Bob Gillespie



The PGA Championship: Monday at The Ocean Course

Posted 8/6/2012 11:02:00 PM

Brett Sterba’s Monday began long before almost everyone else involved with the 94th PGA Championship. He rose at 3 a.m. and was in his office at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course by 4 a.m., ready to deal with whatever problems might arise on the first day of 2012’s final major.

Ten hours later, though, as he struggled not to yawn constantly at 4 p.m. – “I’ve had 12 hours sleep the past four days,” he said wearily – the 2012 PGA Championship Director had concluded there would be no major issues arise – and nothing that seven years of pre-planning couldn’t handle.

The first day of the PGA’s weeklong run – the championship concludes late Sunday with the awarding of the Wanamaker Trophy – had, for the most part, gone off without a hitch, he said. That was quite an accomplishment, given pre-tournament questions that many observers had about the ability of the Charleston area in general and Kiawah Island in particular to handle traffic on access roads, and crowds of 25,000-30,000 a day, in the tight confines Pete Dye’s Ocean Course.

Granted, Sterba said, Monday – “a day to button up and touch up,” he said – had smaller crowds for the first of three days of practice for the field of 156 players than will be the case beginning Thursday. “This is similar to the soft opening of a restaurant,” he said. “But everything was in place that needed to be.

“We could’ve hosted the first round today.”

For Sterba, his PGA Championship staff and hundreds of volunteers, the operation began with the fleet of 85 buses that would shuttle spectators from parking at the Freshfield’s shopping center, located at the entrance to Kiawah Island, to The Ocean Course at the island’s far end. Thirty other buses ferried on-island visitors to and from the course, while still others carried media, corporate visitors and guests from official hotels in Charleston.

Drivers made a dry-run trip to the course Sunday night, albeit in a fierce downpour, “but the drivers knew the route, and they know how to drive,” Sterba said. A few drivers needed help from locals and their GPS devices, but then Monday was “a day to get the kinks out,” he added.

A strong turnout of fans was a pleasant surprise. “That shows excitement and we’re happy with that,” Sterba said. “And once they got off the bus, there were few problems for the average spectator.”

Other than typical August heat for South Carolina, that is. Even there, the PGA got a bit of a break: temperatures hovered in the high 80s, and while oceanfront humidity ensured a healthy sweat for fans and players alike, breezes off the Atlantic made things tolerable, sometimes pleasant.

Sterba was anxious to observe walking-traffic flow and said he had especially watched a few potential bottlenecks. “But we had security walk through the gallery and one ‘chute’ in particular is working well,” he said. “We knew we had a good plan, and today was one step to proving that.

“Each day, (walking traffic) will grow in volume of spectators. But we have three days (through Wednesday) to make sure our plan is correct, and our people are able to execute it. After (Monday), when we’ve seen and learned where fans want to walk, we might move some tents or walkways so they can do that.”

Steve Youngner, The Ocean Course’s head professional, was working at the driving range and laughed about one moment involving foot traffic. “We had a few (PGA Tour) players walk off the range and start to walk to the first tee,” he said, pointing toward the front nine. “They didn’t know that’s 700 yards away – and where the shuttles to take them there were.”

Youngner had been working toward Monday even longer than Sterba, who moved to Kiawah three years ago to plan the operation. “Since 2005,” Youngner said, shaking his head. “We know the spectators expect the spectacular.”

This first day, he said, “things have gone pretty smoothly.” Dye, the course architect, was brought in months ago to help plan gallery flow, “and Pete made a few changes based on 2007,” when The Ocean Course hosted the Senior PGA, what Youngner calls “our test run.”

Monday, fans hovered near the practice green, imploring players for autographs and snapping photos. The only problems he knew, Youngner said, was “some fans figuring out how to get to the back nine.” The answer: a healthy hike past the clubhouse; no shuttles for them.

Some spectators bought tickets that gave them access to shaded grand stands. That, Sterba said, was part of the spectator plan, which called for encouraging roughly two-thirds of fans to find sitting spots and watch, while the others trek through the sand dunes to follow favorite players.

“Holes 16, 17 and 18, and (Nos.) 1 and 9” – where grandstands and sky boxes are located – “are the best viewing holes and also the most accessible,” Sterba said. “If the majority of the crowd stays on those holes, we’re in good shape.”

Two spectators following that plan, Jason Dandridge of Walterboro and Bluffton’s Tony Stout, spent Monday midday comfortably seated in the 17th Hole Dunes Skybox, watching players at the water-guarded par-3. Stout said he had played The Ocean Course six weeks before and “when I tried to envision this (tournament setup), it was difficult.”

Monday, though, “everything from the (course) entrance to here … I wouldn’t normally think of this as a fan-friendly course, so what they’ve done has exceeded my expectations.” Stout said his bus trip to the course took a smooth 15-20 minutes.

“My concern before today was how they’d get 30,000 people in here,” he said. “But they’re doing a great job.”

Sipping a beer while a breeze blew through the seating area, Dandridge agreed. “The facilities are great,” he said. “We’ve got a restroom and the bar all laid out here. This is a tough course to walk, and we plan to do that later, but right now we’re ‘resting,’” he added with a laugh.

Russ Bryer of Medina, Ohio, said he had just one complaint. “I didn’t know where the (sky box) entrance was,” he said. “Maybe they need to add a sign.” Otherwise, he said, his trip – flying into Charleston early Monday, returning to Ohio on Wednesday – had been “great.

“I came to see the golf course, and it’s beautiful. I’ve walked earlier today, but after Wednesday, I’d rather watch it on my 50-inch TV at home – or from a sky box.”

Hearing those comments, Sterba smiled a tired smile. It meant, at least for the first day, that his game plan was working as expected. It also meant something else, he said.

“The hard part has been getting to today,” he said. “This is the easy part now. It’s underway.”