In the spring of 1991 I was writing my first book for Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, this one built around the tribulations, trials and adventures of eighteen noted names in golf and their experiences in Pinehurst and, specifically, on the renowned No. 2 golf course. The result was Pinehurst Stories, which I like to think was an interesting read and played at least a modest part in club management’s efforts to fortify its heritage and brand as it sought to land a major championship such as a U.S. Open or Ryder Cup.
One of the subjects was architect Pete Dye, who had never actually built a course in Pinehurst but whose fascination with design was augmented by dozens of rounds on No. 2 while stationed at nearby Fort Bragg during World War II. This insurance salesman from Indiana was further motivated to dive into golf design through his friendship with Pinehurst owner Richard Tufts and Tufts’ suggestion he play all the great courses of Scotland—the one in the Highlands called Dornoch in particular—if he really wanted to understand the art of turning random turf into a golf playground.
I phoned Dye in April 1991 to ask if I might visit him somewhere, sometime to talk about his experiences in Pinehurst, with Richard Tufts and how the design tenets of Donald Ross had affected his design career. Dye told me to meet him at Kiawah and we’d tour the Ocean Course, which was growing in toward an opening for the September Ryder Cup Matches—the infamous “War by the Shore” when Yank-Euro competitive tensions had reached a fever pitch.
We met in his villa mid-evening and he pontificated for hours with opinions, dry wit and a ribald sense of humor setting an entertaining tone. Then the next morning, we rode the golf course, Dye explaining every nook and cranny. The very longest set of tees could stretch to 7,500 yards, this before titanium drivers and Titleist Pro V1 golf balls.
Among the pearls from that overcast morning I remember:
“You’ll never find a piece of ground on the East Coast again where you can build a golf course this close to the ocean. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“Is this a good golf course? I don’t know. That’s in the eye of the beholder. But this golf course is right for 1991. It will test Greg Norman. It will put a long iron into his hands on a par-four, just like Mister Ross intended at Pinehurst. I can promise you that if Mister Ross saw the pros hitting a wedge into the first hole at Pinehurst, he’d jump out of that box and put a new tee back in the parking lot.”
“Is the Ocean Course a links? Well, a links in Scotland has a sand base next to the ocean with plenty of wind. We've got all that. But in Scotland, they have fescue grass, which is dry and tight, so the ball rolls forever. We’ll maintain this tight and topdress it often and get it to play firm and fast.”
A dozen years later, Dye had converted the bermuda greens and surrounds to Paspalum, a strain that holds up better in Southern coastal venues, rebuilt some greens and nipped and tucked here and there. I met him at the Ocean Course again, this time for a magazine story.
“I keep hearing they get around the Ocean Course in four hours, four hours and fifteen minutes,” Dye said. “They keep showing up. I’m tickled to death how that golf course has held up and grown in popularity.”
Twenty-seven years after its opening, the Ocean Course remains one of the top golf courses in the Carolinas. The Americans won the Ryder Cup in 1991, Rory McIlroy won the PGA Championship here in 2012, and the PGA is set to return in 2021.
It’s a must-play for golfers who like to walk. No carts are allowed before noon, and in 2019 the course is going to walking-only, with the exception of after 10 a.m. in June, July and August. Kiawah Island Resort manages a full-time caddie staff that in the summer numbers around eighty-five caddies. Golfers can take a caddie or lug their own bags.
“We implemented a caddie program and went to walking-only in the mornings in 2000,” says resort Director of Golf Brian Gerard. “We did it because we wanted to bring tradition back to the game, very simply. What better way to do that than to implement a full-scale caddie program? You’re welcome to walk all five of our of courses at any time.
“Walking is an art of the game that through time has been lost. When I was a kid, we walked the golf course all the time. Every course I played, I walked. We have gotten away from that as an industry. We felt like the way Mr. Dye and Alice designed the golf course, it sets up perfectly for walking.”
Indeed, it’s an outstanding course to walk—there are few hills, and the green to next tee transitions are fairly compact. The only issue is that it’s a three-hundred yard walk from the practice tee to the first tee and then back from the ninth green, but resort management has eight-seater carts ferrying golfers and caddies through those junctures.
And except for the parking lot outside the clubhouse, there is not a dollop of paving on the course. Every step is taken on grass or sand—with a watchful eye out for the stray alligator.
“There are no roads, no homes, no paved cart paths,” Gerard says. “And it will always be that way.”
My foursome this May morning includes Steve Smith and Rick Karcher of Cary, N.C., who make an annual May family vacation to Kiawah Island. Smith is married to Karcher’s daughter, and the men enjoy walking the courses at Kiawah while the wives and children explore the beach and pool activities.
“We avoid golf carts whenever possible,” says Steve. “This is a great course to walk. It’s a different experience altogether walking.”
Karcher moved to North Carolina recently from South Bend, Ind., after retiring.
“At my home course there were a bunch of older members in a foursome, each with his own cart,” he says. “That just looked silly to me. That’s no way to play golf. I try to stay fit, and walking a golf course is one of the best ways to do it. And you get a feel for the course. I never feel ‘connected’ to a course when riding a cart.”
We have two caddies for four players, the young men carrying two bags sometimes thirty-six holes in one day.
“It’s faster and a shorter walk to take a caddie,” says Alva Wendland, who’s caddied the Ocean Course for five years. “The few people who take a cart wind up walking from the far edges of the course all day. I’d say fifty percent of the people who take a cart say if they had it to do over, they’d walk.”
Dye accomplished his mission by building a course that could bring a pro like Mark Calcavecchia to tears on a worldwide golf stage by hitting into the water on a hellishly long par-three. But if you play from the proper tees—i.e., the 6,465-yard Dye tees for an eight-handicapper—the course is imminently manageable. You have to learn to play the angles on the par-fives and navigate the wind, which can come from any and all directions depending on the day and the season.
“It can be harder in the summer due to the heat,” says veteran caddie Mark Bloomer. “In the hot months I often see golfers start showing signs of fatigue on the last five holes, especially playing into the wind on those holes.”
Our group finished in four hours, ten minutes on a busy May day. Fortunately, it was inordinately calm here beside the Atlantic Ocean. I commented to Alva on the far reaches of the front nine that the only noise I’d heard had been the spitting of the golf cart driven by the course ranger who passed near the fifth green.
“Usually all you hear is the wind,” he said.
That’s perfect for a seaside golf course—with few golf carts and no cement in sight.
Chapel Hill based writer Lee Place is exploring the great walking courses of the Carolinas for a book to be published by University of North Carolina Press.