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PGA Championship 2021: Players are seeing a very different Ocean Course from 2012 with the move to May

May 19, 2021

Rory McIlroy lines up a putt during a practice round prior to the 2021 PGA Championship.

Sam Greenwood

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C—Philosopher and former baseball manager Casey Stengel once warned, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” But many are throwing caution into the wind with their Ocean Course forecasts this week because of, well, the wind.

The PGA Championship is making its second trip to Kiawah Island, and because of that lack of history it’s natural to examine its inaugural visit in 2012 for an inkling of what to expect. Rory McIlroy’s 13 under winning score indicates a gettable layout; in truth, the Ulsterman was the outlier, lapping the field by eight strokes, and Kiawah was the second-toughest course on tour in 2012 behind only Olympic Club (host of the U.S. Open). In the nine years since McIlroy captured the Wanamaker Trophy, the Ocean Course hasn’t undergone drastic cosmetic surgery, indicating another tough test awaits. True as that belief may be, 2012 may not be the best prognosticator for 2021, a notion that can be chalked up to the PGA’s move from August to May.

“It's different. It's a different time of year,” McIlroy said. “I think one of the biggest differences that I've noticed is it's not going to be as easy around the greens as it was last time. Last time in August it was hot, humid, the paspalum [grass] was like really strong and dense and lush, so the ball would just sit right up on top, and it was so easy to just get your lob wedge out, clip it, spin it.

“I felt like around the greens last time was a lot easier. I feel this year they're a little more bare, a touch links-y in places, especially with the wind and the dry weather. I don't think it's going to be quite as simple as it was around the greens like last time.”

The 2012 PGA was not without wind, but the breezes off the Atlantic tend to be a bit stronger this time of the season in South Carolina. That will affect play throughout the course, but especially the closing four-hole stretch that kisses the beach.

“Probably going to be a different wind than we played in the last time, so it's going to play like a completely different golf course,” McIlroy said. “It's a really tough test, especially when the wind is blowing like this. Those last few holes out there are brutal. It's going to be a great test.”

Echoed Adam Scott: “It's a problem for us out there playing for sure. If the wind blows this way for the rest of the week, it's going to be a battle to just get in the clubhouse.”

While wind is the “it” topic, it’s the lack of rain and humidity in May versus August that truly opens up the beast. The 2012 PGA was hit with thunderstorms that softened the Ocean Course’s defenses; as of late, the low country has not received much precipitation, firming the property up for this week’s competition. It may not be the concrete surfaces you see at Shinnecock or an Open Championship venue, but that firmness demands a higher concentration on accuracy and delivers punishment to those who lack it.

“May has been much easier for us. August with the high humidity and thunderstorms, the chance of rain and just the lack of control of moisture for the golf course makes it tough in August,” Jeff Stone, Ocean Course superintendent, said on Golf Channel Monday night. “May is a perfect time. As you can see with the golf course, we have overseeded rough which are complementing the golf course. And we’re able to produce a much faster firmer surface than what we had in August. May is perfect for us and I really love this weather.”

When a superintendent loves the conditions, that’s a sign the players need to prepare for battle. That is a prediction you can guarantee.