Ryder Cup resonates: 1991 tournament has big impact on Kiawah tourism

Corey Pavin, captain of the 2010 American Ryder Cup team, reacts to a shot at the 1991 Ryder Cup held at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island.

As the Ryder Cup teams tee off today across the Atlantic Ocean in Wales, the name of a familiar Lowcountry landmark likely will pass across the lips of golfers and spectators alike.

Kiawah Island's own Ocean Course arguably helped put the exhibition back on the map in 1991, as circumstances of the day -- along with a big dose of controversy -- pumped fresh blood into the international competition.

The 2010 Ryder Cup has been drawing the inevitable comparisons to those matches on the other side of the Atlantic, namely because the 2010 captains, veterans Corey Pavin of the United States and Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, were foot soldiers in the so-called War on the Shore as hot upstart players.

Some 19 years later, the Ryder Cup at Kiawah remains fresh in many minds, thanks in no small part to the gamesmanship and a dramatic finish.

And the impact it has had on the local economy can be felt today.

Pat McKinney, principal at Kiawah Island Real Estate and advisory general chairman of the 1991 Ryder Cup, said the widely publicized event bestowed a "credibility factor" on the local housing market. That meant the people shopping for primary or vacation homes started coming from farther across the country and even around the globe, already familiar with the area.

"It would really be hard to say who benefited more," McKinney said. "The Ryder Cup in 1991 helped put Kiawah Island on the map, and Kiawah Island helped put the Ryder Cup on the map."

Until the mid-'80s, only serious golf enthusiasts paid much attention to the competition, said Kiawah head golf professional Brian Gerard, who has been with the resort since 1986. Then, when the Europeans began winning regularly, U.S. enthusiasm grew.

And when the tournament announced its relocation from a West Coast venue to designer Pete Dye's yet-unbuilt Ocean Course, the decision only boosted interest in America. The layout itself proved difficult to play, earning the nickname "Looney Dunes" for its wind-influenced terrain.

If that weren't enough, there was the open, ungentleman-like contempt between the two teams. While the biennial Ryder Cup has been around since 1927, the tone of the 1991 event was unlike any other up to that point.

And it all made for gripping TV, in America and abroad.

While the bluster of 1991 long has subsided, the dramatic U.S. victory at Kiawah still resonates around the world.

Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said some European visitors insist on standing on the 18th green at the Ocean Course.

As painful as the memory might be, they want to see precisely where Germany's Bernhard Langer missed the final putt on the final day of the '91 matches to give the Ryder Cup to the U.S. squad, she said.

"That's what they remember -- that hole. ... 'Oh, we lost it right here,' " Hill said Thursday.

The worldwide TV coverage, coupled with picture-perfect fall weather conditions, proved priceless for the region, she added.

The tourism industry is still reaping dividends from that chamber of commerce-like weekend two decades ago.

"Before that, I don't think anyone understood that we even had an amazing golf product," Hill said. "It just wasn't widely known."

It is now. In fact, around the time of the Ryder Cup, the CVB set up its own direct-marketing arm that to this day targets nothing but golf business.

The 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course was a big event for the local economy, and the timing was superb -- it was held only two years after Hurricane Hugo ravaged the region.

But the so-called War on the Shore also was among the most contentious set of matches in the history of the competition. For better or worse, the 1991 event elevated the profile and status of the three-day international exhibition.

Some of the birdies, pars and bogeys of '91:

---Players from both sides began firing verbal pot shots at one another a week before the event.

---The Europeans arrived in supersonic style -- on a Concorde. The British Airways jet flew over Kiawah on its final approach to Charleston International Airport, where 200 people cheered them on.

---After playing the notoriously arduous Ocean Course for the first time, Ireland's David Feherty (now a popular CBS color analyst) said it was akin to "something from Mars."

---U.S. player Steve Pate injured his ribs when the limousine he was riding in got into an accident on Folly Road. He would only play one Ryder Cup match that year. Corey Pavin, the 2010 team captain, was in the vehicle but unhurt.

---On the first day of competition, Spaniards Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal got into an on-course tiff with Paul Azinger and Chip Beck on Day One over the type of ball Beck was using.

---Corey Pavin takes the "War on the Shore" combat imagery literally by donning an Operation Desert Storm camouflage hat.

---A local radio disc jockey urged listeners to make late-night calls to the European team's hotel. He gave out the number on the air.

---U.S. fans cheered European misses and chanted "U-S-A, U-S-A" when Germany's Bernhard Langer missed the final putt on the final hole, giving the Ryder Cup to the Americans. In a letter to the editor, a spectator wrote that the "British fans, particularly on Saturday, were almost as vocal as, I would imagine, rowdy soccer fans are on any given in England."

---Kiawah and the greater Charleston area were bathed in 19 1/2 hours of TV time on NBC and USA Network.