“The hardest golf course in the United States.”
Easily the most intimidating group of words ever assembled. As subjective as the honor might be, when the folks at Golf Digest awarded The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island with this dubious distinction, it wasn’t without cause. One needs to look no further than the second round of the 2012 PGA Championship and its average score of 78 — including 13 rounds of 85 or worse — as proof of Pete Dye’s ultimate gift to the masochistic golfer.
What fate could that possibly hold for a devoted patron of the local muni with a 6 handicap? I was scared to find out.
The history of The Ocean Course was close to mind as the resort shuttle meandered through the marshes of Kiawah Island. “The War by the Shore.” Calc’s shank. Langer’s putt. Rory’s pre-toothache dominance. The opportunity to walk alongside this history was a treat of the bucket list variety. The only question was whether at the end of the day I’d have two things in common with Mark Calcavecchia: A love of the Florida Gators and nightmares from Kiawah Island.
The greeting from The Ocean Course caught me a little by surprise. The gentle breeze I had observed back at The Sanctuary hotel was now a 20 to 30 mph onslaught, striking an even greater fear of Dye’s notorious monster. In addition, a nearly empty golf course meant that I would take on this beast alone; just me, my caddie, and four hours of forced conversation amongst strangers. The upside, I assumed, would be just a single witness to the carnage that was about to take place.
And then I birdied No. 1.
Two straightforward pars were to follow, and brought with them that inevitable voice in every golfer’s head. Maybe, just maybe, today was my day. A day where David would take down Goliath and declare victory for weekend warriors everywhere.
And then I tripled No. 4.
The Ocean Course was just toying with me, opening with a serving of downwind kindness, before turning into the teeth of the wind for nine straight holes of battle. Breaking putts stayed straight, balls wobbled on greens, flagsticks bent in unnatural states, and easy 7’s became hard 4’s. By the 14th tee, where we finally turned for home, I was a worn down shell of a man.
The scorecard told a slightly different story. Like the opening holes, the round had mixed flashes of brilliance — draining a 50-foot birdie on No.8 — with equal doses of harsh reality –- another triple on No. 13. Yet I had somehow managed to keep clear of the sand dunes and wire grass, and the voice in my head returned to kindly point out the chance of a score starting with “7” rather than “8.” A result that seemed impossible back on the first tee, but that was still five long holes away.
The wind may have been in my favor now, but The Ocean Course and my brain were both plotting against me. The former sought to use the crashing waves of the Atlantic to distract me, while the latter constantly displayed a one-man leaderboard. When my 7 iron found the green on No. 18, the call from Ben Wright rang out:
“He’s got a chance. He’s got a very good chance for a 79 on the hardest golf course in America.”
And then I three-putted for an 81.
At the start of the day, I had predicted a score of 92. The end result should have been a reason to pop a bottle of champagne like the 1991 Ryder Cup team, but instead I felt utterly defeated. The Ocean Course had taken everything out of me, using the wind, natural beauty, and an incredible layout to lull me into a state of vulnerability. In a way she’s like the girl in history class that you help cheat on tests. She let’s you believe you’ve got a chance, but in the end, you never really do.