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A Perfect Storm at Kiawah

16th at Kiawah

In September 1989 Hurricane Hugo crashed onto the shore’s of Kiawah Island just as Pete and Alice Dye were beginning to design The Ocean Course. The destruction the hurricane delivered to South Carolina’s low country was devastating, even changing the landscape of Kiawah Island and giving the Dye’s a new canvas with which to work (they also took some environmental liberties, but those are minor details in a larger story…).

For golfers, Hurricane Hugo might just have been a perfect storm (with all respect to Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm). Kiawah’s history is well known, the War on the Shore in 1991’s Ryder Cup and Rory’s dominating 2012 performance are both bookmarked in golf’s history pages. One for an epic battle and collection of meltdowns and the other for a masterful display by a youngster at his peak.

In the lead up to the PGA Championship, Kiawah received more coverage than any one player in the event.

Media members dove into the history of the course, they played it themselves to see if they could break 90, retold storied, and found new angles in order to make the golf course a character in this PGA Championship. Some major venues play a lead role, others are supporting actors, and some are just extras in the background.

Kiawah always felt like a Sir Anthony Hopkins, rough around the edges and might eat you alive if you’re not careful.

Without Tiger Woods around anymore, big events need something else to move the needle. At the beginning of the week, Kiawah was the needle mover. Once the golf started, the 17th hole became the lead singer in the

Kiawah rock group, with wind on bass guitar and “sandy areas” on drums. The course played its hits on Thursday, but a quiet Canadian, Corey Connors, led after a surprising 67 when many hoped for carnage.

But there was a storm brewing. Phil shot 70.

On Friday, I was fortunate enough to be at Kiawah; I remember the roar that went up when Phil birdied the ninth hole to finish off his masterful second round. I was nowhere near the ninth green, instead I saw it on the massive screen at the center of the property. Afterwards, I wandered to the 18th green and saw the leaderboard.

Branden Grace had doubled the 17th hole and Phil was leading the PGA Championship alone. I snapped a photo figuring I should mark a moment that likely won’t hold up.

It’s rare that a golf course, a golfer, and a moment work symbiotically during an event. Jack in 1986 and Tiger in 2019 would come to most people’s mind rather quickly. The institutional knowledge that people have of Augusta National combined with fans’ connection to Jack and Tiger made those events some of the most important in golf history.

They were perfect storms.

On Sunday, as Mickelson walked ever so slowly around the golf course taking slow deep breaths and giving a million thumbs ups, the storm continued to build. There was no doubt who everyone at Kiawah was rooting for, the old guy wandering the dunes like he was out for a Sunday stroll planning to stop and grab the paper and a coffee on his way home. Instead, he was hitting 350 yard bombs past his younger, more toned (and poorly goateed) playing partner.

The thing about Kiawah is that every hole is knife-edge difficult. There’s no simple way to get around, even Phil made mistakes coming home. A bad shot into the water on 13 left the door open for a possible collapse. But the storm was too strong for every one else out on the course. Koepka looked lost in the middle of the round, unable to find a fairway or make a putt. Louis Oosthuizen quietly made his way through the round, getting better on the back nine. He might have won if they had to play another 9 holes on Sunday.

And as the day came to a close, Mickelson made a bogey on 17, but not without a bit of trepidation on the second shot from the long grass as water loomed on the far side of the pin. Catch it too clean and his ball was alligator food and so were his chances at adding a sixth major.

Classic Phil.

The perfect storm made landfall after Phil hit his second shot safely onto the 18th green. There was a bit of drama left before that shot, as a bogey-birdie exchange between Mickelson and Koepka would have forced a playoff. Once Mickelson’s ball rolled pin high about 25 feet from the pin, the winds had reached hurricane levels.

Fans piled onto the fairway, a scene reminiscent of Arnold Palmer in the 1960s or even Tiger in 2018 at East

Lake when he broke though and won the Tour Championship. For a few brief moments it actually looked unsafe, some kid grabbed Phil around the shoulders to get his moment on TV, and the players needed escorts to navigate the mass of bodies and arrive at the green.

After 15 months of being penned up in our homes, watching golf without fans, this truly was a perfect storm. A 50-year old man arrived at a course shaped by a hurricane and created his own storm, reshaping the history of golf and also its future.

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