Kiawah Island’s famed Ocean Course beckons dreamers, hackers and pros to its golf shores

Kiawah Island’s famed Ocean Course beckons dreamers, hackers and pros to its golf shores


The barrier island 25 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina is the temporary home of the 2021 PGA Championship, hundreds of deer and thousands of lucky golf and family vacationers. There is plenty more to these five-star resort shores than Pete Dye’s Ocean Course — obviously — yet that beautifully brutal sea-and-golf-scape is what the beach retreat is most known for — and, truth is, that’s enough. But ... what the heck ... we’ll take more.

More by the Shore

Apparently the buck stops here. “Happens all the time,” a caddie said. “They just walk out onto the road and refuse to move. You have to drive around them.”

If you even can. (There’s a deer farm called Fawn-Doe-Rosa in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin that is less densely populated than Kiawah Island. Seriously.) I respectfully dimmed my headlights on the way back to the hotel from the Ocean Course, only to be told by a guardsman at the gate not to bother with the dimming. “Residents don’t,” he said. (And he was right.) “Otherwise you’ll hit a dozen deer,” he added.

“Or a sleigh,” I lobbed back. He didn’t think it was funny. (Dang it! My first-ever Dad Joke.)

War by the Shore

Big bucks stop here, too. (Who doesn’t like big bucks?) The PGA Tour stops here. In fact, the PGA Championship — one of the Tour’s four official Majors — arrives on Kiawah’s Atlantic shores next month (May 2021). This will be the second hosting gig for that specific Major on Kiawah’s Ocean Course (2012 was dominated by Rory McIlroy), which was built for and also hosted the Ryder Cup in 1991 — won by the United States 14.5 to 13.5 in the infamously misleading “War by the Shore.”

World Golf Hall of Fame curator Travis Puterbaugh claimed the 1991 Ryder Cup transformed the event “from a gentlemanly exhibition to a high-stakes international competition,” but most American players believe the hostility and animosity that did exist in that event carried over from the previous Ryder Cup in 1989 (a tie). “War by the Shore” was just too catchy a catchphrase to drop, apparently, as the only actual “fighting” occurred between Paul Azinger and Seve Ballesteros. Dave Stockton captained the 1991 U.S. team, and he attests that mostly, “It was friends. It wasn’t a war.”

True or false, what it “was” or wasn’t, nothing changes these facts — Kiawah Island Resort is an idyllic gathering place for friends. It’s a place for families. And it’s absolutely a heavenly escape for golfers. If you’re at war with anything out here, it’s your budget, Pete Dye’s architectural trickery and Mother Nature.

A Cautionary Tale

A friend of mine from Boston claimed he spent more than $1,000 in the Ocean Course pro shop after his 2016 round. “I couldn’t help it,” Joe said. “I literally wanted one of everything. That round was just so memorable.” Newly wed to a notoriously budget-conscious wife, I was certain he faced imminent sanctions upon that revelation. “Nah,” Joe replied. “She spent almost as much as I did in the spa. When she apologized for the indulgence (before Joe said anything about his own expenses) I told her not to worry about it ... that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Bullet dodged.”

He laughed and I laughed — just for very different reasons. I’ve been married 22 years. I know all about "ricochets."

Surf and Turf

My son and I arrived at Kiawah late in the afternoon (mid-October) and it was as perfect as perfect mid-60s evenings get. Head Professional Steven Youngner graciously approved my evening media “tour” — Dylan grabbed three clubs from his bag, and we wandered onto the Ocean Course to play some “holes that aren’t holes” while chasing the sunset.

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of walking many of the world’s greatest courses in the evening — well after the last tee time, when they’re mostly vacant — and I consider some of those walks among the greatest hours of my entire life. This particular walk (with Peter Millar’s Video Crew) — two hours with my mostly barefoot, chatty and smiling son on the heat-soaked, breeze-free, back nine of one of Golf Digest’s “Top 5 Courses You Can Play in America” — easily ranks among my “Top 5 All-Time Golf Walks” ... ever. I shared a handful of my forty-dozen pictures with my wife (back in Minnesota) and she said, “Wow! It looks so perfect there.”

It was better than that.

Pete Dye built The Ocean Course almost in the ocean — on land that doesn’t seem like it was here before the course. Everywhere around, there are nothing but gator-filled wetlands with elevation off the course existing only in the form of multi-story homes along a few back-nine holes. “A ten-foot storm surge could go 100 miles inland,” one of the caddies told me. I didn’t doubt it.

As I stood in the ocean taking too many pictures of the sunset, pelicans and sandpipers, my son stood beside me with a wedge and golf ball — juggling — trying to break his record of 740. “Watch this, Dad,” he said. He popped the ball up into the air and just as it sank below the surface of the water he struck it perfectly in full swing, sending the completely submerged ball about 50 yards. Awestruck — having never seen anything like that before — I asked if he thought he could do it again. “Of course,” he said, as if it were nothing. I shot a video of his next attempt, and sure enough he connected perfectly. Or so I thought.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Sorry?” I laughed. “Why?”

“That one only went 30 yards.”

Five-Star Stay

A couple miles down the beach from where we stood, the five-star Sanctuary Hotel was lighting up ahead of the night. We zipped over to check in and fought each other to be first in the room — first to check out the balcony view. Light music played in the pool area below, and children laughed from pretty much all over, but nothing captured our attention like the sight and sound of waves rolling in just a couple hundred yards away. “I might just sleep on the balcony,” Dylan said. “I’ve done it before,” I replied (in Puerto Rico and Hawaii).

Beyond the Sanctuary Hotel (should you need more space), Kiawah Island Resort has Villas and Home Rentals (both incredibly popular options in Covid times) plus Cottages over at the Ocean Course. You pay a premium for the convenience and oceanfront experience, to be sure, but the amenities you get in return lack for nothing. Families who flock to Kiawah revel in the privileged access to the Night Heron and West Beach Pool Complexes (20-plus acres of water fun, slides and assorted swim areas), complimentary shuttle service, fitness rooms, recreation programs, grocery store, shops and nearly 20 dining stops.

And there’s also all the golf.

Four More by the Shore

Yes, the Ocean Course is the primary draw for all the “big game” hunters, but Kiawah Resort also offers four other courses: Osprey Point by Tom Fazio, Oak Point by Clyde Johnston, Turtle Point by Jack Nicklaus and Cougar Point by Gary Player.

“There’s something for everyone,” says Bryan Hunter, public relations director. “But you probably hear that a lot.” I do, indeed, but I can count on one hand the properties making such claims that actually have a portfolio of courses as deep and diverse as Kiawah. And I can count on one finger the 90-plus-hole resorts that have water in play on 86 percent of their golf holes (aside from the Ocean Course) — literally on 62 of the other 72. Truthfully, all they're missing at Kiawah is a Short Course.

Osprey Point was originally private, but now is open to all guests. Completely renovated by Tom Fazio in 2014, the par-72 Osprey features water in play on eight holes on the front and all nine holes on the back. I love Osprey for its forgiveness to right-side faders (most of the deep trouble is left) and for its collection of superb 3-pars like the island-green No. 11.

Oak Point was the 2019 winner of the Charleston Golf Course Association’s “Course of the Year.” Built along the Kiawah River and Haulover Creek, the par-72 Oak Point yields better scores to the accurate than the long. A “water park” in its own right, Oak Point has wet blue in play on all nine front holes and eight of the back nine. “We sell a lot of golf balls,” the head pro said with a smile. I bet a lot of those end up on Hole 18! (Water left, right, long, short and in the middle.)

The par-72 Turtle Point was renovated by Jack Nicklaus and his team in late 2016. A common theme at Kiawah — given how close to the Atlantic these courses are built — Turtle Point features water in play on eight front holes and two of the first four holes on the back. At that point water becomes less of a hazard and more of a distraction as Turtle Point goes out to the ocean for a three-hole stretch from the 3-par No. 14 to the 3-par No. 16, then closes with two more water hazard holes. “The ocean holes seem to be everyone’s favorites,” Jack Nicklaus said. That’s a Bear of an understatement.

Cougar Point reopened in late 2017 after another extensive renovation project, and frankly, Gary Player and his team did amazing work. Yes, it too has water in play on eight of the first nine holes, and eight of the back holes, but for some reason the par-72 course plays a lot easier than it sounds. “Imagine if they made a course here with no water in play,” Dylan said.

I actually couldn’t imagine it.

The Ocean Course Experience

Ironically, the hardest course at Kiawah Island has by far the least water in play, and that round difficulty increases exponentially if you don’t take a caddie. Kiawah’s caddie program is nationally renowned, and over dinner we heard a number of golfers at adjacent tables telling stories of how critical their bibbed partners were to the enjoyment, understanding and — ultimately — their success (at some level) on the Ocean Course. Dylan and I both wanted to take caddies, but with no tee times available we were told we could jump off first ... without caddies. When told this was our first time playing the Ocean Course, a “gentleman” from the foursome slotted behind us cautioned. “You’d better play fast. We’ll be done in three hours.”

Dylan and I walked comfortably throughout — never rushed — and finished in 3:20, never seeing anyone in front, behind or beside us. The Kiawah Ocean experience was everything I’d hoped it would be. Neither of us replicated Rory McIlroy’s 2012 performance — by any stretch of the imagination — but Dylan did best his three-club 40 from the night before on the back nine (we tied), and we walked out of the Golf Shop with less than $1,000 in expenses, so ultimately I (and my wife) have zero complaints.

I envy those who get more than two nights in the Sanctuary Hotel, and those who get more than two days for golf at Kiawah Island. This place is special at every level, from the generous and detail-oriented golf and hotel staff to the naturally existent and human-built amenities to … well … even all the deer.

The only deer we saw in our entire Ocean Course round were the six on the way to the first tee. When I mentioned to the caddie driving us out that it seemed there were a million of them there, he said: “It’s really not that bad. I’ve actually even named them all.”

I laughed, assuming he was being facetious, but played along. “Really?”

“Yep,” he nodded.

“OK, so what are their names,” I pointed to the two by the first tee box.

“Deer 87 and Deer 88.”

(I did ask for that.)

About the author

Eric N. Hart

Eric Hart (aka MobileGolfer) is an award-winning travel and leisure writer for Golf News Net and the owner of Stays + Plays Travel Agency in the Midwest. Eric has stayed at 250-plus resorts and hotels around the world and played 500-plus golf courses. He has worked with 16 tourism agencies and written more than 1,100 articles for 14 regional, national and international golf, family and travel publications since he began in 2007. With a passion for promoting both golf and family travel, Eric routinely hits the road with his son and/or the full family (wife and four kids).

Reach Eric by email at info[at]