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PGA Championship Preview

Dermot Gilleece takes a look at the Kiawah Course and players

Posted Aug 06, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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Longevity is much admired in golf, not least because the relatively gentle, physical demands of the game make it possible to compete successfully well into one’s middle years.  Against this background, it is surprising how few survivors from the 1997 World Cup at Kiawah Island will be in action in this week’s PGA Championship.

As it happens, there will be only four of them - Padraig Harrington from the winning Ireland duo, Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, the recently-crowned Open champion, Ernie Els, and this year’s American Ryder Cup captain, Davis Love.  Which makes it all the more surprising to find a survivor from the 1991 Ryder Cup matches at Kiawah.  That was when the so-called “War on the Shore” culminated in an American victory by the narrowest of margins, after Bernhard Langer had endured the agony of missing a five-foot putt for victory on the last green of the last match.

Jose Maria Olazabal, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain at Medinah next month, made his usual, strong contribution on that memorable occasion as a brilliant partner for Seve Ballesteros.  In fact the so-called Spanish Armada looked to have set Europe on an unstoppable victory march when they won the opening foursomes by 2 and 1 against the American partnership of Paul Azinger and Chip Beck.  And another survivor of that occasion will be present this week.  Dave Stockton, the victorious American skipper from 1991, is being honoured with the PGA  Distinguished Service Award.

Depending on their commitments as commentators, it is also possible that former European team members, Nick Faldo and David Feherty, will also make it to South Carolina.  In fact Feherty gained the distinction in 1991 of producing the best golf of the tournament, when approximate figures of level-par for 17 holes, gave him a 2 and 1 victory over Payne Stewart at number two in the singles order.

Meanwhile, the course is much changed since then, when it had an overall length of 7,240 yards and ridiculously fast green-speeds for the windy conditions.   For the World Cup six years later, the length was reduced to a gentle 6,671 yards, but has now been beefed up to a formidable 7,676 for what is, in fact, the first Major championship to be staged in South Carolina.

Having been at Kiawah for both of those events, I can recall the pleasant surprise of Ireland’s Harrington and Paul McGinley at the nature of the World Cup challenge, given the horror stories they had heard about 1991.  In fact playing it blind in practice, McGinley carded a 70, despite three-putting twice, while his partner had a 72.  And they went on to capture the trophy by five strokes with a record winning aggregate of 31 under par.

Kiawah’s veteran architect, Pete Dye, always insisted that the greens were far too slick during the Ryder Cup.  So, they never got beyond 10.0 on the Stimpmeter for the World Cup and are likely to be only fractionally quicker this coming weekend.

Meanwhile, we will again have the odd situation of no bunkers on the Ocean Course.  This stems from the fact that despite the links nature of the exposed terrain, it is impossible for fescue grass to survive in the intense summer heat of the area.  And in the original construction, it was felt that strips of Bermuda grass would look decidedly incongruous as bunker surrounds.  So waste areas, where a club may be grounded, remain largely as they were when the course was opened 21 years

Yet McGinley still considered it more prudent to treat them as one might a normal bunker.  "There are two reasons for that," he explained at the time. "First, I believe you could be improving your lie if you grounded the club in the sand behind the ball.  And the second reason is that I don't want to change a way of playing the shot that has become second nature to me."

Finally, first-time visitors to Kiawah are in for a real treat this week.  At a time when the building of golf courses is regularly targeted by conservationists, they may be interested to discover that the island plays host to 170 species of birds, 30 types of reptiles and amphibians and 18 species of mammals, including white-tail deer, racoon, dolphin and fox, quite apart from the numerous alligators.

It is worth noting that a critical nesting habitat of the endangered Loggerhead Turtle has also been carefully protected and enhanced. Which, despite criticisms emanating on a regular basis from ill-informed EU bureaucrats in Brussels, would suggest that golf and golfers are probably more concerned that most, about protecting the environment.

- Dermot Gilleece

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