Gary Van Sickle, a senior sports writer for Sports Illustrated, was clearly unimpressed by the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island when he came to town for the PGA Championship.
“The PGA is at the Ocean Course — there’s one long road in, it’s an hour from anywhere, and it was scheduled in a month in which thunderstorms are a daily occurrence,” Van Sickle wrote in a column the day before the 2012 PGA Championship began on Aug. 9. “This week proves that majors can go anywhere.”
Ouch. Sick burn, Gary.
Actual playing conditions aside — Golf Digest called it the hardest course in America, while Van Sickle said the course was “awkward” and the ocean winds made it “nearly unplayable” — the spectator experience got spotty reviews, starting with the long commute in. Some fans faced two- or three-hour drives in heavy traffic from their Charleston hotels to the parking area on Johns Island, only to wait in line for a half-hour shuttle bus ride to the course. On Sat. Aug. 11, during a rain delay, some fans waited in line for two hours just to get on the shuttle buses off the island.
Van Sickle might just be a snob who sees South Carolina as an unworthy backwater (“Isn’t it time to bring a major to Idaho or Oregon? How about Nebraska?” he wondered aloud in his column), but he was not alone among the national media in his assessment of the traffic problem. Even Tiger Woods had something to say, telling ESPN.com golf reporter Bob Harig before the tournament, “I don’t know how the spectators are going to get around this place. First of all, I don’t know how they’re going to get to it. But once they’re there, it’s going to be a great environment.” And Tiger didn’t even have to worry about the drive; his 155-foot yacht was docked down the road at Bohicket Marina.
It was, at times, a beautiful drive in, even if it was slow. For an out-of-towner expecting pristine wetland vistas and oaks draped with Spanish moss, the commute down Bohicket Road and the bus ride onto Kiawah did not disappoint.
Roger Warren, the president of Kiawah Island Golf Resort and general chairman of the 2012 PGA Championship, says he knew from the start that traffic would be an issue on two-lane routes like Bohicket Road. “The single most-asked question in advance was ‘How are you going to handle the traffic?'” Warren says. “We were up-front and honest with people and said, ‘Traffic’s going to be slow. It’s going to take a while to get there.’ I’m not happy with some of the traffic conditions that existed on Thursday and Friday [Aug. 9-10]. We were much better on Saturday and Sunday.”
Warren says he was not happy with the traffic overall and noted, “I think we will do better next time because we’ve learned some things from it.” He says the completion of I-526 could provide some relief, as long as it is coupled with a new four-lane road across Johns Island, but he said it is not a panacea. He also said the complaints in the national media often came from reporters who stayed in downtown Charleston hotels and chose to drive to the course later in the day.
“I’m not taking them to task,” Warren says. “I’m just saying you have to look at where all the comments come from.”
Another major in 2019?
After the championship ended on Aug. 12 with Rory McIlroy on top by eight strokes, PGA of America President Allen Wronowski told The Post and Courier he thought the Ocean Course had “a great chance” of hosting another major golf tournament.
Warren certainly hopes so. He says he has expressed an interest in hosting the 2019 PGA Championship to PGA officials, and he will soon submit his request formally. But Wronowski told the P&C that road access from Charleston to Kiawah would have to be improved before another major comes to town.
Kiawah’s best-known PGA event before the Championship was the 1991 Ryder Cup, a hard-fought contest between American and European golfers that became known as the War on the Shore. “The world of golf and the world of major championships had changed a lot from 1991,” Warren says. “Could you handle on the site all of the infrastructure needs to deliver the championship experience both for the players and the corporate hospitality purchasers as well as the fans? And then can you handle all of the infrastructure needs getting people to and from the golf course?”
A significant difference between 1991 and 2012 was magnitude: Warren estimates that the ’91 Ryder Cup drew, at most, 20,000 spectators on its busiest day. This year, the crowd topped out at 30,000 on the final day.
During the tournament, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office had 18 officers dedicated to directing traffic en route to Kiawah. Capt. Jim Woods, who patrolled the roads on a motorcycle throughout the week, says the biggest bottlenecks he saw were on the Stono Bridge (connecting James Island and Johns Island) and at the perimeter parking lots, where lot attendants charged drivers $20 per car to get in. He says that by Friday, the second day of the tournament, his officers more or less “had it down to a science,” but the parking delay was a constant problem.
“You’ve got folks stopping them and saying, ‘You’ve got to pay $20,’ and probably 70 percent of them look at whoever’s riding with them and say, ‘You got $20?’ All it takes is a 30-second delay, and you’ve got cars backing up behind them,” Woods says.
Scaring off the locals
Major golf tournaments mean big money, although it’s not always clear how much that money gets spread around. In 2011, College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner forecasted a $92 million windfall for the Lowcountry as a result of the coming PGA Championship. Later, the PGA announced that the tournament would have a $193 million impact in South Carolina, including $92 million in direct spending, $26 million in labor income, and $75 million worth of media exposure.
But the results were mixed for locally owned businesses near the parking areas on Johns Island. In his scathing early assessment of Kiawah as a PGA venue, Sports Illustrated‘s Van Sickle did mention one bright spot: getting a meal at the nearest Jack’s Cosmic Dogs.
John Sigler, general manager of Red’s Ice House at Bohicket Marina, says it was a major boon that Tiger Woods parked his yacht Privacy on the same dock where the restaurant is situated. “I think that probably made this marina do 20 percent more business,” Sigler says. “I mean, it was like a parade of people going to see that boat, anywhere from old ladies to young kids.” Sales started picking up a week before the tournament, Sigler says, and the seats were packed when fans fled the course during rain delays.
At Coastal Footwear, in the Freshfields Village shopping center near where fans parked their cars, retail associate John Greenberg says overall sales during the tournament were slow compared to most weeks, but there was a noticeable spike around midday when “all the golfing wives came out and shopped.”
Other businesses fared worse. At nearby Indigo Books, owner Linda Malcolm says sales were down significantly compared to the same week last year. “August is typically a very busy time on the islands, with many families enjoying a week at the beach before heading back to school,” Malcolm says in an e-mail. “This year, that vacationing crowd was replaced by the PGA event — players, organizers, admin, ancillary support, and attendees. We saw very few families during the week … and most of the PGA attendees spent their time either in traffic, transit, or on the course.”
Richard Ballentine, a server and barista at Java Java in Freshfields Village, says the coffee shop had a slow week due to the fact that drivers had to state a specific purpose to a parking attendant and get a parking pass before driving through Freshfields. The shopping center is directly next to a roundabout that drivers had to go through to get to the parking lots.
At nearby Rosebank Farms Café, manager Thomas Meacher says he usually sees a lot of locals in the restaurant, but the week of the tournament was “one of our slower weeks we’ve had this summer.”
“I think it scared off a lot of locals. They got out of town. I mean, that’s my two cents,” Meacher says. “I don’t think we benefitted from it at all.”