A Designer’s Dream, a Golfer’s Nightmare

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — For more than four decades, the golf course architect Pete Dye has been giving professionals nightmares, heartburn and high anxiety. To some he is a mad scientist. To play a Dye course, they say, is to break into a cold sweat, feel their knees wobble and heart skip a beat. But the 86-year-old Dye has also earned their respect.

“I think Pete Dye is a genius,” the British Open champion Ernie Els said.

At the Dye-designed Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, the par-3 holes are justifiably renowned as one of golf’s best collections, with the 17th standing out as perhaps his most diabolical creation.

From an elevated tee along the northeastern shore of the island, the 17th plays 229 yards for the pros over water lining the entire right side of the hole and front of the green. The putting surface may measure 44 yards deep, but the swath of green to land a ball safely is about 15 yards wide, punishing any tee shot that does not hew to the right line.

Missing left is no day at the beach, either. Two deep sand pits guard the left side of the green. Those who go long and left face a treacherous chip. In short, it’s a hole with little margin for error.

“It’s the perfect par 3, really, in that you’re completely dead on one side of the hole,” said Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy, one of the PGA Tour’s architectural junkies. “And you can’t just bail out left in the grass because of the bunkers. That one is pretty decent. I don’t mind 17, actually.”

Others certainly do. Paul Lawrie bowed his head and Justin Rose slammed a club in disgust after their miscues at the P.G.A. Championship. Luke Donald, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, rinsed his tee shot Thursday. So did Steve Stricker, a 12-time tour winner. Scott Verplank went kerplunk and then withdrew Friday.

And so during a season in which leads seem to evaporate on a weekly basis, it’s a safe bet that no lead Sunday will be secure until the leader survives a test not only of skill but of nerve at the 17th.

Yet for all its ferocity, is the 17th even the toughest of the Ocean Course’s four par-3 holes? Some pros contend that the 249-yard par-3 14th, which played as the second-hardest hole on the course Thursday, provides the biggest headache.

The 14th is a timely reminder of what may lie in wait. Dye has always devoted special attention to the 17th hole when he designs a course to set up the closing drama of the round. Here, he has designed a hole that rewards only shots that have been well thought out and well executed.

Scores are kept high by the frisky wind, which nudges golf balls in all directions. The breeze typically blows right to left, which forces a player to start the ball over the water. If it switches direction to left to right, it is going to push shots toward the water. And should the hole play into the wind, players will be forced to unsheathe the heavy artillery.

“I’ll need to hit 3-wood or more,” Greg Chalmers said.

That’s why many of the pros say the Ocean Course’s 17th makes Dye’s famed island green at TPC Sawgrass look like a dainty little par 3.

Of course, there is always the chance the fickle wind blowing off the Atlantic will calm down. That was the case during the first round when an alligator lurking in the pond fronting the green briefly showed its teeth, but the 17th otherwise showed no bite. Without a puff of wind, pros showed no mercy Thursday morning. None did better than Gary Woodland, who rifled a 5-iron that flew on a perfect line, kicked onto the middle of the green and settled 2 feet from the hole.

But if the wind roars Sunday, as it did during Friday’s second round, it can create all sorts of uncertainty. Playing downwind, Bo Van Pelt nuked a 7-iron over the green. With the pin cut six paces from the water’s edge Friday, the 17th stood ready to severely punish an aggressive fade, push or underclubbed effort.

Vijay Singh explained how the Ocean Course’s wind made club selection tricky.

“It’s a tossup,” Singh said. “What do you do? Hit a 6-iron over the green or take it on with a 7-iron. I took the flag out of play and I just went for the middle of the green.”

John Daly took a different tack.

“All I do is aim for that left second bunker and try to hit it there,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”

If the players dread the indecision, the spectators in the grandstand and natural amphitheater love it.

Dye compared it to a fan watching the Indianapolis 500.

“He likes to see good racing, but secretly, he’s looking for a crash, too,” he said. “The guy at 17 is waiting for that crash, waiting for some star to dump his tee shot into the water.”

In other words, don’t be surprised if someone crashes and burns coming down the stretch.

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