I gazed through the window of the plane as it sped across the sky on the final flight of a very long journey. As the rising sun painted the horizon in soft pastels of pink, purple, and indigo I saw a peaceful and calm world. I saw fog covered rivers meandering through the land on what looked like endless journeys to mystical places. I saw the tops of trees huddled together like masses of people. I reflected upon the miles I’d flown throughout the seasons as I traveled across the country to play America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.
My journey started just before the beginning of summer where from 30,000 feet I saw fields of green flowing over rolling hills. The Fall brought swaths of multiple shades of reds and yellows and oranges all in harmony beautifying the land. Winter’s white snow blanketed fields that seemed to go forever across an undisturbed stillness awaiting a Spring that ushered in life’s renewal with flowers blooming and trees blossoming with leaves as the brown grass turned green. From the windows of flying machines high above the land, I always saw the world as I wished it to be, people of all varieties of physical traits, thoughts, and beliefs living in harmony. And when by feet again touched the ground, I tried to bring a little of the magic I felt back down to earth with me. Whether it be with a helping hand, a kind word or just a simple smile. I’ve learned through the seasons of my life every encounter is an opportunity to appreciate and share the blessings I’ve received.
As the wheels of the plane touched down on the runway at the Charleston airport, I was jolted back into the world as it is. I was back in a familiar place just a few miles from where I would play the 99th course of my quest.
We first came to Kiawah Island as a young family during the summer of 2006. Jordan was four and Alexandra had just turned two. We fell in love with the low-country beauty dominated by the salt marsh covered with yellow and green cordgrass whispering in the warm breeze. The island’s beach stretched along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean for as far as our eyes could see. Our days on the Island were filled with relaxed outings on the beach, bicycle rides along nature trails, Camp Kiawah for the kids, spa treatments for Erika and of course rounds of golf for me.
Golf was still new to me and while I found it as challenging as anything I’d done in life, chasing a little white ball across the fairways, waste areas, and lagoons on Kiawah Island was a nice escape from all the pressures of life and work. Spending time in nature always takes me back to the peacefulness of my childhood where life was real and pure. We didn’t have much but what we did have we appreciated. I’ve learned over the years that we are never as free as when we own nothing, because then nothing owns us and the love of family and friends and a belief in God and all His grace, is sufficient and sustaining.
Bill Goodwin, owner of the Kiawah Island Resort and my wife Erika became friends when he was on the Board of Visitors for the University of Virginia. During one of their conversations she mentioned that I’d taken up the game of golf. When he learned that we would be vacationing in Kiawah, he offered to arrange for me to play a round of golf at the Ocean Course. As I learned the game, most of my golf had been played at Terrell Park in Beaumont, Texas. It was essentially a cow field with hard fairways, shallow bunkers, ditches, and spotty greens. The Ocean Course was the first top course I played.
I don’t remember what I shot during that round in the summer of 2006, but I do remember my caddie. The letters on his green bib spelled Patrick, but everyone called him Puddles. Puddles had come upon that name earnestly. During his first day as a caddie at the Ocean Course, the cart he was riding in hit a bump. He flew out of the cart face first into a puddle of water. From that day forth he has been known as Puddles. While I’ve now played the Ocean Course countless times, I thought it only fitting that for the 99th round of my quest, Puddles should be on my bag.
I had planned to play the Ocean Course as my final course but as fate would have it, Wade Hampton had been under renovation for most of the year. It reopened just over a week before my June 11th deadline and was restricting play to members only. Mark Mongell, the Director of Golf at my home course in Atlanta, worked it out with Pete Matthews, the Head Pro at Wade Hampton for a member at Wade Hampton to host me at the course on the final day of my quest. That meant the Ocean Course would have to be number 99 rather than 100.
The timing of the round at the Ocean Course wasn’t the only challenge to finish my quest in the manner I wanted. I’d planned to play the course with Lin, who had been very instrumental during my quest, and Brian who had co-piloted the plane on the flights to the three courses that Lin and I played together. Brian’s father also hosted me at The Alotian Club. They had planned to fly in and join me and Kenny, my longtime friend and former work colleague, for the round but Lin and his wife missed a connecting flight while returning to the U.S. from a vacation in Europe. That prevented him and Brian from joining me for the round.
On the morning of the round as I walked into the Pro Shop to check in, I spotted what looked like a familiar face. I awake on most weekday mornings to Squawk Box on CNBC. I said to Kenny, “that guy over there looking through those shirts looks like Dominic Chu, who stands in front of that board with all the green and red numbers on CNBC in the mornings.” I walked over to him and the woman he was with and asked if he was indeed “the Domino.” He said with a warm and welcoming smile, “yes and this is my wife, Meghan.” He happily accommodated my request for a photo before heading to the range with Meghan.
As Kenny and I checked I told the tall slender assistant pro at the counter that we would be a twosome rather than a foursome but would appreciate being paired with another twosome to maintain a nice tempo and pace of play. He then said, “well the couple you were just talking to has the tee time right after yours, we can pair you with them.” Just like that, my disappointment of Lin and Brian not making it was lessened. Kenny and I warmed up, grabbed Puddles, who was doubling up with both our bags, jumped on the shuttle cart with Dominic and Meghan who were happy to have us join them and headed to the first tee.
After my many rounds on Pete Dye’s masterpiece along the beach on the eastern end of Kiawah Island, there is no part of the course with which I’m not familiar. Familiar enough to know that I had no interest in joining Dominic on the Ocean tees which measure about 6800 yards but play more like 7000 yards. Kenny and I chose the Dye tees at 6500 yards, playing more like 6700 yards.
The Ocean Course opens with one of the easiest holes on the course, a 365-yard par four that plays straight from the tee to the green. I aimed down the left side of the fairway. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s much easier to recover from a drive to the waste area off the left side of the fairway than it is to recover from the one off the right side. With a little help from the wind the ball sailed toward the mounds off the left edge of the fairway at about 235 yards out and faded slightly before dropping into the middle of the fairway leaving 143 yards to a back pin.
Puddles said, “with that wind, hit your 130 club and let the ball run back to the flag.” I struck my pitching wedge with the precision of a Swiss watch maker. The ball flew straight toward the flag, landed below the hole and chased pass the flag before coming to rest just off the back of the green.
The smart play around the greens at the Ocean Course is to putt not chip from the extremely tight lies. Puddles pointed to the line, I struck the ball with my putter, it rolled toward the cup. Unfortunately, my fear of the ball rolling too far down toward the front of the green caused me to strike it too lightly. The ball stopped 18 inches from the cup. A birdie would have been nice but getting that first par under my belt felt satisfying. Two good swings, a good two-putt and a par.
The carry over the marsh on the tee shot for the 500-yard par five second hole looks more intimidating than it is. I always aim between the second and third set of steps used to walk up from the waste area below the left side of the fairway. My ball faded hard. It cleared the marsh but hit the side of the fairway before kicking back into the waste area.
There were 330 yards left to the middle of the green. My options were to hit over the trees straight ahead or hit out to the right and risk being blocked by the trees off the left edge of the marsh off the right side of the fairway. Puddles said he thought the longest club that could clear the trees would be a six iron. I let it rip but scrapped the sand in the waste area before the ball. The ball cleared the right side of the trees and landed in the fairway leaving 180 yards to a front left pin.
My approach shot flared out to the right and landed pin high in the waste bunker to the right of the green.
My shot from the waste area landed short of the green. I again putted from off the green leaving a four-footer to save bogey.
We are usually generous with putts on the Ocean Course since its hard enough just getting the ball within striking distance, but four feet was a little too far to be generous. Puddles gave me a read and I rolled the ball into the cup to record my bogey.
As short holes go, the 319-yard par four third hole is considered a challenge. The drive requires a carry over a small pond, the marsh and a deep waste area, but a 200-yard shot gets the ball to the middle of the fairway with a short iron or wedge to the green. I hit my three hybrid to the right side of the fairway.
The biggest challenge on the third hole is the approach shot to a small elevated green with slopes all round it that direct balls away and well below the surface of the green. This is the hole where Rory McElroy’s tee shot landed in the dead tree short of the green and didn’t come down. Thanks to the TV camera, everyone knew that the ball was in the tree. Rory took a drop and penalty stroke before pitching onto the green and one-putting for par.
The problem with being on the right side of the fairway at 135 yards out is that it leaves a an almost blind shot to the green. The flag is visible but the green isn’t. Kenny had hit his tee shot next to mind and watched intently as Puddles gave me a line. I hit the ball right on line but couldn’t tell whether it made it to the green.
After Kenny hit his shot, we walked up the slope toward the green. My ball was resting at the base of the slope off the right front of the green. Dominic told me that the ball landed on the front of the green before rolling off and down the slope.
Over the years I’ve chipped up from below the green and I’ve putted from below the green. I’ve learned that it is very hard to chip from the tight lies and stop the ball from rolling off the other side of the green. Putting is definitely the best option, but I had to make sure I hit the ball hard enough to get up the slope. In my zeal to make sure I did that; I pushed the ball off to the right leaving a long putt for par.
I missed the par putt but made the next one for a bogey.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve made par on the fourth hole at the Ocean Course. The par four measures 401 yards with a ditch crossing the fairway at 240 yards from the tee. On a day like this one with the wind helping, a three wood could roll into the ditch, but a five wood or a three hybrid leaves a very long approach shot with nothing but trouble around the green. I went with my five wood and hit the ball to the rough off the left side of the fairway leaving 210 yards to the pin.
I dread the approach shot to the fourth green. There is nowhere to miss. There is marsh and water off to the left, bunkers and water off to the right and deep gnarly native vegetation off the back. I pulled the ball sending it into the marsh.
I took a drop at 75 yards from the pin.
My pitch shot was as good as my approach shot was bad. The ball stopped two feet from the cup allowing me to save bogey.
The fifth hole is like a mini turn. It’s a 177-yard par three that plays between the fourth green, the farthest green from the club house on the front nine, and the sixth tee box which starts the march back toward the clubhouse. The pin was set behind a small bunker on the far-right front of the sixty-yard wide but shallow green. This pin position minimizes the carry over the vast waste area between the tee box and the green. Fresh off his par on the previous hole, Kenny hit first and sent a high flying shot right at the flag. The ball landed six feet from the cup. I hit the right club but on the wrong line. The ball landed pin high but to the right of the green. Dominic hit his tee shot and joined me off to the right of the green.
The grass just chewed up my ball up. My putt barely made it to the edge of the green.
I hit my par putt on line but left the ball inches from the cup. Kenny missed his birdie putt but was pleased with his second par in a row.
We faced a headwind as we headed back toward the clubhouse and prepared to play the sixth hole. The 345-yard par four is the easiest of the remaining par fours on the front nine. There is a waste area running the length of the hole off on the left side. There is ample room on the right side with the fairway ending at an uphill slope covered with rough up to a waste area with trees at about 80 yards from the front of the green. I always aim at the trees in that waste area. Even with a bad slice, the ball is likely still safe on the sandy cart path between the rough and a marshy area. My ball didn’t slice. It flew down the middle of the fairway right at the trees. Kenny stuck out his chest because my ball stopped about a yard or two short of his drive. But of course, it’s not how you drive, it’s how you arrive.
Dominic who was playing from the farther back Ocean tees, out drove both of us and laid down the first marker with a shot to ten feet past the flag. I followed with a high shot that dropped 10 feet to the right of the pin. Kenny then hit his approach to 20 feet left of the flag. Meghan pitched her third shot to just inside where her husband’s ball had come to rest.
Puddles and Kenny took their time reading the putt….
….and then Kenny left it short on the perfectly read line.
Dom and I also missed our birdie putts and Meghan missed her par putt. We walked off the green a little disappointed in not capitalizing.
My most watched hole when I attended the 2012 PGA Championship was the short par five seventh hole. The hole measures just 505 yards from the Dye tees but it can be stretched to 550 yards for the tour pros. Most of the long hitters drove the ball down the right side carrying a waste area and leaving less than 230 yards to the green. I tried to avoid that waste area by hitting out to the left. But try as I might, my ball sailed right and landed in the deep fescue just to the left of the waste area leaving 260 yards to the middle of the green.
The biggest concern on my second shot was the fescue grabbing and closing the club face. This would potentially bring the waste area running along the left side of the fairway into play. I took a seven iron and made a three-quarters swing to pitch the ball out to the middle of the fairway. I was left with 156 yards to the pin, but I had a clean lie and nothing but air and opportunity between my ball and the flag.
Unfortunately, the air was blowing into me making the 156 yards play more like 175 yards. I wanted to get the ball back to the pin which was just a few paces from the back of the green, but I didn’t want to risk going past the flag and rolling off the back of the green into the waste area. This would leave a very difficult up and down. Puddles and I decided I should hit my 170 club which should leave me about 15 feet below the flag. In one of those rare moments of pure golf magic, the shot came off just as planned. My ball landed on the green and rolled to 15 feet short of the cup.
Now if I could only execute my putting stroke as precisely as I did on my approach shot, I’d have my first birdie of the round. It was not to be. After a good read from Puddles, I committed the cardinal sin of leaving my birdie putt short of the cup. Par.
The 166-yard eighth hole looks like a simple and easy par three. Despite being rated as one of the two easiest holes on the course, this hole is hard. Short shots roll down the slope into the waste area, misses to the right rolled down the slope into the waste area, misses to the left kick into the deep rough or onto the sandy cart path, and long shots land in the back waste area. This is a lot to think about with a strong shifting wind blowing across the green from left to right. I hit my ball on a line to the left of the flag and let the wind bring it back. The ball landed on the front of the green leaving 30 feet to the hole.
I left my birdie putt five feet short of the cup. The next putt dropped in for my third par in a row, setting me up to finish the front nine with a 40 for my first time ever if I could par the long par four ninth hole.
There is something about the 406-yard ninth hole that brings out the slice in me. I’ve only birdied this hole once in twelve years and numerous rounds, and that was pure luck. Today, a par would be welcomed. I hit my drive down the left side of the fairway leaving 180 yards to a middle right pin.
I hit my approach shot fat. The ball flew toward the flag but landed well short of the green.
I pitched on to fifteen feet.
But couldn’t make the putt. Bogey and a 41 on the front nine.
Erika hopped on our shuttle cart and joined us as we rode past the clubhouse on the way to the tenth tee. It had been a long journey from that late night I arrived from Canada and kissed her asleep before I spent a restless night ahead of my round at Augusta National, the first round of my one-year quest. The initial plan was for her to walk the final nine holes on my final course, but as mentioned before because I’d failed to play Wade Hampton before it closed for an almost year-long renovation, I couldn’t play it until the final day of my one-year deadline, thus my wife was walking the last nine holes of my 99th course.
I think it pleased Meghan to have another woman join us and dilute some of the masculinity surrounding her. She and Erika seemed to immediately hit it off. I’ve never really played the back nine well at the Ocean Course and now it was going to be a little more challenging with my wife watching my every swing.
The 10th hole has a lot of room to the left and a large waste area well below the surface of the fairway on the right. My drives often end up in that low-lying waste area. But not today, I hit a nice drive toward the left side of the fairway. The ball faded slightly and landed in the middle of the fairway on this short 360-yard par four.
The pin was positioned on the far back-left of the green. To avoid the risk of a short shot landing in the waste area that wrapped around from the front left of the green to along the left side, I hit my approach shot toward the right side of the green. My ball landed on the front of the green well short of the flag.
My birdie putt had no chance. I didn’t hit the ball nearly hard enough to get back to the flag. The ball came to a stop 10 feet from the cup.
My par putt slid below the hole. I tapped in for a three-putt bogey.
The waste area off the right side of the 11th fairway is deeper than the one off the right side of the 10th fairway and I find myself up against the steep face more frequently than not. Today was a “than not,” as I hit a nice clean drive that landed to the left of and just beyond the waste area.
Puddles and I talked long and hard about where and how far to hit my second shot. We decided to play very conservatively and lay up to about 140 yards along the right side which would leave a nice angle to the pin and take the bunkers directly in front of me out of play.
Erika and Puddles chatted as we walked toward my ball on the right side of the fairway just 140 yards from the back-left pin on the elevated green with small bunkers off the left and right side.
The plan for playing the hole worked beautifully until I hit behind the ball on my approach shot. The ball fell well short of the elevated green.
I pitched on to fifteen feet.
An accurate read by Puddles and a nice stroke with my putter willed the ball into the cup to save par.
The worst tee shot on the twelfth hole at the Ocean Course is one that flies over the bunkers in the right side of the fairway at about 240 yards off the tee. Death lies over those bunkers. Balls hit there either run down the steep slope then across the sandy cart path before rolling into the water or land on the cart path and then kick right and into the water. Either way, your ball is going to be wet. The right shot off the tee is one that flies on a path directly toward the pot bunker in the distance in the left side of the fairway. At 280 yards off the tee, I can’t reach it and it leaves a straight shot to the green. I hit my drive at that bunker. The ball faded slightly before landing in the middle of the fairway.
As Erika and Meghan strolled down the fairway toward Meghan’s ball, Meghan talked about her approach to golf. She said, “I just have two criteria for whether I’ve hit a good shot or not.” “What’s that? Erika asked. Meghan said, “if I can find the ball and its closer to the hole than it was before I hit it, it’s a good shot.” Erika said, “now that’s the kind of golf I could learn to enjoy.”
The 12th hole doesn’t get any easier after the drive. The water immediately off the edge of the green on the right was hard to ignore when my normal miss is a slice. I had 175 yards to the pin. It’s a challenge to get the ball to stop immediately from that far out. I’ve had too many balls land on the green and roll into the water. Fortunately, the pin was on the back left of the green but that too wasn’t without its hazards. A ball hit to the bunker or waste area off the left side of the green brings the water off the right side of the green back into play. I caught the ball a little thin and sent a low stinger toward the middle of the green. My butt cheeks tightened as the ball started to curve to the right as it approached the green. The ball came to rest 20 feet left of the right edge of the green leaving a 35-foot putt for birdie. I then took a long walk in the short grass with my putter in hand.
As I’d done so many times during the round, I left my birdie putt short.
I made the remaining five-footer to record my second consecutive par.
As scary as the twelfth hole is, the thirteenth hole is even scarier. The hole measures just 364 yards, but it’s safer to play it a little longer by hitting toward the bunkers off the left side of the fairway rather than hitting directly toward the flag. The water between the tee box and the fairway offset to the right, is just over 20 yards at it’s widest point but it seems longer because the ball has to travel 70 yards to reach the creek and then several yards along its length before reaching the fairway. Even so it takes just a 130-yard shot to reach the edge of the fairway on a line toward the bunker. The visual of the layout of the hole makes it look worse than it is. I hit my drive on a line directly toward the right most bunker off the left side of the fairway expecting a fade. The ball flew straight as an arrow, landed short of the bunker and then rolled to its edge.
I had no stance and very few options. I hit a short pitch over the bunker and into the fairway leaving 115 yards to a pin cut on the back of another green with water off its right edge. I hit to the left side of the green to avoid any chance of going into the water. The ball rolled to just off the left edge.
My putt from off the green came to rest fifteen feet short of the cup. Another good read and a decent putt that caught the inside left edge of the cup and dropped in bought cheers from the crowd. Well the crowd of Erika, Meghan, Kenny, Dom, and our caddies.
Caddies save multiple strokes during a round. This was one of Puddles’ save during my round.
The fourteenth hole on the Ocean Course is the most changed hole on the course since my first round back in 2006. One year after that round, the 68th Senior PGA Championship was contested on Pete’s Dye’s challenging masterpiece along the ocean on this beautiful barrier island. Eduardo Romero had a two-shot lead as he arrived at the par three fourteenth hole. In those days the hole had a massive waste area complete with steep slopes off the left side of the green. Romero missed the green to the left as he tried to hit his ball to a back-pin position. His ball plugged in the steep slope at the back of the waste area. The slope was much too steep to get a stance. He had to take an unplayable. He made double on the hole and lost the tournament.
The steep slope is now covered with grass. The hole plays 161 yards from the Dye tees. I pulled my tee shot. The ball landed along the slope and rolled to the bottom. I’m glad there was grass on the slope rather than sand.
It still took two shots for me to get out of the deep waste area plus one more to reach the green.
I made a one putt to secure a double bogey. Erika and I posed for a picture with the ocean in the background as we approached the fifteenth tee box.
It’s a great day on the Ocean Course when the wind is out of the south and helping on the final four holes. Those already long holes play very long into the wind. Fortunately, on this day the wind was a helping one.
The 381-yard fifteenth hole was playing more like 360 yards. I hit my drive to the first cut of rough off the right side of the fairway leaving 160 yards to the middle of the green.
The remaining 169 yards to a back pin was playing more like 155 yards. I turned what should have been an easy approach shot into a difficult one when I hit the ground before the ball. The ball flew toward the flag but dropped well short of the green.
I pitched on to 18 feet but missed my par putt. Bogey.
The final par five is the longest hole on the course. It measures 540 yards from the Dye tees. The fairway on the sixteenth hole is one of the narrowest on the course as it slides between waste areas along the left and waste areas and dunes separating it from the beach on the right. I hit a long enough drive, but it faded and then kicked into the tall fescue just off the second cut of rough on the right side of the fairway,
I punched out and back into the fairway leaving 225 yards to the green.
I swung my three wood way too hard trying to reach the green on my third shot. I hit behind the ball and dug a hole large enough to bury one of the baby alligators roaming the course. The ball traveled just one hundred yards.
The wheels came completely off as I pulled my fourth shot into the waste area. A shot from the waste area and two putts later I had my second double bogey of the back nine.
The 17th hole is the toughest par three on the course. With a helping wind a short iron is all that’s needed to reach the green. When the hole plays into the wind it could take a three wood to carry the pond and reach the green. And on those days the bunkers off the back of the green come into play. With the wind helping and the pin well to the right, the bunkers shouldn’t have been in play. I pulled my tee shot into one of the bunkers.
The water was now back in play and sure enough my bunker shot came out hot, rolled across the green and into the water. I made a double bogey on the hole.
The back nine on the Ocean Course just eats you up hole by hole. While it had been a fun day with Erika joining me, Puddles on my bag and Dominic, Meghan and Kenny all appearing to have had an enjoyable time, the course had done its job in wearing me down. Especially on the last three holes. The 18th hole is as intimidating as it is long. It measures almost 400 yards and plays slightly uphill with a fairway that bends from left to right around bunkers and waste areas off its right edge. I hit a 230-yard drive to the middle of the fairway.
During the 2012 PGA Championship I watched golfer after golfer leave their approach shot short and to the right of the green. They did so because a miss to the left was a sure bogey. There is nothing good to the left of the eighteenth green. Its all deep waste areas with gnarly vegetation. Even with this knowledge I pulled my approach shot and missed left.
Fortunately, I had a decent lie in the gnarly rough in the waste area. My third shot landed just short of the green.
I putted from off the green to three feet….
…and made the putt to save bogey but still finished with a disappointing 46 on the back nine for a total of 87 for the round. But any day I use less than 90 strokes during a round on the Ocean Course is a good day for me.
It was a fun round and I enjoyed getting to know Dom and Meghan as we made the loop around the course. One course and one day remained to the realization of a dream.