Course Rater Confidential: Breaking down the Ocean Course and Pete Dye’s best designs

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The PGA Championship is on tap this week at the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. Where do you rank the Ocean Course in Dye’s overall body of work, which includes such well-known projects as Teeth of the Dog, TPC Sawgrass, Whistling Straits, Harbour Town, the Stadium Course at PGA West and, well, we could go on.

Brian Curley, has played 65 of the World Top 100: Having worked with Pete on many courses, including Kiawah, I am certainly a bit biased to the Ocean Course, knowing what he was up against with the site conditions, to say nothing of a directive from Landmark executives to elevate the playing areas for views while abiding by approval process restrictions and dealing with Hurricane Hugo and more. I would place it at the top for execution/creation of a challenging design that is essentially engineered, while still incorporating a natural site appearance.

bagger vance and bernhard langer
5 things you didn’t know about Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course
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Will Davenport, has played 38 of the World Top 100: Generally speaking, I am not overwhelmingly keen on Pete Dye golf courses. I feel he leans a bit too heavily on bunkering and there is a contrived element to many of his par-3s. That being said, the Ocean Course is far and away my favorite Dye course. In playing the course, it would not have been obvious to me all of the engineering that went into overcoming the lowland constraints (per Brian’s comments above). I felt Dye embraced a property with a distinct flavor change between the front- and back-nine land in a way that was compelling. While obviously penal and challenging, the way the greens are embedded in the dunes on the back nine and the closing side routing make for an immensely enjoyable finish.

Thomas Brown, has played 95 of the World Top 100: I would hazard a guess that Teeth of Dog, at Casa de Campo, will remain Dye’s distinguished design over the next 100 years. The seaside location in the Dominican Republic and its postcard par-3 holes are unforgettable. Runner-up would be The Honors Course in Tennessee with its natural-landscape routing and interesting greensite variety. Much of Dye’s name-brand golf courses were conceived and built as tournament courses, meant to present a dramatic challenge in the closing holes. For those of us not playing professional golf on television, prepare to bring a lot of balls to the 1st tee. It’s easy for handicap golfers to complain about all-or-nothing carries over lost-ball penalty areas when debating strategy in Dye designs, but I expect Kiawah’s greens to shine this week, with compelling pin locations and stay-below-the-hole dynamics playing out in the ever-present coastal breezes. The last five holes along the tidal marsh make for inspiring golf. Mileage varies widely when ranking aesthetics, but on any scale, Kiawah scores high in that department.

The 3rd hole of the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

Gary Kellner/PGA of America via Getty Images

In what ways is the Ocean Course emblematic of Dye’s style? In what ways is it an outlier?

Matt Gibb, has played 45 of World Top 100: It is emblematic in that it has the usual Dye trademarks — railroad ties, great par-3s and a general sense that it was made by man. It is an outlier in the penal nature of the course. With the combination of marshland, ocean and typically strong coastal winds, this course is much more penal than other Dye designs.

Curley: It is not readily apparent while playing but this is a VERY engineered effort that has a crazy underground system of water movement based upon exacting directives from the environmental consultants. On top of that, Pete was given marching orders to “see the sea” as much as possible. This results in a rather man-made dirt move, but the outside edges nip and tuck, transitioning into natural surrounds that, visually, makes it very unlike say, PGA West. But it is essentially similar in design and playability. I have always felt this course has his best set of par-5s where there are no easy second-shot decisions — just stress from tee to green!

Ran Morrissett, GOLF’s Architecture Editor: The pacing of the course has similarities with some of his other bests. He liked a short- to medium-length opener and his favorite closing sequence was a par-5 16th, par-3 17th and tough 18th, which is certainly the case at Kiawah. The fairways are plenty wide and the golfer can seek the correct side from which to approach these (invariably) angled greens. Par-5s are often a strength on a Dye course and that holds true here. Overall, the design does NOT need to rely on fast greens to present a thorough challenge — and I think that is wonderful and a testimony to what he created.

Davenport: Like most Dye courses, the ball is not meant to be played along the ground at Kiawah. However, I think the myriad of hole diversity on the Ocean Course is unique vs. other Dye designs. There are really three, maybe four scene changes in the profiles of the holes, and the distinct nature of each means you never tire of the challenge before you return to the house. Where I feel there is a bit of constructed repetition on other Dye courses, the Ocean Course feels much more natural and dynamic at the same time.

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