Pros are exploiting this free-drop strategy on Kiawah’s hardest hole

The 18th hole at Kiawah Island is hard no matter where you hit your tee shot — but it might be safest aiming for the grandstand.

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Mid-morning on Thursday, a bucket-hatted thirty-something waved his arms back towards the 18th tee.

“Hit me, Hideki!” he bellowed. Then he took a swig from his Michelob Ultra tall boy ($16 at the concession) and turned to his friends. “God, I wanna wear this one.”

Such was the scene down the left side of 18, Kiawah Island‘s brutal finisher, where golf balls rained and chaos reigned throughout the opening round. While bunkers, dunes and scrub guard the right side of the brutish finishing par-4, a thin strip of rough and a thick row of hospitality tents sits down the left side. If this were bowling, the right side would be a gutter and the left side a bumper. You can see why the pros favored the left.

Just minutes before Matsuyama reached the 18th tee, Brooks Koepka had launched his drive down the left side, landing in the grandstand itself and rolling forward until it hit a spectator’s foot. He picked up Koepka’s Titleist 3 and admired it like a fine gemstone before the crowd around him urged he put it back down.

No matter. Koepka received a free drop from the giant “obstruction” that is the hospitality row. That means he got to take a complete stance, free of the wall, and then got a club length from there. He dropped on a strip of perfectly matted rough, drawing a perfect lie. He missed just left with his approach but made par.

Koepka was hardly the only one. Xander Schauffele and Rory McIlroy each played their second surrounded by a U-shaped alley of spectators. Hideki, following his fan’s instructions, hit it into the crowd, too, just inside the grandstand line. Jimmy Walker played it the best, getting a large kick-and-roll forward off the grandstand and leaving himself a mid-iron approach. Keegan Bradley, tied for the lead, fired his tee shot down the left side and finished with a par.

“It’s definitely comforting that it’s there,” Bradley said. “The right side of the hole, the bunkers are so dead over there. I wasn’t trying to hit it in there by any means, but definitely from that up tee, it’s in play.”

Part of the reason the grandstand was in play was because tournament organizers moved the tee up 31 yards for Thursday’s round. That came in response to players hitting hybrids, 3-woods and even drivers into the green in their practice rounds — but it brought the left side much more into play.

Tyrrell Hatton was pleased with that decision.

“I was quite happy they moved the tee forward there after the practice round I had on Tuesday when I hit driver, 3-wood short of the green,” he said. “Was quite relieved to see they moved it forward.”

Hatton actually found the fairway and hit a 4-iron approach to four feet for a birdie — a bonus birdie on a hole that had yielded just five midway through the afternoon.

Sebastian Munoz took a particularly memorable drop after his ball ricocheted off the grandstand and into an adjacent trash bag. There was nothing garbage about his approach, though; he found the green and two-putted for par.

But the play was hardly foolproof. While plenty of left-goers escaped with par, plenty others made bogey. There’s no safe place to be on a narrow, 474-yard behemoth with wind in your face. But the golfers that missed left largely avoided big numbers, while those who found the sand down the right made 5s, 6s and even a triple-bogey 7 (Sorry, Stuart Smith!).

The grandstand didn’t make it into the ShotLink data, but you can see the cluster of dots left of the fairway. Blue means par and black means bogey or worse. ShotLink

Midway through the afternoon round, the hole was playing to a scoring average of 4.51, the most difficult on the course.

Still, the free drops drew the ire of plenty of social media users, who knew they’d have no such bail-out zone if they played the course themselves.

Just 44 percent of players found the fairway, the lowest of any hole. Just 23 percent found the green. The hole yielded more double bogeys than birdies and nearly as many bogeys as pars. When combined with No. 17, a par-3 averaging a half-stroke over par, the Ocean Course finished with a kick in the teeth, free drops or not.

“I feel bad for all those people up there,” Bradley concluded. “They’d better have their hard hats on today. They’re going to be firing them in there all day.”

Dylan Dethier

Dylan Dethier Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/ The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.