COUNTDOWN TO PGA: This is part of an occasional series leading up to the 94th PGA Championship in August on Kiawah Island.
BY JEFF HARTSELL
Jeff Stone climbs into a deep bunker near the 16th green at the Ocean Course and grabs a nearby rake.
“We’ve got to tamp down the sand in the face of these bunkers,” said Stone, using the rake to compact the sand. “We’ll tamp it down and water it until it’s almost as hard as cement. The last thing we want is a ball plugging in the face of one of these bunkers.”
Stone, the superintendent at the Ocean Course since 2003, has a thousand such worries as he readies the 7,676 yards of the course for the PGA Championship, set for Aug. 9-12.
Few know the 109 acres of the Ocean Course, built on what he calls a sandbar at the end of Kiawah Island, as well as Stone. He’s worked there in some capacity since 1990, when he helped famed golf architect Pete Dye ready the course for the 1991 Ryder Cup.
One thing Stone has learned in 22 years on Kiawah is that you can’t force the Ocean Course to do something it doesn’t want to do.
“This course changes every day,” Stone said on a recent, sun-splashed day as the wind whipped off the Atlantic Ocean. “Today, you’ve got wind blowing and sand moving. When I first got here, Pete told me, ‘This course walks. It moves.’ And he’s exactly right.
“With the wind blowing the sand around, it will create new dunes, new movement in the fairways. The golf course changes day by day, month by month, year by year.”
And that makes prepping the Ocean Course for a major championship — the first in South Carolina’s history — even more of a challenge.
Stone, 45 and a native of Daytona Beach, Fla., has a staff of 23 that will grow to more than 100 during the PGA. He’s helped get the Ocean Course ready for the ’91 Ryder Cup, the World Cup in 1997, the PGA National Professional Championship in 2005 and the PGA Senior in 2007.
“You have to expect the unexpected,” he said, “because you are going to get it. We build tees all the time, we move greens and change pot bunkers and sand areas. I’m like a kid in a sand box. We get to do stuff out here that at other courses we never got to do.”
Stone works with Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s director of championships, to set up the course. The PGA announced Wednesday that all of the Ocean Course’s bunkers and 33 natural sand areas will be played “through the green,” meaning players can ground their clubs in the sand. The speed of the greens bears careful watching, he said. If they are too fast and the wind blows hard, balls could be moving on the greens.
U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson played the course Tuesday and tweeted: “It was sweet! Very tough.”
The run-up to the PGA Championship has been ideal, Stone said. A mild winter and a steady stream of afternoon summer showers has colored the fairways and greens — a hardy strain of seashore paspalum — a TV-friendly shade of green.
Stone said recent tweaks to the course have been designed to improve gallery flow, as more than 210,000 spectators are expected during the week.
“This is the first time South Carolina has hosted a major,” he said. “And we want you to be able to see golf, to watch the world’s best players and to see the golf course.”
Those players can be harsh critics, and the golfing world will examine Stone’s work on TV for four days.
“He’s under a lot of pressure,” said Kiawah Island’s director of golf, Brian Gerard. “But you would never know it. He thrives in that situation and is one of the best in dealing with it daily. He takes things in stride and I wouldn’t want anybody other than Jeff preparing this course for the PGA.”
In many ways, major events at the Ocean Course have framed Stone’s life. He proposed to his wife at 3 a.m. during the ’91 Ryder Cup, shortly before he had to report to work.
Twenty-two years and two kids later, he and Ashley will celebrate their 20th anniversary the week of the PGA Championship.
“What a great office the Ocean Course is,” he said. “I get to see things, to be outside on the beach and doing what I love. I’m really lucky.”