Culp's Corner

2021 PGA Championship Preview at Kiawah Island Golf Resort

by Josh Culp
Updated On: May 18, 2021, 5:23 pm ET

The 103rd playing of the PGA Championship will take place this week Kiawah Island Golf Resort. 

There are plenty of storylines brewing with the most prominent being Jordan Spieth finding his form in the lead-up just in time to attempt the Career Grand Slam. He needs a win at the PGA Championship to complete that quest. Rory McIlroy also just snagged a win two weeks ago, finding his form just before a return to the site of his 2012 PGA Championship win. 

The most recent edition of this event was last fall at TPC Harding Park when Collin Morikawa put on a show down the stretch to take home the hardware. 

This week, 156 golfers will start the week with an eye on the Rodman Wanamaker Trophy. In addition to the trophy, the winner will receive a lifetime exemption into the PGA Championship, as well as a five-year exemption on the PGA TOUR, and five-year exemption into all of the other majors, yes even the fifth major (THE PLAYERS). 

As a reminder to weekly gamers, the PGA of America is host this week so they establish their own guidelines. For the cutline, that means the Top 70 and ties will slip through the cutline and play the weekend. 

The Course

This week's host venue is The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. It is a Pete and Alice Dye creation with notable hosting duties at the 1991 Ryder Cup, 1997 World Cup of Golf, 2003 World Cup of Golf, and the 2012 PGA Championship. You may have also seen it when watching the film, "The Legend of Bagger Vance." 

The course is a brute that stretches out to 7,876 yards from the tips. That makes it the longest course in major-championship history, previously Erin Hills held that honor. 

There is a lot of sand but no bunkers. How is that possible? They play them as "sandy areas" and players are able to ground their club, move loose impediments, and take practice swings if they find themselves in the sand this week. 

At first glance, it could easily play the role of a links course but when you really dive in there are some key factors that prevent it from being a true links test. 

First is the turf, it is wall-to-wall paspalum with ryegrass rough. A true links course is going to be firm and fast but this kind of grass needs the perfect storm (or lack of storms, should I say) to play that way. A move from August to May should actually help in that regard but we'll need to wait for pre-tourney pressers to know just how firm and fast they are able to get it this week.

Second, many of the greens at The Ocean Course are elevated which prevents you from "playing it on the ground" AKA Grandpa Golf, which is another key element of true links layouts. 

That being said, it does share visual properties of most links courses and it's played right on the coast so golfers that play well on links courses shouldn't be too out of their comfort zone this week. Just look at the leaderboard from the 2012 PGA Championship and you'll see five names from GB&I finishing at T7 or better. 

Speaking of that 2012 edition, what did we see from a scoring perspective? 

From a wide-lens view, we saw the field play it to an average of 74.566 for the week which was the second-toughest event, relative-to-par, that season. It yielded a boatload of big numbers, with the field averaging 3.02 doubles or worse, per 72 holes, for the week. That puts it right up there alongside courses like Shinnecock Hills, Chambers Bay, and Oakmont in terms of courses that have yielded big numbers recently. 

When we dive deeper we see that one round was the leading cause of that difficult scoring at the 2012 PGA Championship. 

Scoring Average by Round at the 2012 PGA at Kiawah Island

R1: 73.29
R2: 78.09
R3: 72.75
R4: 71.65

Players were greeted with 25 MPH+ winds on day two while the other days were calmer and they had softer conditions for much of the week. They had a suspension of play on Saturday due to storms and the final groups played 27 holes on Sunday to finish the event. 

It's been a long time since we were here last but if 2012 is any indication then the length of the course will be a talking point but will not be a true defense this week. Wind is the only way to really challenge these pros this week so keep an eye on the weather forecast in the lead-up to the event. TPC Harding Park had a field scoring average of +0.76 RTP and that is also how the course played in 2012 if you removed Round 2 from the equation. That makes it a pretty decent guess of what we should expect this week unless some wind really whips through. With that, I would peg the winning score in the 10-to-14 under range which is also where the winner has landed in this event in four of the last eight editions. 

From a hole-by-hole overview, there are three par 3s over 205 yards. There are six par 4s over 480 yards. There are three par 5s over 575 yards. That means plenty of mid-to-long irons and plenty of scrambling opportunities because even the best of the best are going to miss their fair share of greens when they are consistently approaching from outside of 180 yards. 

Circling back on the turf, golfers will see seashore paspalum this week which is only used for a few events on the PGA TOUR schedule (Mayakoba Golf Classic, Puerto Rico Open, Corales). On the Euro Tour they play paspalum at the Saudi and Qatar events. Overall, you are going to have a hard time finding a good sample size of paspalum performance for any of the superstars in this week's field. As for the actual greens, they are slightly smaller than TOUR average at 6,000 square feet. Traditionally, paspalum greens don't usually play as fast as bermuda or bent but this is a major championship and I'd expect them to ramp them up as fast as they can if the wind forecast allows it. Before the 2012 edition, the superintendent had this to say, "You get much quicker than 11, the ball starts oscillating." It's possible the advancements in agronomy will allow speedier surfaces this time but overall we should expect relatively slower green speeds, similar to a traditional Open Championship across the pond. 

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Course Quotes

Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.

Ian Poulter: "It’s one of those types of courses if you have an extra 20, 30 yards, the par‑5s become very attractive, i.e., 2, 16 and so on. It’s one of those golf courses if you can carry a couple of those ridges, the par‑5s become almost a par‑4, really. I’m playing a lot of them as lay‑up par‑5s, and that’s tricky." -2012

Phil Mickelson: "It’s very challenging and the reason I think is a couple of things. One, most every hole is a direct crosswind; and two, you’re not able to really play the ball on the ground here. You have to play it through the air, because the greens all repel off. You can’t really roll a shot up. That makes it difficult, because you have to play the ball through the air." -2012

Tiger Woods: "Well, they are tricky to read because they are so straight. They don’t break much. And it’s different. I’m sure there’s a lot of guys making a lot of putts out there, but there’s no grain. That’s also another thing, too, is that we are accustomed to putting in the south like this, and you expect grain, but there’s really no grain here." -2012

Adam Scott: "You certainly have to pick your moments to attack. There are only about three par 4s that you would call short and get a wedge in your hand; if you drive it well, you can hit a wedge into the green, and if you’re getting a wedge in your hand, you’re attacking. So the par 5s and those few par 4s where you could get a wedge is a chance to attack. The rest of the time, you never want to play defensive, especially on tough golf courses, but you just have to play smart and you have to pick your moments wisely and that’s what majors are all about." -2012

Tiger Woods: "I think it’s, of anything that’s close would be Whistling Straits; the same architect being Pete. But again, played totally differently. A lot of mounding and a lot of movement in its designs. One of the things you learn about Pete’s golf courses, a lot of it is visual. There’s a lot more room out there, whether it’s on the fairways or on the greens, than you think. He just makes you look the other way. And he’s a masterful designer in that way." -20125 

Jeff Stone (course superintendent): "“You work with what Mother Nature is doing to your golf course. You can’t control it, it’ll drive you crazy. Mother Nature really changes the golf course every day. How this golf course changes in one year takes other golf courses five to seven years to change that much. It’s Mother Nature doing it, and she’s doing it 24/7.” -2021


Correlated Courses

Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week: 

TPC Sawgrass
Whistling Straits
PGA Championship Course Rota
Open Championship Course Rota
U.S. Open Course Rota
Torrey Pines South

It's hard to find true comps for Kiawah Island but looking at historical success in other majors is a good starting point. I excluded Augusta National from that list since it's the same venue and doesn't require golfers to learn a new course every year. You could certainly add it to your list if you want to take the angle of strong-field events with relatively tough-to-hit greens. As you saw from above, Tiger pointed out Whistling Straits as a potential comp since they are both long, linksy-looking courses, that were designed by Pete Dye. 


The Weather

Thursday: Sunny with a high of 79 degrees. Winds at 10 to 15 MPH. 

Friday: Cloudy with a high of 81. Winds at 6 to 12 MPH. 

The early-week wind forecast calls for steady but not significant wind speeds. That could certainly change over the next few days so keep an eye out because an extra 5 or 10 MPH would make a huge difference in the expected scoring environment this week. 

Josh Culp

Josh Culp joined NBC Sports Edge in 2014. The DFS enthusiast from Iowa State can be found on Twitter @futureoffantasy.