KIAWAH ISLAND — The 94th PGA Championship begins today at the Ocean Course, the last of golf’s four major titles to be contested for the year.
And for the last three days, the world’s best players have worked over Pete Dye’s oceanside layout, described as a “monster” by Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal. “Ollie” should know, as he’s the only man in the 156-player field who played the Ocean Course back in 1991, in the Ryder Cup known as the “War by the Shore.”
Spectators have made their way through Johns Island’s rural roads, paid $20 to park and boarded buses bound for the far end of Kiawah Island. Autographs have been signed, TV studios set up, and there’s a purse of $8 million up for grabs.
But the six inches of rain that have soaked the Ocean Course in the past week, much of it in the last two days, also has dampened the fairways and the atmosphere.
“It’s been kind of a quiet, surreal, un-major-like buildup so far,” said Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion.
Players were called off the course three times Tuesday and Wednesday as rain and lightning interrupted practice rounds, and more storms are forecast for the rest of the week. Most tickets have long been sold, but officials conceded the rain has hurt gate sales.
There’s little doubt that the heavy rains will impact the nature of the Ocean Course, at least for the PGA’s first two rounds. But course officials insist that the course is up to the task.
“We haven’t seen this much rain consecutively for quite a while,” said Ocean Course superintendent Jeff Stone.
“But it will hold up real well. If we get the sun out and a little bit of wind within 24 hours, the golf course will be ready to go.”
The sun did come out Wednesday afternoon, but players are expecting the Ocean Course to play even longer than its advertised 7,676 yards, the longest course in major championship history.
“It’s so soft,” said Rory McIlroy, the young Irishman who won the U.S. Open last year. “Of course, there’s going to be a little bit of wind, but it’s not really playing like it’s really designed to be played, or how it should be played.”
The Ocean Course is at its best, and most difficult, under drier and windier conditions, which usually prevail here.
“I like the test that a firm golf course brings,” said Tiger Woods, seeking his 15th major title and fifth Wanamaker Trophy. “It just brings more shot-making into the equation. With it a little bit softer like this, the greens will be holding. There’s no bump-and-run. It’s just too soft.”
The rain and forecast also brings the possibility of a Monday finish into play. In 2005 at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, Woods was the leader in the clubhouse when play was suspended by rain at 6:35 p.m. He went home to Florida that night, and Phil Mickelson won his second major on Monday.
The PGA also was forced to Monday finishes in 1986 and 1976.
But at the ever-changing Ocean Course, there’s plenty of time for the sandy soil to drain and for drama to develop.
“A bit surreal, a bit weird,” McDowell said. “And late on Sunday, hopefully it will be the last round and someone will have a chance to win and it will not be surreal anymore.”