For Brian Gerard, accepting awards for Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course has become a regular occasion. But whether from one of the nation’s top golf publications, which have designated Pete Dye’s 1991 masterpiece as the “toughest golf course in America,” or from the South Carolina Golf Course Ratings Panel, which has named The Ocean Course as the state’s best for 2018, no honors are taken for granted.
The reason, Gerard said, is simple: They can't afford to get complacent.
“We continue to try to make things better, at all five of our courses,” said Kiawah Resort’s director of golf since 2006. “It’s a collective effort every day.
“You can’t ever get to the point where you take it for granted, because that’s when your rankings will slip.”
So far, that’s not happened. The Ocean Course has owned the No. 1 spot in the biennial S.C. Golf Course Ratings Panel’s Top 50 rankings at least since 2014. In odd-numbered years, the panel selects the Top 30 Courses You Can Play (public-access), and The Ocean Course annually tops those standings, too.
The panel is composed of 120-plus media, golf professionals, golf industry members and avid golfers from around the state.
“It’s always a special honor to be ranked Number 1,” Gerard said. “Especially with so many great golf courses in South Carolina, and to have two of ours in there (Kiawah’s Turtle Point course), that means an awful lot.”
The Ocean Course is one of 10 Charleston-area golf courses to earn spots in the panel rankings, including three of the top eight. Hanahan’s 1926 jewel, Yeamans Hall, is ranked sixth, while the private Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique Course comes in at No. 8.
No. 2, for the second straight year, is Hilton Head’s Harbour Town Golf Links, home of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. Another Hilton Head-area resort, May River Golf Club at Palmetto Bluff, is third. Graniteville’s exclusive Sage Valley Golf Club, Greenville Country Club’s Chanticleer Course, Beaufort’s Secession Golf Club and The Dunes Golf & Beach Club, Myrtle Beach’s second-oldest course, round out the Top 10.
Other Charleston courses in the rankings are Kiawah Island Club’s River Course (16th); the Country Club of Charleston, which will host the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open (18th); Bulls Bay in Awendaw (19th); The Golf Club at Briar’s Creek on Johns Island (24th); Wild Dunes Resort’s Links Course (35th); Daniel Island Club’s Ralston Creek Course (38th); and Kiawah's Turtle Point (50th).
All 10 Charleston courses either improved on their 2016 ranking or stayed the same. Ralston Creek and Turtle Point were unranked in 2016.
The Golf Panel also rated the top “most fun” golf courses for 2018, one in each of the state’s four regions and Bull's Bay earned that designation for the Lowcountry (Charleston and Hilton Head). Caledonia Golf & Fish Club (Grand Strand), Clemson’s Walker Course (Upstate) and Aiken’s Palmetto Golf Club (Midlands) are the others.
Like Harbour Town, which owes part of its reputation to its annual PGA Tour event, The Ocean Course has gained stature by hosting some of golf’s premier events: the 1991 Ryder Cup, the 2007 Senior PGA Championship, and the 2012 PGA Championship, which will return to Kiawah in 2021.
“I think that plays into the recognition,” Gerard said. “The course had to build a reputation to get to that point, but the competition is so strong that once you’re there, it’s actually harder to stay there. That’s why we don’t rest or settle; we’re not going to back off.”
While The Ocean Course has only undergone one major course change — shifting the 18th green closer to the beach by 25 yards in 2002 — course superintendent Jeff Stone and staff continue to tweak the layout. Assuring prime conditions year-round was the incentive in 2003 for changing the course’s grass to saltwater-resistant paspalum, Gerard said.
“We strive for world-class conditions all the time,” he said. “We’re selling a golf experience to everyone who comes to play, and we’ve got to deliver the best — and a lot goes into that. We constantly strive to provide the best golf experience from the time people drive up.”
Part of that is The Ocean Course’s caddie program, which has made “a huge impact, adding that tradition back into the game, Gerard said. “When you walk 18 holes with a caddie — when he greets you at the bag drop, until he takes your clubs to your car — it puts golf tradition back into the game. We want everyone to think, ‘This is the best golf experience of anywhere I’ve played.'”
Part of that also has been return visits by Pete and Alice Dye to oversee improvements. Though Dye, 92, now is suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, “he still plays golf every day, and we think his work will stand the test of time,” Gerard said.
In addition to Kiawah’s courses, Gerard was impressed with the other Charleston courses’ rankings. “That’s a testament to the rich history of golf in this area,” he said. “It’s a special, special place for golf.
“The history is so good here ... when people come here and think about Charleston, I’m not sure it was always seen that way. But,” he said, “it’s definitely there now.”
Top 50 Golf Courses in South Carolina
No. 1 – Kiawah Island Resort, The Ocean Course
No. 2 – Harbour Town Golf Links, Sea Pines Resort (Hilton Head)
No. 3 – May River Golf Club at Palmetto Bluff (Bluffton)
No. 4 – Sage Valley Golf Club (Graninteville)
No. 5 – Greenville Country Club’s Chanticleer Course
No. 6 – Yeamans Hall Club (Hanahan)
No. 7 – Secession Golf Club (Beaufort)
No. 8 – Kiawah Island Club, Cassique Course
No. 9 – The Dunes Golf & Beach Club (Myrtle Beach)
No. 10 – Long Cove Club (Hilton Head)
No. 11 – Palmetto Golf Club (Aiken)
No. 12 – Caledonia Golf & Fish Club (Pawleys Island)
No. 13 – Cherokee Plantation Golf Club (Yemassee)
No. 14 – The Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards (Sunset)
No. 15 – Colleton River Plantation, Nicklaus Course (Bluffton)
No. 16 – Kiawah Island Club, River Course
No. 17 – Chechessee Creek Club (Okatie)
No. 18 – Country Club of Charleston
No. 19 – Bulls Bay Golf Club (Awendaw)
No. 20 – Old Tabby Links (Spring Island)
No. 21 – Colleton River Plantation, Dye Course (Bluffton)
No. 22 – The Cliffs at Mountain Park (Marietta)
No. 23 – Musgrove Mill Golf Club (Clinton)
No. 24 – The Golf Club at Briar’s Creek (Johns Island)
No. 25 – The Reserve at Lake Keowee (Sunset)
No. 26 – Haig Point Club (Daufuskie Island)
No. 27 – Tidewater Golf Club & Plantation (Little River)
No. 28 – Wachesaw Plantation (Murrells Inlet)
No. 29 – Belfair Golf Club, East Course (Bluffton)
No. 30 – Debordieu Club (Georgetown)
No. 31 – Atlantic Dunes, Sea Pines Resort (Hilton Head)
No. 32 – Belfair Golf Club, West Course (Bluffton)
No. 33 – Thornblade Club (Greer)
No. 34 – Camden Country Club
No. 35 – Wild Dunes Resort, Links Course (Isle of Palms)
No. 36 – The Cliffs at Keowee Falls (Salem)
No. 37 – The Reserve Club at Pawleys Island
No. 38 – Daniel Island Club, Ralston Creek Course
No. 39 – Surf Golf & Beach Club (North Myrtle Beach)
No. 40 – True Blue Plantation (Pawleys Island)
No. 41 – The Cliffs at Glassy (Landrum)
No. 42 – Country Club of Spartanburg
No. 43 – Orangeburg Country Club
No. 44 – Grande Dunes Resort Course (Myrtle Beach)
No. 45 – Florence Country Club
No. 46 – Barefoot Resort, Dye Course (Myrtle Beach)
No. 47 – TPC of Myrtle Beach (Murrells Inlet)
No. 48 – Berkeley Hall, North Course (Bluffton)
No. 49 – Callawassie Island Club
No. 50 – Kiawah Island Resort, Turtle Point Course