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2021 PGA Championship preview

By |  April 20, 2021 0 Comments
Jeff Stone, superintendent, and Robert Polk, assistant superintendent, at the Ocean Course last month. (Photo: Stacy Howell)

Jeff Stone, superintendent, and Robert Polk, assistant superintendent, at the Ocean Course last month. (Photo: Stacy Howell)

Life moves a little slower in Charleston, S.C. It’s the old South. Southern Hospitality. Porch swings and sweet tea.

Life moves a little faster at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort. North/south winds, big gusts. It ages daily, but not like a normal golf course. They say this course ages in dog years.

“Pete (Dye) hit the nail on the head when he said this course is always moving,” says Jeff Stone, longtime superintendent of the course. “Like today, we went and added some sand to some waste areas, but the wind is blowing, and the sand will blow across turf areas. The golf course is always changing. It’s constantly evolving. This golf course evolves faster than 90 percent of the other golf courses out there. At some courses, once every five years, you redo a bunker lip because the sand has been hit out of it after so long. Here, that can happen in a matter of 18 months.”

If this is a course that ages in dog years, then Stone has seen this course age more than 100 years.

The 2021 PGA Championship embarks on the course next month. It will be Stone’s second PGA Championship at the course. This dog still hunts.

A history course

Built by Pete and Alice Dye in 1991, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Resort has made a rich history for itself in a short time (see sidebar below). 1991’s “War at the Shore” is one of the more famous Ryder Cup matches, and a curly-haired Rory McIlroy’s eight-stroke margin of victory in the 2012 PGA Championship came at a time when the Irishman looked like Tiger Woods 2.0.

Now, the 2021 PGA Championship arrives May 20-23, and the course and the crew are ready to add to that history.

“It’s your life’s work to show it off,” says assistant superintendent Robert Polk, a former intern at the course. The proud Clemson grad grew up in the area. “What better way to (show it off) than on national television? Everybody’s ready.”

Another former intern of Kiawah Island Resort is Stone, who interned there in 1989. A native of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., Stone got into the business because working golf maintenance was his best way to hustle free golf.

“The decisions you make between the ages of 20 and 24 usually last you for the next 30 years,” Stone says. “So, I started working on a golf course probably two years after graduating high school. I really enjoyed what I was doing and was looking for a career to get into.”

Stone was accepted into Lake City Community College (now Florida Gateway College) in 1987, interned in the Kiawah family in 1989 and graduated in 1990. Upon graduation, Stone says he was fortunate and hired back on as an assistant by then-director of golf George Frye at Kiawah’s Marsh Point.

Rory McIlroy after an eight-stroke victory at the Ocean Course in 2012. (Photo: PGA of America)

Rory McIlroy after an eight-stroke victory at the Ocean Course in 2012. (Photo: PGA of America)

“I’m very blessed to have been able to spend pretty much my entire turf career here on Kiawah,” Stone says. “Being able to get up and see the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean and then set in the evening, what’s not to like about it? I’ve been very fortunate to be able to be in a location and work for the resort that I do work for.”

Remembering Pete Dye

Stone’s career choice allowed him to meet some of his childhood heroes. But he calls his relationship with Ocean Course architect Pete Dye the highlight of his career. He remembers seeing Dye when he was building the course back in 1989 and 1990.

“He would show up here at the golf resort, and we would go and look at things, and come lunchtime, we’d have lunch. And then, he would just go for a walk around the golf course,” Stone says, a common recollection of the architect. “He would go out and talk to the golfers, and he was just one of the guys. That’s what was always so neat about Pete. He was never bigger than the moment. He was always one of those guys and really enjoyed giving back to golf. He was very unique, and he’s going to be missed.”

Stone remembers a photo, currently misplaced, of Dye after he built a sand wall at the course that was … extreme.

Clock at The Ocean Course (Photo: Stacy Howell)

Polk says the crew is counting down the minutes to the start of the 2021 PGA Championship, which starts play May 20. (Photo: Stacy Howell)

“It was ludicrous, this wall of sand that he had built — and we put some grass on top of it!” Stone says. “He was standing in front of this wall of sand with his back to us, and he had his hands outstretched kind of like the statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro (“Christ the Redeemer”). And I was like, there he is, he’s blessing the work. He was a trip. He had so many stories of the things he had done in life, and he’d just sit there and tell you about them. He was fun.”

Stone says he’s taken by how many advancements have been made in the business. By now, the thing that impresses him the most is how he’s been able to see this game evolve over his years at the Ocean Course.

“The development of technology and equipment and what we’re doing with grasses now? We’re literally — we would be flooded with seawater in the past with bermudagrass, but now we have paspalum that tolerates it,” Stone says. “It’s been a joy to watch technology grow and watching these professional golfers force change in golf course architecture.”

Band of brothers

In the weeks leading up to the 2021 PGA Championship, not much has distracted the team from their goals. Heck, the wind is so strong at the Ocean Course that the virus would probably be in the next county before it could infect someone.

The crew is a little smaller than usual as a result of COVID-19, but not much else has changed. The fairway lines have gotten a little tighter, and the rough has been let loose. “We could definitely manage a park,” laughs Stone. “We were essential personnel, so we worked through the pandemic.”

Polk has been following Stone’s lead. The two have similar starts to their careers, and Polk would love to emulate Stone’s career. He says it’s his dream to be a good head superintendent.

“I’ve been learning from the best. I have the education, and I have the boss that can teach me. It’s been awesome. Jeff is always cool, calm and collected,” Polk says. “He’s been doing it for a while, over 30 years. He’s very patient and very smart. I couldn’t ask for a better boss.”

Stone counts himself lucky to be in the Kiawah Resort family, about to host his second PGA Championship.

“I’ve been here for 30 years. We’ve got five superintendents. Steve Miller, he’s been here for 35 years. Brad French, he’s been here for 20-plus years. The other two guys have been here for at least 10 years,” Stone says. “The superintendent that we have here, we are like brothers. We fight like brothers, and we’ll defend each other like brothers. And, Kiawah Golf Resort, it’s top-notch. Roger Warren, the president of the resort, he really goes to bat for the golf courses.”

The Ocean Course (Photo: PGA of America)

“Turf is not near the maintenance as the waste areas are,” Stone says of the biggest challenge of the course. “We can get off the turf areas pretty quickly and then move
on to the waste areas.” (Photo: PGA of America)

At this point, the island and the course have become a way of life for Stone.

“When I first moved to Charleston, coming from New Smyrna (Beach) and growing up there and Daytona Beach … moving to Charleston 30 years ago, it was a little bit slower pace. It was really enjoyable. And, being right on the beach, I’ve always lived on the ocean,” Stone says. “It’s a different mindset.”

The Ocean Course’s windy timeline

  • 1991 — Ryder Cup, “The War by the Shore,” won by America
  • 1996 — Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, pitting Annika Sorenstam against Dottie Pepper (Pepper won)
  • 1997 — World Cup of Golf
  • 2001 — Inaugural UBS Warburg Cup, a Ryder Cup format of professionals age 40-plus, captained by Arnold Palmer, won by the U.S.
  • 2003 — World Cup, won by South Africans Rory Sabbatini and Trevor Immelman
  • 2005 — PGA Professional Championship
  • 2007 — 68th Senior PGA Championship, won by Denis Watson
  • 2012 — PGA Championship, won by Rory McIlroy with a record eight-stroke margin

*Boldface denotes tournaments overseen by Stone



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