Since it first opened to the public in 1991 after hosting that year’s Ryder Cup Matches, The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort has won countless awards annually – including designation as “America’s Toughest Course” by several golf publications – and has hosted such events as the 2012 PGA Championship.
So the fact that Pete Dye’s signature course design, abutting the Atlantic Ocean with half its holes within sight of the surf, is included in the 2017 “Top 30 Courses You Can Play” as named by the SC Golf Course Ratings Panel comes as no surprise.
Perhaps more newsworthy is that The Ocean Course’s three Kiawah “kin” – Turtle Point (designed by Jack Nicklaus), Osprey Point (Tom Fazio) and Cougar Point (Gary Player) are also part of the 2017 list. Even with a full trophy case, Kiawah Island Resort’s director of golf (and former head professional at the Ocean Course) Brian Gerard says being recognized hasn’t lost its thrill.
“We never get jaded,” Gerard says. “It means a lot to us, and especially when it comes from inside the state, which is where more people who play the course come from. We never take that for granted.”
In fact, the Golf Course Ratings Panel, made up of more than 100 media, golf business and player members from across the state, has rated The Ocean Course as South Carolina’s top layout for more than a decade in its every-other-year “Top 50 Courses in South Carolina,” which includes public-access and private courses.
The “Top 30 You Can Play” is the list for weekend golfers and vacationers, with 31 courses (because of a tie) earning that stature in 2017. Gerard is even more pleased with the inclusion of the resort’s other properties.
“To have all four in the top 30 is pretty special,” he says. “The people who come here and give us that ranking know the area, so it’s a special honor and we’re proud of that.”
The Ocean Course shares annual accolades with Hilton Head’s Harbour Town Golf Links, the Sea Pines Resort site of the annual (since 1969) RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing, South Carolina’s only annual PGA Tour event. Harbour Town has also been named No. 1 in South Carolina by the Golf Course Ratings Panel in years past.
The Ocean Course was a top vote-getter in the Charleston area, along with Wild Dunes Resort (Isle of Palms), while Harbour Town and Bluffton’s May River Club at Palmetto Bluff were most popular in the Lowcountry and Resort Islands. Best among the Myrtle Beach/Grand Strand’s nearly 100 courses are Caledonia Golf & Fish Club and True Blue Plantation, both in Pawleys Island, and North Myrtle Beach’s Tidewater.
No surprise, the coast dominates the "Top 30 You Can Play," with seven Charleston courses, six from Hilton Head-Bluffton and 13 from the Grand Strand making the rankings – or 26 of the 31 named.
Two Upstate courses – The Walker Course in Clemson and Furman University Golf Course in Greenville – also made the list. In the Midlands and Pee Dee are Florence’s Country Club of South Carolina, North Augusta’s Mount Vintage Plantation and Orangeburg Country Club.
Orangeburg and one of Myrtle Beach’s regular award-winners, The Dunes Golf & Beach Club, are actually private courses. But because both allow outside play (OCC through Santee golf packages Golf Santee and Santee-Cooper Golf; The Dunes Club via partner hotels in Myrtle Beach), the two are included in the “You Can Play” rankings.
“We see (outside play) as a benefit, business-wise, for our dues-paying members,” Orangeburg director of golf David Lackey says. “We had plenty of capacity before our discovery by Santee, and we still do. But it’s nothing but a financial help for members to have outside play coming in, and it’s been great for the course’s word-of-mouth reputation.”
“Word-of-mouth” of another type has boosted both The Ocean Course and Harbour Town, with the Ocean Course earning praise from PGA Tour players during the 2012 PGA, while Harbour Town was rated the second-favorite annual stop by the Tour players, behind only Augusta National. Such endorsements usually lure tourists and weekend players.
“(Tour players) loved the golf course,” Kiawah’s Gerard says. “The beauty of the golf course is that it can appeal to a wide range of players because of the tee locations, the width of the fairways, and other things we’ve done since the Ryder Cup to make it more playable and enjoyable.”
Those changes include repositioning the 18th green with the Atlantic behind it and installing paspalum grass, which resists saltwater and thrives on brackish water. Paspalum is also used at Turtle Point and Osprey Point, with Cougar Point getting a similar makeover in 2017.
“It’s also a superior playing surface,” Gerard says. “It’s a wonderful putting surface, and we can maintain it at whatever (mowing) height we want. That allows us to get the green speeds we want, day in and day out.”
The Ocean Course also received another award from the Golf Course Ratings Panel: Its Ryder Cup Lounge was rated the “Top 19th Hole Experience” among public-access courses. Also named as finalists were the post-round bars at Caledonia, Harbour Town and The Dunes (among private courses, Secession Golf Club near Beaufort is No. 1, followed by Bulls Bay Golf Club (near Mount Pleasant), Belfair and May River (both Bluffton).
THE SC GOLF COURSE RATINGS PANEL “TOP 30 YOU CAN PLAY”
Pine Lakes Golf Course, Myrtle Beach
TOP 19th HOLE EXPERIENCES
Public – Winner, The Ocean Course (Ryder Cup Lounge); finalists, Caledonia Golf & Fish Club, Harbour Town Golf Links, The Dunes Golf & Beach Club
Private – Winner, Secession Golf Club; finalists, Bulls Bay Golf Club, Belfair, May River