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Prospector Sam: Kiawah Ocean Course Preview - 2021 PGA Championship

Well folks, time to dive into one of my favorite things to do for this gig. Today, I’m breaking down the PGA Championship. Specifically, I’m going to give you a rundown of the course, what types of skillsets matter, and (hopefully) set you up to win some bets.


In my real life (the one in 3D) I’m a fairly avid golfer. I love pretty much everything about the sport, from the mental challenge to the physical test. But the thing I love the most is just how unique golf is. Because any time you show up at a new course, you get a completely different challenge from any other course you’ve ever played. The true beauty of golf is that, unlike almost every other sport, course designers have the ability to do whatever they want.

And no major embodies that idea better than the PGA Championship. Of the four majors, its probably the most common answer to “which is the least important” for golf fans. The Masters is the Masters (no explanation needed), the US Open is the brutal test with the historic American courses, and the British Open is the trip back in time to golf as it used to be played. But, while that makes the PGA a bit of a redheaded step child, it also creates the opportunity to play this tournament at a range of interesting and unique courses. The US Open tends to stick to the same traditional tracks that are tough but visually boring (aside from Pebble). Meanwhile, the PGA is able to jump to new and interesting locations from time to time, and have found gems in courses like Whistling Straights and right here at Kiawah. And, boy, is this course interesting. The Pete Dye design is a creative and brutal masterpiece, built into marshland off of the coast of South Carolina that will test every ounce of skill the players have. So, without further ado, lets dive into the course.

General Overview


The Ocean Course is a NIGHTMARE. It’s capable of bringing almost anyone to their knees, including the best golfers in the world. The course plays 7,849 yards from the tips with a par of 72. Want to know just how tough it is? The Rating is 79.1 and the slope is 155. That means that a scratch golfer should expect to shoot 7 over par in a round, and a bogey golfer (18 handicap) should expect to shoot 32 over. That’s not so bad, you say? These are professionals after all, they should be able to handle a tough test. Well, Kiawah has hosted this event once, back in 2012, and all of 20 golfers finished under par on the week. More shocking, though, are some of the final scores from players who didn’t have such a great week. Paul Casey missed the cut at +20 and Martin Kaymer at +14, with a cutline of +7. Oh, and it didn’t get all that much better just because you made the cut. Cameron Tringale ended his final round at +18, and 6 other players were at +10 or worse.

So what makes The Ocean Course, compared to other places, so damn tough? Well, to go back to a comment I made earlier, it was built on a fucking marsh. That means lots of sand, lots of long grass, and lots of water. One of the beauties of the design is that you can still tell that this course was built over a natural landscape. Rather than coming in and bulldozing the wetlands, Dye placed greens and fairways within the existing topography to create a visually stunning but demonic layout. Almost every hole poses a threat for a crooked number, and you need to make the shot the course tells you to make, not the other way around. The Brysons of the world will have no chance if they try to overpower this place. Oh, and I mentioned it was built on an island off the coast. That means wind, and lots of it. If the weather picks up at all, this place can wreak havoc, and mentally fragile golfers won’t stand a chance if they have to deal with a course playing an average of 5 shots over par on a given day.

So what are we looking for here (generally speaking) as a casual viewer or a gambler? Well, for one, it’s going to be a bloodbath. Prepare for hourly cut-aways by the broadcasters to clips of triple bogeys, and widespread humbling of the world’s best players. But it will also be a creative massacre. The US Open, while being incredibly challenging, kills players by giving them long rough that makes par a near impossibility from a missed fairway. That won’t happen at all here, mostly because there isn’t much rough to be found. In stead, it will be players trying to think their way out of marshy areas where creativity and shot-making will be the deciding factor. This is a course type that pros don’t see often on the PGA tour either, which means they will need to think on the fly. Look for guys who can do that well to succeed.

So what are the overall skills to look for when betting on golfers? This is what I’m prioritizing:

⛏️ You still need to be long. They may not be able to overpower this course, but players who can hit a small target with less club will have a huge advantage.

⛏️ ACCURACY. Seriously, its fairly obvious that you need to be good at this as a golfer, but strokes gained off the tee is going to be massively important this week. Players who set themselves up well on their first shot will be the ones who survive this course.

⛏️ Bunker play will be crucial. There is sand everywhere, which will play as “Waste Area” (meaning it is not a hazard and you can ground your club). Having a strong sand game, both near the green and from distance, will be a crucial part of succeeding here.

Mental toughness is a must. Some guys lose their heads when things go wrong, and others don’t. And things are going to go wrong for everyone this week. One bad swing can lead to multiple extra shots on the card, and being able to accept a double (or even triple) and move on will be a necessity. Hot heads may be a bad bet.

⛏️ Be weary of the player who plays primarily one shot shape. These fairways are easy to miss, as are the greens, if you aren’t willing to move the ball in the appropriate direction. The margin of error becomes extremely slim when you try to fight what this course gives you, and players will need to adjust with it.

⛏️ Expect more parity. Often times, you go into a tournament knowing that maybe half the field (or even less) have a chance of winning. I think the range is a lot bigger here. Incredible distance or short game play alone wont be enough to pull away, and every single player will struggle. Aside from Rory’s dominance in 2012, the leaderboard had some players near the top that I forgot existed (David Lynn, Carl Pettersson, Blake Adams etc.)

⛏️ Being European may be an edge. This course isn’t links golf, but the heavy wind and undulating topography will make some of those players feel more at home than they do at Bethpage or Oakmont. Look for golfers with consistent experience in those environments to fare well. In 2012, 7 of the top 10 were players from the British Isles or Sweden.

Key Holes


I’ve generally laid out what I think is important. But golf is played hole by hole, and some holes are more interesting than others. So, now its time to highlight some spots on the course that, through the course of the week, will be worth focusing on or just plain fun to watch (all photos “borrowed” from Kiawahresort.com)

Hole 1: Par 4, 395 Yards

The 1st hole on any course is significant. You will never see me leave it out, the same way it would be wild for me to ignore the 18th hole. The Ocean Course’s first stop follows the traditional approach of easing players into the round with a fairly comfortable challenge. 400 yards is extremely manageable for any professional player, but the key will be choosing the correct club to hit this fairway (which is slim) and to leave a good distance into the green. There probably isn’t too much about this hole that will make big waves (get it, because we’re near the ocean), but you’ll know pretty quickly whether a player is going to fair poorly if they cant manage to traverse this tame challenge before some of the tougher ones.

Hole 2: Par 5, 543 Yards

This hole is pretty much the embodiment of everything I’ve said already, PLUS it’s a par 5 which makes it an important scoring opportunity for pros. Hazards everywhere, shot shaping required, and a bailout bunker in the front where you’ll see a lot of second shots end up. At just 540 yards max, it’s a hole that Pros could make a 3 on comfortably. However, it’s also a spot where things could get VERY ugly after just one squirrely swing. This hole could be the jumping off point for a great round, or a terrible one.

Hole 3: Par 4, 390 Yards

I promise you, I’m not going through every damn hole on the course. That would defeat the purpose of “key holes.” But the 3rd is damn important as well. For one, it has a bizarrely awesome hazard (not actually a hazard, but close enough) 30 yards from the green that players will have to circumvent, and the green itself sits on a hill where anything that misses will run 20 yards away. It also happens to be the shortest par 4 on a course that doesn’t technically have a drivable par 4. I wouldn’t be surprised if the PGA pushed those tees up one or two days, and turned this into the ultimate risk reward opportunity (which brings that hazard firmly into play).

Hole 8: Par 3, 297 Yards

From the picture, it’s a fairly boring looking hole. 200 yards isn’t short, but nothing out of the ordinary. So why do I care about some par 3 on the front 9 with no water or discernable issues? Well, look at those little arrows on the green and you’ll know why. This hole plays decently long, but with a green that runs away from the direction of the tee it becomes MUCH harder because stopping the ball is a bigger challenge. God forbid it gets down wind, because if it does players might have only a 5 yard window to land the ball and have any hope of staying on the green. Look for this par 3 to cause more problems than you might expect.

Hole 13: Par 4, 404 Yards

Another hole that doesn’t look all that menacing from the numbers or the image, but certainly is. This time, its entirely because of the right side of the fairway. One common theme at The Ocean Course is that there is usually a strip of sand between grass and water to collect balls that happen to run out a bit. Players wont have the luxury of that protection here, and it’s going to scare the living daylight out of them. Look for a lot of left bailout swings, which brings long grass into play. At only 400 yards, this par 4 is deceptively challenging and wont be as much of a scoring opportunity as the yardage suggests.

Hole 17: Par 3, 221 Yards

To be fair, it actually isn’t the most interesting par 3 you’ll see for the style. Obviously missing right is a huge mistake, but the green is fairly large and those two bunkers on the left aren’t a terrible place to end up. But it’s the 17th hole, and if it stretches to 220 yards it gets very tricky to hit that landing area. Players will likely aim at the center of the green 4 days in a row and happily take a par, but that’s easier said than done (especially if you’re chasing a lead on Sunday).

Hole 18: Par 4, 439 Yards

Nothing about this hole strikes me as being extremely clever or interesting, but that’s why it’s a great finishing hole. The fairway is wide for Kiawah standards, and at 440 yards it isn’t painfully long. But it also has some danger all the way up both sides, and the undulations of the fairway will create awkward lies if you hit a bad yardage. Basically, it’s a hole where you could make a 3, but you could just as easily make a 5. To me, that’s crucial for a finishing hole. Too often you see a round end with a hole where you expect a birdie opportunity or where you’re desperate for a par just to hang on. The Ocean course caps off with an opportunity for either end of the spectrum, which will create excitement regardless of where things stand come Sunday evening. Add in the visually stunning Atlantic Ocean views, and it’s a damn good way to cap off the round

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