KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – One could be easily fooled into thinking that Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course is on the softer side of the major-championship scales based on the last time the PGA Championship visited the tony enclave.
Back in 2012 when the seaside gem last hosted a major championship, Rory McIlroy made the place look like a pitch-and-putt. The Northern Irishman finished at 13 under for a tournament-record eight-stroke victory that somehow included a second-round 75. He was first in driving distance, scrambling and was 13th in greens in regulation.
He made it look easy – too easy – when the truth is that the Ocean Course ranked as the second-toughest course on the PGA Tour in 2012 behind only The Olympic Club, which hosted the U.S. Open. Five of the final nine holes at Kiawah ranked among the season’s top 50 toughest, and while McIlroy was ridiculously dominant, consider that David Lynn, who finished alone in second place, ended at 5 under, which was more than seven-and-a-half shots better than the field average.
“There's just parts on the golf course where me as a player felt more comfortable than other parts on the golf course. Rory is obviously feeling at ease on the whole of the golf course. That's good golf,” Lynn said at the time.
It’s likely not going to be a great comfort to any of the 156 players who have converged on this slice of the Lowcountry for the PGA Championship that the 2012 edition of the Ocean Course was, at least in theory, a more user-friendly version than what they’ll play this week.
That PGA Championship was played in August, when the course generally plays much softer thanks to the ubiquitous afternoon thunderstorms that roll through the area like the one that halted play on that Saturday. If this week’s forecast holds, there won’t be any relief. The rain probability drops to zero percent starting on Thursday with temperatures in the mid-70s for most of the tournament.
The bigger issue will be the winds that regularly buffet the layout with gusts to 15 mph predicted for Friday and Saturday. It will be those winds, which are forecast to sift throughout the week, that’ll likely complicate things based on conventional wisdom.
Jordan Spieth has never played the Ocean Course, but based on most assessments, he described it as a “second-shot” layout.
“I hear it's a second-shot golf course with a lot of blind shots off the tee,” he said Sunday before leaving Dallas. “I’m just going to need to be sure we get a lot of information in our practice rounds about what line to take off the tee, and from there I feel like iron shots in the wind and controlling distances is a strength of mine, and hopefully that's what it comes down to.”
Spieth estimated he will spend most of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday getting a feel for the layout and how the wind will impact certain shots.
Statistically, it’s probably more accurate to call the Ocean Course a mid- to long-iron test based on how long it can play because of the sea breeze which robs players of valuable distance. And it’s already really long: a major-record 7,876 yards this week.
McIlroy remembered his record-setting week in 2012 a little differently. Although he acknowledged how well he hit his driver, it was a sublime short game that he recalls most fondly.
“I've watched a couple of videos back over the last few weeks of that, just sort of trying to refamiliarize myself with the course a little bit. I chipped and putted so well that week. I mean, that's the one thing I remember,” McIlroy said earlier this month. “I got it up and down a lot and my chipping and putting was really good.”
McIlroy was also something of a different player a decade ago. He was young, fearless and overpowered a course many thought couldn’t be overpowered.
“I was probably maybe a little more one dimensional, but it was a very consistent move. I hit this big swooping draw all the time, but it was consistent,” he said. “I'm probably a little more versatile now, I probably have a few more shots in the locker, it's just a matter of choosing those shots correctly and hitting them at the right times.”
Whether that “locker” is on full display this week remains to be seen, but regardless of how he, or anyone else, makes it look, the Ocean Course won’t be easy.