KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The scorecard yardage of 7,876 makes the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island the longest in major championship history. As daunting as it sounds, that is not the reason players in this week’s PGA Championship look so battered and bruised as they exit the premises.
Sunburned and sullen, the look of exasperation is as much about the wind as it is the strenuous walk and length of the course.
The weather gauges and forecasts might not register quite as strongly as the wind is actually whipping off the Atlantic Ocean. Various predictions had this being a calm week. If that is the case, what is it like when it really blows?
Walk onto the Ocean Course and there is always a breeze. You can’t miss it, either via tussled hair, sand in your eyes or that whistling sound through your ears.
And eventually, it gets into your head. It happened Thursday in the opening round of the year’s second major championship.
“It’s diabolical,” Bryson DeChambeau said. “You’ve got to be on point every single hole.”
DeChambeau was disheveled after an even-par 72 in which he had four straight bogeys for the first time all season. Even the longest driver on the PGA Tour couldn’t muscle his way through the constant, invisible obstacle.
“The wind just kicked my butt,” he said. “Just grinding out there. It takes a lot out of you. Working really, really hard to hit every shot the exact way I want to. It’s windy when you’re over a 4-footer. Wind is blowing really hard, and you think [the putt is] going to break. When the wind stops, it’s not going to break. It’s all just a really difficult thing that you’ve got to control out there. It’s a lot of work.”
DeChambeau has been known to put a lot of thought into his game — perhaps too much at times — but his description very well summarizes the fear and loathing that accompanies a round of golf here for those who compete at the highest level.
And it’s part of the beauty of the late Pete Dye’s design. When he built the course more than 30 years ago, the architect, at the suggestion of his wife, Alice, had the fairways raised so the dunes would not block the wind coming off the water. The result is a mixture of holes battered by unpredictable east-west coastal winds.
The length of the course offers a necessary flexibility to account for predicted winds; tees can be moved forward on holes playing into the wind, back on those on which wind is helping. That’s why the actual yardage on Thursday was 7,650 — still plenty stout.
Keegan Bradley, who shot 69, was thrilled.
“This course is nerve-racking and difficult,” he said. “To go out there and shoot that score, I’m proud of that.”
For much of the day, Bradley’s 69 was locked in a tie for the first-round lead along with two-time PGA champion Brooks Koepka, Viktor Hovland, Aaron Wise and Sam Horsfield. Cam Davis later tied them, meaning six players stand at 3 under.
Late in the day, Canada’s Corey Conners broke from the pack with a couple of birdies to shoot 5-under 67 for a 2-shot lead. Conners saw the treacherous final five holes play slightly less difficult because the wind backed off a bit.
Conners had six birdies and a single bogey and played the back nine in 33. He made it look easy — even if it wasn’t.
“I’d say it’s impossible to be stress-free around this golf course,” Conners said. “You can’t fall asleep out there on any holes. It’s very challenging.”
Cameron Smith’s tee shot on the par-3 fifth hole nearly goes into the hole, but it bounces right off the flagpole.
The 18th, 17th and 15th holes played as the three toughest on the course. The final hole averaged more than a half-stroke over par. The scoring average was 74.734.
“You are holding on for dear life,” said Koepka, who has won four major championships.
And he is fine with that.
“I love it when it’s difficult,” Koepka said. “I think that’s why I do so well in the majors. I just know, mentally, I can grind it out. Like when it’s windy like this, it’s not so much putting — it’s more about ballstriking. I felt like I struck it really well [on Thursday]. I feel like that’s why I’ve done really well. You’ve got to understand that sometimes par is a good score. You’ve got to understand that 30, 35 feet is a great shot sometimes, and you’ve just got to accept it and move on.”
Koepka noted how that can be easier said than done.
“You play like nine straight holes into the breeze,” he said. “The way the wind direction is coming [Thursday], it’s so difficult because it almost feels straight in — and then you’ve really got to pay attention. It comes from like 1 [o’clock], but then it shifts to 11 [o’clock] a little bit.
“You’re never directly into it. It’s always just slightly at an angle. If you just don’t hit the correct shot or know which way the wind is actually blowing, you can miss it pretty bad.”
Among those who struggled were three players expected to contend — Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas with 75s, and Dustin Johnson, who doubled the 18th hole to post 76. Adam Scott and Max Homa shot 78. There were 12 players who shot in the 80s.
All told, 30 players broke par on Thursday. But that can be misleading, because only Conners got to 5 under and just seven players shot in the 60s.
“Mentally, you have to show a lot of resolve out there,” DeChambeau said. “Mental fortitude to just push on when things aren’t going well. Luck isn’t going your way, and you aren’t getting the best breaks. Hitting a lot of great shots, and things just aren’t going your way. You have to be able to step up and say, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter. I’m just going to execute the best shot I could right here.”’
And now just do it for another three days.
As defending champion Collin Morikawa, who shot 70, said: “I hope it does stay windy because it really tests your ability to hit quality shots.”