,” said Shipnuck. “If you had like Wayne Levi win that PGA, Dan Jenkins would have done a thousand-word game story about just the bus ride. That would have been inevitable.”
Wei dedicated a blog post to Jenkins’ Twitter work and perhaps the most creative turn of impromptu Jenkins shuttle content is now lost to history. Augusta Chronicle writer Scott Michaux put together a video spoof of The Sopranos opening, starring Jenkins and others with vexed thousand-yard stares out the bus window culminating with the final scene of a triumphant arrival and deboarding at The Ocean Course. Multiple writers immediately cited this as one of the great amusements yielded from the logistical circus. A local Charleston tourism group even shared the spoof with admiration.
Michaux said that local tourism outfit became somewhat of a “saving grace” that week, constructing a hospitality setup with an open bar and local fare at the Courtyard for the weary press soldiers arriving back late off the shuttle. A good reporter never forgets some exemplary gratis food offering, and while several people who were there praised and recalled this setup, it could only quell the outcries so much. Some suspect it was an unplanned audible set up as a peace offering from the PGA for the shuttle indiginites.
Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner, now a Senior Writer there, did not get to experience that hotel hospitality scene but don’t cry for him. “We were one of the lucky ones that week,” said Lavner. “While seemingly everybody else was commuting for HOURS, my boss Jay Coffin had booked us a house on the island, just a couple of minutes from the course. It was glorious. There was a little convenience store nearby and we ate in every night.”
I could envision Lavner’s grin while he told the tale of how the media one percent lived that week. But what about the Marriott points? “It was my first event working for the Golf Channel, and honestly, it couldn’t have been a better experience,” he added. “Of course, it was a little awkward back in the press tent, since everyone was complaining about the transportation nightmare. Actually, ‘complaining’ doesn’t do it justice. They were howling. But we just kept quiet. They probably didn’t want to hear us griping about the golf-ball-sized mosquitos while we waited for our three-minute shuttle ride.”
One hardened reporter who was there, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, sought to provide balance and downplayed the suffering nine years ago. This Mark Felt of the press tent insisted that the shuttles were quite nice, far from some spartan school busses. They were equipped with Wifi and several opted to type out their reports from the road. For this person, it was all a matter of timing and the early risers were met with smooth shuttling.
Timing was the the key that unleashed the memefication of the Kiawah shuttle. There was the confluence of 1) a poor logistical operation 2) an early era of Twitter when these complaints might have been considered best practice of the platform, and 3) the uncredentialed and unwashed golf fans laughing from a distance and duty-bound to memorialize the angst.
The result was a PGA Championship that had both leader board watching and shuttle watching. “What was great is that the golf fans got into it,” said Shipnuck. “It became such a thing that the fans were commenting and they were following along on the bus rides in real time. It was utterly absurd because really nobody cares about the plight of the reporters...It was just a low roar throughout the whole week that I found hilarious. It’s one of the most memorable parts of that week, it really is.”
This was an era of Twitter when athletes and reporters used the platform as a garnish, a tool to throw in a little extra on top of their actual work and show something “behind the scenes.” The Bad Spring Training Twitpics trend came to mind and was of a similar time and place as the shuttle contretemps. Given the era, some of the complainants might have thought this was honest-to-god good content. It was, in both intended and unintended ways that still live on today.