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Kiawah Island ready for PGA in '12

To give golfers, a masochistic group by nature, a sense of what the 2012 PGA Championship will be like this time next year at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, resort operators ran a recent promotion inviting players to test themselves against the Pete Dye-designed course as it will be set up for Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Mother Nature next August.

That meant playing the Ocean Course from 7,693 yards, longer than any major championship course has ever played, and being asked to keep it between the dunes, off the beach and away from any gators that may be sunning themselves. Of the 1,000 or so who took the Ocean Course test, only 155 were brave or silly enough to step all the way back.

Of those, one player broke 80, shooting 78 with a scratch handicap. The lowest validated net score was 75 from a six-handicap. It's dental work without the Novocain.

This time next year, we'll see what McIlroy and his mates can do.

For Kiawah Island Resort and the Ocean Course, the PGA Championship is an enormous opportunity. Twenty years ago, the Ryder Cup matches put the Ocean Course on the world golf map and next year's PGA Championship is a chance to further establish the layout's statue as a major championship venue, building on the 2007 Senior PGA Championship.

"It allows the course to be tested by the best players in the world in a stroke-play event," resort president Roger Warren said. "The course hasn't had that kind of scrutiny yet. The Ocean Course has to prove itself."

When the Ryder Cup was played at the Ocean Course, the place was new, carved onto a sliver of oceanside land dotted with dunes. It was unforgiving to the extreme but that worked for match play. It could have been a stroke-play blood bath.

Dye has softened and refined the Ocean Course over the years, making several visits in recent years to get it where he wants it. That means a course that is more forgiving but still with its teeth, especially if the sea breeze blows as it's supposed to in August.

The PGA, though, is about more than just the golf course. In the same way organizers sold the first U.S. Open at Pinehurst as a statewide event, they've taken a similar approach in marketing the first men's major championship in South Carolina.

From Greenville to Columbia to Charlotte, the tournament has been sold to both businesses and individuals. It meant reworking the business model, offering more hospitality opportunities for smaller businesses rather than catering to a few large companies. They spread hospitality payments over three years with different price points.

It means capitalizing on what works for football games at Clemson and South Carolina - getting fans to drive in for the day. Approximately 75 percent of the tickets have been sold within the state border.

The result will be the earliest sellout in the tournament's 95-year history. Already, 94 percent of the tickets have been sold and when organizers reopen ticket sales after this year's event ends, they expect the names on the waiting list will gobble up the remaining tickets.

Wisely, they have limited spectator attendance to 30,000 daily, substantially lower than the 40,000 or more at some events. The Ocean Course isn't easy to traverse with its out and back routing winding through dunes. The goal is to make it pleasant for the spectators, down to misting stations to keep them cool in the August heat.

"We want people to be able to see the golf and to enjoy it," Warren said.

That's been the goal at Kiawah Island all along.

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