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Ocean Course brings pearl to South Carolina

More than 20 years ago, I climbed into a Jeep driven by golf course designer Pete Dye and he took off up the beach that borders what is now the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

With the ocean on one side, construction equipment amid the dunes on the other and the wind in our hair, Dye talked about what he wanted to create with the Ocean Course. Purists can debate if it’s a true links course – too many forced carries into greens probably kills the links designation – but Dye built a layout with more oceanside holes than any other course in the Northern Hemisphere.

It’s big, dramatic and intimidating. It’s beautiful, demanding and, in spots, probably unfair. It might not fit everyone’s taste, but it’s undeniably unforgettable.

So is this moment for Kiawah Island and South Carolina.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” a spectator said, standing on a dune looking across the 18th fairway to the Atlantic Ocean.

There was a trickle of sweat running down the man’s cheek, but that’s more common than shirt logos and umbrellas this week.

It has been 21 years since the Ryder Cup was played there, providing the Ocean Course one of the great debuts in golf history. There was acrimony, drama and sea salt in the air, the Cup’s possession being determined by Bernhard Langer’s missed putt on the last hole of a long, bitterly contested weekend.

This is different and so is the Ocean Course. The layout has been tweaked, stretched and softened in spots, but still it is a potential beast, particularly if the rain threat subsides and the wind kicks up whitecaps in the surf. It will look spectacular in HD.

The Ocean Course is on the eastern tip of Kiawah Island, a beautiful and otherwise desolate strip of sand dunes and squatty trees. To get there from Charleston, it’s about a one-hour ride on mostly two-lane roads canopied by live oaks that occasionally give way to marsh views you’d like to have framed in your den.

From the resort gate, it’s still about a 20-minute bus ride to the course, which is in such an exclusive area that it requires going through another gate, the rare gated community within a gated community.

Near the course, there apparently is a bylaw that states no house can have fewer than eight bedrooms, 7,000-square feet and a view that would make legendary photographer Ansel Adams gasp.

The Ocean Course stretches 4 miles from end to end (or from the fifth tee to the 14th tee) and it is a challenge even if you don’t have a driver in your hands. They weren’t being funny when media members were given bug repellent, lip balm and sunscreen upon checking in. We’re apparently on our own to remember water bottles.

It is August in the low country. If you’re from around there, you know what it’s like – hot, sticky and miserable. I got caught in a rain shower Tuesday morning and was wetter when I came in from an afternoon walk than I was from being in rain earlier.

But for Kiawah, for Charleston and for South Carolina, this is a time to be proud.

This is the biggest sporting event in the state’s history. It doesn’t have the hate-your-cousin passion of the Clemson-South Carolina football rivalry, but this reaches beyond Columbia, beyond Clemson and beyond Darlington. These are the best golfers in the world coming to South Carolina. Not some of them. All of them. Go down the list of the top 103 players in the world rankings and all but Ben Crane, who withdrew Wednesday with a back injury, has a tee time Thursday on the Ocean Course.

The low country has given us many things – shrimp and grits, the charm of Charleston and musky, dense, tidal creek air scented by salt, mud and oyster shells – and now it hosts the PGA Championship.

Maybe this is the week Tiger Woods wins his 15th major. Maybe it’s Jason Dufner’s turn or Brandt Snedeker’s or Justin Rose’s time.

When Dye gunned his Jeep down the beach more than 20 years ago, he was in the process of creating something memorable. This PGA Championship should do the same.