The spotlight returns for the third time in 30 years to the Ocean Course, a Pete Dye seaside creation that has gained a measure of infamy in its first two encounters and will host its second PGA Championship this week.
Just ask David Feherty, who was on hand for both prior occasions. The Bangor, Co Down man competed in the infamous ‘War by the Shore’ Ryder Cup at Kiawah in 1991, and he was an on-course broadcaster for CBS in 2012 when Rory McIlroy won the PGA Championship by a record eight strokes.
“Two very different courses,” Feherty said of the Ocean Course that presented itself 21 years after its Ryder Cup introduction. Other than the sweeping views across the 2½-mile spit of land threaded between the Atlantic Ocean and coastal marshes, Kiawah was hardly recognisable from the venue that terrorised players in that seminal Ryder Cup.
Dye had only completed construction of the Ocean Course a few months before the American and European Ryder Cup teams arrived to compete in 1991. The PGA of America had awarded the event to a course that didn’t even exist, and it hardly had time to settle in before one of the most hyped events in golf history brought a searing spotlight.
Rock-hard fairways and greens were flanked by sandy waste areas so soft with a fine silt that Feherty said “your shoes would sink 6 inches” when you stepped in them or “turn hard as rock when it rained.”
Add the fact that it played 7,600 yards from tee boxes that mostly no longer exist, “which was immensely long for the clubs we were using in 1991,” Feherty said.
It was nothing that anyone had ever experienced before.
“You get golf courses where we play in Europe that were obviously going to be extremely difficult in bad weather, but in good weather, that golf course was an incredible test,” Feherty recalls.
In 2012, Kiawah became the longest course that had ever staged a major championship, and when winds gusted 20-30 mph on Friday it led to the highest scoring average in PGA history (78.11). Only four players broke par while 41 players shot in the 80s and two exceeded 90.
While the Ocean Course may reclaim its status this week as the longest major course depending on how the PGA of America sets it up (potentially up to 7,848 yards), it is not the same brutal layout that Feherty and friends were greeted by 30 years ago.
“It’s softened up and widened out and matured into a beautiful golf course,” Feherty said. “We were just unfortunate to catch it right at its inception, almost.”
It was so new, in fact, that no clubhouse existed and each of the Ryder Cup teams had its own double-wide trailer set up in the parking lot. After the Europeans lost when Bernhard Langer three-putted the final green to give the Americans a 14½-13½ victory, the scenes in the respective trailers were very different.
“Sunday night after it was over, our trailer was kind of dull but the American one was rocking — like Stevie Ray Vaughn was in there for f*ck’s sake,” Feherty said.
“When there was kind of lull, (Sam) Torrance and I decided we’d break in. We burst in and shouted at the top of our voice right in the middle of (US Vice President) Dan Quayle making a speech to the team. … It was received beautifully. They all just roared and we did the same. It was a party.”
Enough of a party that they nearly missed the Concorde flight home the next day. “They held the plane but it was a big deal having to wait for Torrance and me,” he said.
The bigger deal, of course, was an unforgiving course that under Ryder Cup pressure seemed exponentially more difficult. “It was exhausting — there wasn’t a single let-up and every single shot you had to think ‘What the hell could go wrong here?’” Feherty said.
The Ocean Course took a significant toll on both the Americans and Europeans in 1991 — a toll that still haunts some of them today. Particularly Mark Calcavecchia, who lost a 5-up lead to only halve his match with Colin Montgomerie after imploding to lose each of the last four holes.
Feherty, a 33-year-old Ryder Cup rookie, was also 4 up with four to play in Sunday’s second singles match against Payne Stewart directly in front of Calc, and he felt the same paralysis overtaking him after losing both the 15th and 16th holes.
“I just went into a flat panic,” he says. “Calcavecchia had vaporised against Colin Montgomerie so I’m thinking here I go doing the same thing.”
The crowd control had broken down by that point, and with fans chanting “Olé, olé, olé” and “U-S-A! U-S-A!” all around him, he tried to fight his way through the rowdy galleries from the 16th green to 17th tee.
“All of a sudden this big lady marshal pokes me in the chest with her ‘Quiet please’ sign and says, ‘Where do you think you’re f*cking going?’ like I’m a heavily disguised spectator,” Feherty says.
“I’m about to lose my marbles with this woman when this arm comes around my neck and Payne put his cheek against mine — I can still smell the Red Man from the (tobacco) plug he had in.
That moment actually calmed Feherty down enough to be able to hit the centre of the then 270-yard par-3 17th green — “the hardest hole in the history of the universe” — and close the match 2&1.
“Payne knew it would, that’s why he did it and who he was,” said Feherty, who remains proud of his “decidedly average” 1-1-1 record that week.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything, though I wish we had won. It was the highlight of my career and it was a loss. That’s just an indication of how much we love the Ryder Cup. It’s the high chapel.”
As an on-course commentator for CBS in 2012, Feherty got to watch his then 23-year-old compatriot cruise to a record triumph to collect his second major title.
It left an equally indelible impression on Feherty, who was an assistant pro at Holywood Golf Club 20 years before McIlroy was born, knew his parents well and had been following the young Irishman’s career since he appeared on the scene as a gifted child.
“I just remember thinking I can’t imagine anybody ever making the game look prettier than he’s making it look right now,” Feherty said of McIlroy’s performance at Kiawah.
“Those four rounds that he had were just superb, magnificent — in a Tom Weiskopf way, without the whiskey.”
It was the third round — when McIlroy seized control with a 67 wrapped around a severe storm that rolled through Saturday afternoon — that Feherty marvelled at the most.
“It was a classic Irish performance by somebody who knows how to hit into the wind,” he said. “He just hit so much club so softly in that round, it was a beautiful thing to watch. It was really artistry … Trevino-like shit.”
As he prepares to defend his Kiawah crown this week, McIlroy has only just snapped an 18-month winless drought in his last start on the PGA Tour and shifted the conversation from a more recent slump that had him missing the cut at the Players and Masters and retreating for a month to work on his game with newly added coach Pete Cowan.
Feherty’s perspective of McIlroy’s recent narrative is different.
“I don’t think there’s much self-doubt in that boy,” he said. “I think we haven’t seen the best of him yet, and we’ve seen some pretty good stuff.
“It’s really impressive.
“Slumps are not nearly as deep as they used to be because the standard of play is so high. It’s not the fact you’re not playing well, it’s the fact that they’re just playing better. All of a sudden, that can look like a slump.
Feherty, who now works for NBC/Golf Channel, likes Rory’s chances as the major summer heats up.
“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t win one more (major) out of the next three,” he said.
As for Kiawah’s Ocean Course, Feherty would not be surprised to see the Ryder Cup return to its more refined shores eventually.
“It’s a great venue … now,” he said. “It wasn’t then. But neither was the Belfry when they first moved there. A great venue needs a great course.”