PGA Championship 2021: The one, and perhaps only, place to find peace at the Ocean Course

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — In front is a green, surrounded by waste bunkers and marsh and dunes against the backdrop of the Atlantic. Behind stands all of America. It is a beautiful convergence that can make the biggest titan feel small and turn the coldest S.O.B. sentimental. Yet to one observer, the appeal of the Ocean Course’s par-3 fifth is what it lacked Monday afternoon.

There will be roughly 10,000 spectators per day at this week’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. It is a welcomed sight. Fans are the undercurrent of professional sports, providing its soundtrack. Without them our games over the last year have felt ever-so off. However, during Monday’s practice round at the Ocean Course, it felt like all 10,000 were on the back nine. It is inarguably the better side from a viewing standpoint; the back offers a more dramatic, more dynamic layout, and because the holes are closer in proximity, there are a number of vistas to watch multiple groups. However, this also makes for a congested congregation.

Which is what spurred a trek to the remote edges of the Ocean Course. Pandemic or not, sometimes a man needs room to breathe, and there was plenty of oxygen at the fifth on Monday.

“You picked the right place to be,” says Rick, a volunteer who hails from Summerville, S.C. “Doesn’t get much more peaceful than this. Plus look at this view!”

It was a good look; reread the opening graph. Better yet, the fifth took social distancing to another level. For most of Monday afternoon it hosted a dozen fans and half as many volunteers, as quiet and serene of an on-grounds major experience as you’ll get.

But there is more than just aesthetics and elbow space. There is pride in reaching the faraway point of a course. It is a badge of honor. In a sense you’re a pioneer because this is property’s equivalent of the Old West where the line between civilization and wilderness becomes blurred, a notion reinforced at the sight of a shirtless gentleman navigating a dinghy through an inlet to the left of the fourth hole. There’s also a touch of marvel. When you’re at the faraway point of any course, as a patron or player, it means there’s plenty of golf ahead to get you back to where you started.

Make no mistake, though, the faraway point is always a trek. Especially so at Ocean Course.

You pass the clubhouse and driving range and merchandise tent and fan zone. You cross a number of tributaries and sand tracks. Around the second tee a marshal will hand you a machete to cut your way through (or at least seemingly he should).

How far is the fifth? There was a glance at the phone’s step counter to see just how far our journey was taking. The screen replied not with a number but a middle finger. A man was lying down in the rough about 100 yards from the third green; in hindsight we worry he too was headed towards the periphery before deciding “The hell with it.” One group turned around at the third upon worries they had passed the final concession stand.

But, assuming you have the money for a low-country sherpa, it is worth the trip. There are no formal grandstands and most of the area is, in fact, sand and weeds. Luckily there are three grass mounds just to the right, providing comfortable confines to the fifth’s green and one of the better ocean panoramas the course offers. If you can get past the fact of all the bulldozers it took to create this links, it seems like nature incarnate.

However, what we sought to avoid—people—is what ultimately made the day. Strangers chatted, everyone seemingly in-tune to the same conversation. About the tournament. About Rory. About swing theories and how bad us average hacks would do against this brutal set-up. It felt like stumbling into a barbecue, only if a golf tournament had broken out in the backyard. And for the record, there is a concession stand nearby, just 75 yards or so to the right of the green.

There was still golf to be watched, and because of our small multitude, it was easier to watch. And we watched …

… fledgling star Will Zalatoris come through with United States Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, assistant captain Zach Johnson and self-appointed team consigliere Phil Mickelson, floating the notion that Young Master Zalatoris might grab a Ryder Cup pick before a tour card.

… Xander Schauffele hit a number of hit-n-checks from a number of spots under the watch of his approving father, which reminded everyone, “Oh yeah, this is one of the top five players in the world.”

… nearly after single player miss short and to the right, all peering towards the green then to the sky and back to the green. “Wind is barely blowing,” Rick noted more than once. “They are in for trouble if it does.”

… the Canadian contingent of Adam Hadwin, Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners rag each other, which as one of the volunteers noted, “Is as much fun as Canadians are legally allowed to have.”

As much fun as we were having, the fans began to depart. There are other parts of the course to discover and other players to see. The barbecue had come to a close. As we packed up our things and checked to see if Uber had an airboat service, we took one more glance up. Rick was right. It doesn’t get much more peaceful than this.

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