The PGA Championship returns to The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina, and I am reminded that the Ocean Course is where my journey to play the great courses of North America really began 24 years ago today.
In 1997, I was still a relatively new golfer. Twenty-one years old and pretty poor, I'd been playing mostly rubbish 9-hole tracks for the better part of seen years, since my older brother had introduced me to the game. I'd only played my first round on a legitimate 18-hole course a year earlier.
But there was no doubt; I had the golf bug. It had bitten me hard. My funds -- and the time I had to play as a full-time college student with a near-full-time work schedule to boot -- didn't match my ambition to play all the time. But I was on a course or a driving range or hitting balls in an open field pretty much every chance I got.
Then, in early 1997, some company hawking timeshares sent me an invitation to buy take an inexpensive Carribean cruise and stay a couple nights in hotels in Miami, Orlando and a few other cities. For the girl I was dating and I, it sounded like an excellent opportunity to do a bit of travel on the cheap. And I had no problem sitting through some timeshare sales pitches if that's all it took.
So, in May of '97, we were heading to Miaim for our cruise. Flights were ridiculously expensive. My girlfriend wanted to drive to save money, so we compromised. I agreed that I'd drive if we could stop somewhere along the way to spend a night or two and play a great golf course. A little internet research led me to Kiawah, where at the time I was able to book a couple of nights in a condo on the island and arrange a round at The Ocean Course for a lot less than they charge today.
So we drove through the night to get there, and I fell in love with the place. I'd never seen grass so green; I thought golf courses only looked like that through the magic of television. There were pyramids of golf balls just sitting on the driving range. I thought I'd died and gone to golf Heaven.
We spent a night on the island, and I played the Ocean Course the next morning. On the first tee, I was paired with three salesmen from Kansas City. And I recall the starter warning us not to chase after balls in the really high stuff because the gators and the snakes wouldn't take kindly to that. As it happened, we didn't see any gators or snakes that day ... just miles of incredible seaside golf holes unlike anything I'd ever experienced before.
It kills me all these years later that we didn't have digital cameras back then and that I don't have any quality photographs from my visit. Probably means I need to get back at some point! But I did have a really fantastic round, and I left the course as much in awe of it as when I arrived.
I've gone on to play some other really terrific golf courses since that day -- courses including Pebble Beach, Whistling Straits and Oakmont Country Club. But The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island will always hold a special place in my memory as the course that really started me on the road to want to play the truly great golf courses of North America.
Oh, and one funny memory of that time is that Kiawah Island was advertising Justin Leonard as the official touring pro of the resort, available for appearances and corporate outings.
I'm not sure that lasted much beyond his win that summer at the British Open. But in May of 1997, he was still an up-and-comer on the Tour. And given his affiliation with the island, I was delighted to be able to get him to sign my scorecard.