Jamie Kennedy
By Jamie Kennedy

Many people know it is as Kiawah Island. After playing it last year, I am sure it is designed to be pronounced Kia-wow Island.

Ten months before the it would host the USPGA, I had the honour and challenge of an 8am tee time at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course. With a USGA rating of 155, it is officially the toughest golf course in America. I couldn't wait to experience the site of the infamous 1991 Ryder Cup and host to the 2012 PGA Championship.

But wait I did. The drive from where I was staying in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, to Kiawah is only 12 miles as the bird flies. Unfortunately, I am not a bird and the journey between waterways, over bridges and through some very impressive housing estates took a little over an hour.

However, I had planned accordingly and got there with 20 minutes to spare and time to soak up the place before heading to the 1st tee to test my game against the most testing course the United States has to offer.

Traveling with a friend, who had looked after me in Charleston, I felt obliged to show some British generosity and I strolled into the $20m clubhouse to cover the round for the two of us. The third member of our group was also a friend and a local resident, which to this notoriously cheap Scottish guy, simply meant a 'discounted rate'. Great news.

"So we have you down here at 8am on the Ocean Course. You're paying for two players, resident fee. We have your range balls here for you and your caddies are ready to go. So your total comes to six-sixty."

Stating $660 in that way did little to mask my shock. Some resident rate! Oh well, I thought, this is one of the best courses in the world on one of the best days of weather in weeks, so I (slowly) handed over my credit card.

Walking to the range as the sun came over the horizon is an image that will accompany me forever. Claiming to have more coastal holes than any other course in the northern hemisphere, Kiawah Island's Ocean Course sits on the coast of South Carolina's native marshlands with a front row view of the Atlantic Ocean. With the ocean to our right, America's toughest golf course to our left and the sun rising ahead, I had about a dozen balls to prepare. Gulp.

As is common when I play courses of this calibre, the mixture of childish excitement, nerves and anticipation mixed in my stomach like the balls in a bingo machine. My caddy met me and introduced himself, quickly followed by an interest in my handicap.

"Scratch" I said sheepishly, before sending my first drive of the day approximately 120 yards and quick left. After several thinned mid-irons, one duck hooked driver and a couple of acceptable drives and I found myself on the 1st tee.

Our caddies were great and explained each hole in great detail, accompaning each description with a entertaining story of a pro or celebrity meeting their match on that particular hole. A solid opening tee shot found the fairway, a questionable 9-iron found the green and shaky 3-putt opened my account. Kiawah Island, 1-up.

The course is simply breathtaking from start to finish. Despite modest undulation, each hole presents a fairway and/or green closed off from the rest of property by marshland, waste bunkers or water. Each tee, fairway and green is, in some way, an island of its own. Fairways sit at an angle from the tee and the elevated, perched greens are as pure as greens can be.

The second hole epitimises the Ocean Course's beauty and brutality. A testing, picturesque 540 yard, par-5 sprinkled with difficulty. A right to left tee shot is required to match the bend of the fairway round a curved waste bunker that dominates your eye from the tee.

Once on the fairway, you need to pick your poison as you debate the carry to the finger of marsh that crosses the hole 125 yards short of the green. The green itself is heavily guarded by sand and sits in the back right of the hole. A stunning and demanding hole that acts as a harsh introduction to the challenge ahead.

Holes one through four take you north along the vast marshland to the east, that will have you believing you have stepped into the Serengeti for a day of golf. The short par-3 5th is the most northern hole on the property, as you then turn south for the next eight holes extending in a near straight line back and beyond the clubhouse.

The final five holes are what will make and break Kiawah's visitors. Meandering along the coast, and typically into the wind, they provide one of the toughest closing stretches in golf, highlighted by the infamous par-3 17th.

Similar to the 17th down the road at TPC Sawgrass it requires a shot to carry water from the tee all the way to the front of the green. However, the 17th at Sawgrass is only 140 yards and plays to a large, round green. The 17th at the Ocean Course can stretch to 240 yards and the green is angled from front left to back right.

I demanded I be allowed to play this from the championship tee. Approval was granted and I walked back... back some more and finally arrived at the tee located 238 yards from the pin. Feeling that it may not be very macho to change my mind and move forward, I removed pulled my 3-wood and said a quiet prayer.

I set up and designed a shot in my mind that started at the left edge of the green, fading back down the green to the flag. Somewhere between that thought and the top of my backswing, every muscle in my body hijacked that plan in favour of saving my ball from the water. I pulled the shot some distance to the left and over the two bunkers guarding the left side of the green. However, a Seve-inspired pitch shot finished 5 feet away and I duly rolled it in for a par. Fairly sure I could sell that score to every member of the field at the PGA Championship.

The final hole is a tough, fine finish to the course as it meanders away from the beach from the tee and then back towards it for the approach. With the magnificent 'Southern-designed' clubhouse as company, the green finds its place close to the beach. A well struck drive, a fine 5-iron and two putts brought an end to my round and whilst the course may have won the battle, it was truly a joy to play.

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