Mystery Golf Course Hits Big Screen

Monday, October 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Director Robert Redford needed a golf course of mystery for his mythical adventure, ``The Legend of Bagger Vance.'' There probably wasn't a better choice than the Ocean Course.

The morning fog off the Atlantic eerily clings to the greens. Strong ocean gusts blow putts off line. Alligators skim through the marshes looking for egrets and Titleists.

When the wind is blowing full force on the back nine, it's often impossible to hit the ball far enough left to avoid the swamps on the right.

For nearly 10 years, since the ``War at the Shore'' Ryder Cup that left pros sobbing and vowing never to return, the Ocean Course has mostly kept to itself.

But its legend, like that of the movie's title character, is whispered about by professionals who have survived it and hackers who save up all year to play it for as much as $225 a round.

``Where else do you have a piece of land like this that is right along the Atlantic Ocean where you can play golf?'' asks its architect, Pete Dye. ``How can it not have this mystery?''

Redford and the producers fell in love with the location from the start, said Tommy Cuthbert, director of golf for Kiawah Island. They watched the waves wash up along the dunes that line the course and knew they had found their layout, Krewe Island, which the screenplay says is supposed to be off the Georgia coast.

The story, based on the Steven Pressfield best seller, is of black caddie Bagger Vance, who professes to have the secret of the perfect swing. He advises Rannulph Junah, a white war hero who is matched against golfing greats Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen in a two-round exhibition.

Vance is played by Will Smith and Junah by Oscar winner Matt Damon. The movie is to be released Friday.

The Ocean Course's history is much like the secret of Vance's perfect swing.

Dye was commissioned to create a challenging, breathtaking layout to tantalize the world's best as the Americans tried to recapture the Ryder Cup.

The U.S. victory was hardly a tribute to classic shotmaking. Mark Calcavecchia went 8-over par on the final four holes to tie Colin Montgomerie. Seve Ballesteros won a hole against Wayne Levi with a 3-over 7. The U.S. win came down to Bernhard Langer's missed 5-foot putt.

``People ask if I designed the course like that on purpose,'' Dye said.

Ray Floyd said it was course you should never play with a pencil and a scorecard. And few pros have since.

``It took some time to overcome the fear of the Ryder Cup,'' Cuthbert said. ``Those guys were shellshocked.''

In 1996, the course was host to a Shell World of Golf match between LPGA stars Annika Sorenstam and Dottie Pepper.

A year later, the course held the World Cup of Golf, with two-man teams of some of the world's best pros. Despite having Justin Leonard and Davis Love III, the United States finished six shots behind Irish winners Paul McGinley and Padraig Harrington.

It has been quiet since, except for the excitement of the movie. Cuthbert said Redford and Damon had solid golf swings and enjoyed the layout.

For now, the course gets about 37,000 rounds a year, many by players vacationing on the island. Cuthbert said the course this year began using guides to direct golfers through the checkered fairways and sloping greens.

Kiawah, perfect or perfectly dreadful, still needed cosmetic surgery for the movies. Tom Simpson, who shaped the greens for the original course, helped design a temporary $200,000 closing hole for some decisive night shots.

But everything else, from the blowing sand dues to the spreading oaks, is vintage Ocean Course, which after the movie will fade into the shadows. Cuthbert says he's content with the periodic awakenings.

``We'll try and keep it to about every three to four years,'' he said. ``We expect to get a little more interest after the movie comes out, though.''