When the developers of Kiawah Island Golf Resort gave golf course architect Pete Dye a 2 1/2-mile strip of sandy beachside property more than 20 years ago and asked him to create a golf course, Dye did more than build 18 holes.
Dye created a spectacular golf course, one that hugs the Atlantic Ocean as it wanders around and through lagoons and dunes, while also giving the resort an international calling card. With five golf courses, the luxurious Sanctuary hotel and more than 10 miles of hard-packed beaches, Kiawah Island Golf Resort is one of the world's finest golf and beach destinations.
If there is a question about the Kiawah experience, it's this:
Could it be any better?
Unlike virtually everything else at the resort, it's one place where there is no easy answer.
What began in 1991 with the now-legendary Ryder Cup matches in the so-called "War by the Shore," comes full circle in August when golf's best will play the PGA Championship on Dye's Ocean Course. It will be the first major championship played in South Carolina and while most of the television attention will focus on Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and others as they contend with the wind and other challenges at the Ocean Course, the resort will serve as a grand stage to viewers in more than 200 countries.
At Kiawah Island Golf Resort, the game is as much a part of the island life as the Spanish moss hanging from the live oaks. Even for non-golfers, the courses that dot the property provide the kind of scenery that causes bikers to stop on the paved paths to admire the view.
On a recent late-winter day, a bald eagle could be seen landing on the edge of a fairway on the Osprey Point golf course, pausing to watch golfers passing by. There are bobcats, fox and gators around, too.
And there are the sunrises and sunsets that paint the courses and beaches in their emerging and dying light. Because Kiawah runs east to west, it's one of the rare spots on the East Coast where it's possible to watch the sun come up over the water and, at the end of a long day, watch it set over the ocean as well.
That's the kind of special place Kiawah Island Golf Resort is.
On the links
For golfers, Kiawah Island Golf Resort is like an overstuffed buffet table.
There's the Ocean Course, as demanding a challenge as there is when the ocean breeze blows.
Want something else hearty?
There's the Jack Nicklaus-designed Turtle Point Course, which hugs the Atlantic in spots.
Want a little of everything?
There's Tom Fazio's Osprey Point course with its wide fairways, receptive greens and Lowcountry charm.
In all, the resort has five courses, including Cougar Point and Oak Point, which is located just outside the resort gates.
"There's variety and if your interest is golf, you'll get different experiences at each course," says Roger Warren, president of Kiawah Island Golf Resort.
It's the Ocean Course, though, that gets the most attention because there's nothing else quite like it along the Atlantic. From the moment it debuted as the site of the 1991 Ryder Cup matches, it's been on the must-play list of a multitude of golfers who want to see if they can handle its many challenges.
There's a badge of honor element to playing the Ocean Course, especially if you make a birdie or two or finish the watery par-3 17th hole with the same ball you started with on the tee.
Playing the Ocean Course is part golf, part experience. With the Atlantic within view from virtually every hole, it's the essence of seaside golf. The course has been softened in spots, slightly reducing its unforgiving nature around the edges but it's still ferocious. It ranks fourth in Golf Digest magazine's list of public courses in the United States.
The world's best golfers will be on the Ocean Course in August for the PGA Championship, the first time one of golf's four biggest events has been played in South Carolina. Long before the opening tee shot is struck, the Kiawah PGA Championship is already a success.
Daily tickets for Friday, Saturday and Sunday are sold out and only a few remain for the Thursday round. Corporate hospitality is also virtually sold out.
"It's almost immeasurable what the PGA Championship will mean to the resort," Warren says.
If you're among those with PGA Championship tickets, the resort's other four courses will be open during the tournament, offering spectators the chance to split their days between playing and watching golf.
More than golf
To have as much as Kiawah Island Golf Resort has to offer, there's still an understated feel to the sprawling property. It's high-end, especially The Sanctuary and many of the private homes, but there's a gentle elegance that's missing at many seaside resorts.
The homes and condominiums - the resort manages approximately 500 - don't crowd the beach. The buildings sit back from it, almost hidden among the live oaks, turning a walk on the sand into a relaxing stroll free of distractions.
The 255-room Sanctuary itself is spectacular. With its large, curving staircases at opposite ends of the lobby, its luxurious sitting rooms and the Adirondack chairs on the lawn facing the Atlantic, it's the embodiment of Lowcountry style and grace. Chamber music plays softly inside while the sounds of waves hitting the beach provide the accompaniment outside.
At The Sanctuary, service is a specialty. Resort administrators set special standards for employees at The Sanctuary to make sure guests get treatment that matches their surroundings. The most difficult thing about a visit to The Sanctuary is leaving.
It's home to the Ocean Room, the only steakhouse in the country to have earned Forbes 4-Star rating and AAA's 4-Diamond award.
If you want something less formal, there's Jasmine Porch where you can get shrimp and grits, quail and other Lowcountry specialties. There's also Tomasso at Turtle Point if you're hungry for Italian, Cherrywood BBQ at Osprey Point and the Atlantic Room at the Ocean Course clubhouse where you can dine overlooking the 18th green. If you visit the Atlantic Room, don't miss the crispy shrimp.
For the full Kiawah experience, take in the nightly (in season) oyster roast at Mingo Point.
At Kiawah, there are bikes to ride and hikes to take. Each November, jazz great Earl Klugh hosts a weekend of music. Each December, the Kiawah marathon and half-marathon attracts thousands who come to run through the island while live bands play and hundreds of spectators cheer them along.
On the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve, fireworks rule the night.
And, if you play too hard or just want to pamper yourself, the Sanctuary Spa is the ultimate indulgence.
The same can be said for the Kiawah Island Golf Resort.