They tell of the perils of the Ocean Course like sailors returned from a death-defying voyage. Poisonous serpents lying in wait. Unrelenting, crushing heat. Unpredictable, course-altering wind gusts.
“And if the wind isn’t blowing, the bugs will get them,” says Robert Fisher, who retired from a government career and became a caddy at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort five years ago.
Fisher and several of his bag-toting, advice-doling cohorts talked about the course one recent weekend from deep inside the bowels of the clubhouse, down a spiral staircase underneath the pro shop. On Thursday, the 94th PGA Championship unfolds here on the most prestigious course on this private island, where players enjoy panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean — if they dare.
“The Ocean Course wins every day,” says caddy Ryan Bocchino. “That’s what I tell everyone.”
Golf Digest dubbed The Ocean Course “America’s Toughest Resort Course,” and the links earned the nickname “Looney Dunes” during the 1991 Ryder Cup. But here’s the thing about the Ocean Course: Anyone can play it. Unlike many of the high-profile golf courses around the country, it’s open to any visitor, at any level of experience, if that person is willing to shell out the money. At peak season, without discounts, a round runs $348.
Some first-time players show up with two dozen, three dozen, even four dozen golf balls after hearing the horror stories. So, does having expensive equipment mean you’ll play a better game on the Ocean Course? When asked, caddy Sethe Wetter smirks and then dead-pans, “There’s no direct correlation.”
He remembers a husband-and-wife pair with bags full of gear, competitively keeping score. Between the two of them, the couple shot more than 360 (par is 72). Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the wife won.
For the more experienced players, a typical round at the Ocean Course takes about five and a half hours, while those first-time players who tackle the course without training instead usually spend six and a half hours on the links, shooting balls out of sight and into snake and gator territory.
“They call that the death march,” says caddy Mark Bloomer. The alligators, the caddies agree, aren’t as bad as the rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and copperheads that pop up without warning.
The way to avoid those reptilian hazards and lost balls, caddy Patrick Wright explains, is simple: “Listen to us and you won’t lose them.”
And then there’s the unbearable Lowcountry heat. “Most people think the wind cools them off,” says caddy Hugh Morrison. But in reality, Bocchino says, “It’s like walking into a hairdryer.”
Bocchino, Morrison, and company caddy for professional athletes, business executives, and national recording artists daily. “It’s humbling,” Wetter says. “The biggest CEOs in the country come and get beat up and listen to what you have to say.”
But do the caddies ever bend the rules a little for a lesser player paying for their time? “We pretty much tell them, ‘You pay the money. You do what you want,'” says Bocchino.
Fisher puts it more diplomatically: “We say, it’s how seriously you want to take your round.”
Or whether you want to cheat a little. In caddy lingo, that’s called playing by “local rules,” something spectators won’t see at the PGA Championship, the state’s largest-ever sporting event.
What they will see is a local debate play out. Ask the guys who know the Ocean Course best, and they can’t agree on the toughest hole. Bocchino remains convinced that this tournament will be lost on that long 17th hole where, with 9,000 spectators hovering nearby, the pressure will become yet another variable. Other caddies argue over hole 9 or hole 18 as the greatest challenge.
Their advice for spectators? Stick to the back nine for the best view, Bocchino says. Wear performance clothes and not cotton, Bloomer warns, unless you want to swim in your own sweat. And watch how players adapt to the grass, which has been grown longer and thicker just for them, Fisher says, and to the uniquely natural sand of the Ocean Course.
As for traffic, your guess is as good as theirs. An estimated 30,000 spectators each day will make their way down the winding narrow road to the Ocean Course for the tournament.
So what will these caddies do when the pros come to town with their own caddies close behind? They’re not entirely sure yet. Chances are, someone will need their services. Caddies with tournament players could get sick or injured. And some international golfers must sacrifice their right-hand man to cut down on travel expenses.
The unexpected becomes a perk of the job, according to the caddies at the Ocean Course.
“It’s a different day every day,” Wright says. “Plus, you get to walk along the beach and get paid for it.”
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