PGA Championship’s 30,000 Face Two-Lane Access at Kiawah Island

Starting tomorrow, about 30,000 people a day will jam themselves onto 13-square-mile Kiawah Island and squeeze down a two-lane road to watch the world’s best golfers compete in the final major tournament of the year.

The PGA Championship will be the first Grand Slam golf tournament at the Pete Dye-built Ocean Course on the South Carolina barrier island and the biggest competition there since the 1991 Ryder Cup between teams from the U.S. and Europe.

“I don’t know how the spectators are going to get around this place,” Tiger Woods, a four-time PGA Championship winner who played a practice round at the course a week ago, said in a press conference. “First of all, I don’t know how they’re going to get to it.”

The island is about 20 miles east of Charleston, South Carolina, and has about 1,700 full-time residents, according to the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau. A two-lane road provides the only access to the course, at the island’s easternmost point. This week, only those staying on the island will be able to use cars on the local roads. All other spectators, officials and media will be transported by bus, at all times.

Once spectators arrive, they will be forced to navigate the sandy terrain of oceanside dunes. At its widest point, the course, which snakes along the coastline in a traditional links design, is about 500 yards from edge to edge. Rather than following specific players from hole-to-hole, most ticket holders will try to find a comfortable spot and spend the day there, said Brett Sterba, the PGA Championship tournament director.

Stay on Island

Woods and last year’s champion, American Keegan Bradley, won’t have to worry. The PGA of America, which stages the event, has arranged for all players to stay at homes on the island to help them avoid missing a tee time due to traffic.

To accommodate about 10,000 cars coming to the event each day, workers have spent three years preparing and mowing a 130-acre tomato field about a half-mile off of the island. About 2,000 cars per hour will enter the lot, Sterba said. From there, spectators will ride buses for about 10 miles along a two-lane road to reach the course.

“We have known from the beginning that it was a challenge,” Roger Warren, president of Kiawah Island Resort and a former PGA of America president, said in a press conference last month. “We have gone through a lot of planning, and I think we have a great plan and we’ll execute it. We want the story of this event to be the great play of the players and nothing else.”

Ocean Course

The Ocean Course, ranked by Golf Digest magazine as “America’s Toughest Course,” also hosted the 2007 Senior PGA Championship, during which many of this year’s tournament logistics were first tested. There were only about 10,000 fans at that tournament, one third what is predicted for this week’s event. The resort’s remoteness has kept it from being a regular stop for major U.S. PGA Tour events.

Because of restricted access to the course, all scenarios were taken into consideration, Sterba said.

“What if there were to be a tree that fell down?” Sterba, 33, said during an interview three weeks ago at the Ocean Course. “What if there was an accident? How do you respond? We’ve taken into account everything that could potentially go wrong.”

All police patrolling the area will have jumper cables and spare fuel in their cars to help get stalled vehicles moving, Sterba said. Three tow-truck companies are on call. Trash and recycling pick-up schedules have been changed and bus drivers for local schools, who would normally be practicing their routes for the upcoming start of class, will rehearse at another time.

Good Example?

If all goes according to plan, the event will be reviewed for its successful logistics. Or it could be used as an example of what can go wrong, Sterba said.

“This could be a good case study for any golf event coming to a smaller market,” he said. “A lot of people doubt that this site can perform as well as at a major city. There are a lot of challenges.”

When David White traveled from England to attend the 1991 Ryder Cup matches at the Ocean Course, he used his English accent and an embroidered blazer from his home club to convince organizers he was an official with the European team.

“We just drove up to the club and said ‘European,”’ said White, 65, whose plan was aided by the use of a “resident” parking pass he obtained while staying at a friend’s house on the island. “It was really, really easy. It worked every day.”

White, who lives in Kent, parked his rented black sport-utility-vehicle packed with friends a short walk from the first tee.

“That’s a great story,” Sterba said. “But a lot has changed since 1991.”

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