It’s still three years until the 2021 PGA Championship, set to be played for a second time at Kiawah Island Resort’s famed Ocean Course, but planning for the event is already underway.
Since the Ocean Course hosted the 2012 PGA Championship – the first men’s major ever played in South Carolina – several changes have been made, most significantly moving the tournament from the heat of August to more pleasant temperatures in May.
But some questions remain from 2012, though PGA and Kiawah officials say those will be addressed, and answered, before 2021 arrives.
In 2015, the PGA of America announced the return of its major championship to the Ocean Course, where Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy was the popular winner in 2012, shooting a final-round 66 to win by eight shots at 13-under par. Turnouts of 27,000 fans a day came to the Pete Dye-designed layout, considered to be perhaps America’s toughest golf test.
Golf-wise, the 2012 event was a huge success, with spectators enjoying world-class golf played over the rugged, links-style terrain against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. And the move to May should mean both superior course conditions for players, as well as better weather for both golfers and spectators alike.
But the 2012 tournament did experience some transportation problems involving moving fans to and from the golf course. The hour- to two-hour trip from downtown Charleston to Kiawah reached critical mass on Saturday, when a rainout created a logjam of full buses, traffic backups and delays as fans tried to exit the course.
Still, Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s chief championships officer, and Kiawah Resort president Roger Warren say the problems of 2012 should result in smarter moves and a better experience for all in 2021. And despite the traffic issues, the PGA of America had no hesitation about bringing the tournament back to the Ocean Course.
“First and foremost (in Kiawah’s favor) is the golf course,” Haigh said. “The Ocean Course is second to none in challenges and mystique. I think the players enjoyed those challenges, and hopefully will enjoy those even more in May 2021.”
Warren said the Ocean Course, previously the site of the 1991 Ryder Cup Matches and the 2007 Senior PGA, has established itself as “a major championship venue that forces players to demonstrate all their skills.” Players in 2012 praised the operation of the tournament, as well as the logistical support from the state of South Carolina and the Charleston area.
Haigh says moving the tournament to May will create a major-per-month schedule, starting with the Masters in April and ending with The Open Championship, aka British Open, in July. Not competing with football – or the Olympics those years – also will be “good for sponsors, for TV, for fans – it’s all enhanced,” Warren said.
Locally for Charleston, cooler weather will create a “more spectator-friendly experience,” he said. The Ocean Course’s turf also should be in prime condition in May, while Haigh expects higher winds in spring will test players. “The course should have more teeth to it,” he said.
As for 2012’s transportation issues, Warren conceded that parking and the flow in and out was flawed. "That was brought to our attention by the Saturday rainout,” he said. But Warren questioned if traffic from Charleston to Kiawah’s front gates was, in fact, a fixable problem.
Fans that attend South Carolina or Clemson football games each fall, for example, are used to challenges parking and don’t dwell on travel time, but rather on the event, Warren said. At the PGA, “it took an hour and a half to an hour and 45 (minutes) on average – which, given it’s about an hour with no traffic, that’s acceptable,” he said.
Still, Warren and Haigh want to avoid the perception of a difficult situation in 2021. Possible fixes, they said, could include having buses carry fans from downtown areas, rather than just from Kiawah’s entrance to the Ocean Course. Other ideas include increased satellite parking for fans staying closer to the island; possible infrastructure improvements to roads leading to the island; and more available island rentals and villas, plus two new island-area hotels with 150 and 100 rooms. There’s even talk of boats bringing fans from Charleston to a nearby marina.
“We’ve learned about things we want to do differently and want to improve those with improved traffic planning,” Haigh said, “so if the same thing (a rainout) happens, the outflow of people will be a lot smoother, quicker and easier. A lot of smart people are looking at it.”
Details will be sketchy until a tournament director is named, probably after the 2019 PGA Championship. But knowing Kiawah has been through all this once before should make things run more smoothly, Warren said.
“We’re not as far ahead as in 2012 – plans will begin in earnest the next couple of months – but we don’t need as much lead time for 2021,” he said.
Haigh agreed. “In 2018, we’re more familiar with what to do, how to do it, where to put things," he said. "We’ll have a fairly normal timeline of when to bring staff on site, to start sales, etc."
“It’s all in the works. We’re moving forward and looking forward to a great championship in 2021.”