KIAWAH ISLAND — There are eight players who call or have called South Carolina home and will have their first opportunity to win a major championship in their home state this week.
Of course, because the 94th PGA Championship at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course is the first major ever held in the Palmetto State, no past or current player has ever had the opportunity before.
That makes it a pretty special week for those eight pros.
“Your first major is always special, and to have it in my adopted home state makes it that much more fun,” said William McGirt, a Lumberton, N.C., native who graduated from Wofford in 2001 and resides in Boiling Springs.
McGirt got into the tournament Sunday as an alternate, and is joined by Coastal Carolina alumnus and former Myrtle Beach resident Dustin Johnson, Tommy Gainey of Bishopville, Bill Haas of Greenville, Anderson native Jonathan Byrd, Greenville native Lucas Glover, Bluffton resident Kyle Stanley and Clemson alum Michael Hoey of Northern Ireland. Byrd, Glover and Stanley also played at Clemson.
“It’s great for our state,” said Glover, the 2009 U.S. Open champion. “Double that with [the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage in April in] Hilton Head and it’s a good sporting year for us. I think guys from here are pretty excited.”
While the Palmetto state contingent might receive more vocal support this week from partisan crowds, most don’t have any other form of home course advantage. There isn’t a lot of familiarity with the course.
McGirt and Glover both played the course just one time several years ago and neither remembered anything tangible about a single hole.
Johnson’s younger brother, Austin, and caddie, Bobby Brown, have both played the course a whole lot more than the PGA Tour pro has.
So they have all been learning the course’s characteristics this week, along with the rest of the field.
Johnson certainly isn’t disagreeing with the PGA of America’s decision to play all sand on the course as through the green rather than as hazards, thereby allowing players to ground their clubs in defined bunkers they otherwise wouldn’t be able to this week.
Johnson incurred a two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., for grounding his club in one of the course’s nearly 1,000 sand traps, and the penalty kept him from a playoff for the Wanamaker Trophy.
He didn’t realize he was in a bunker because it had been trampled by spectators and even had spectators in it with him when he hit the shot. The Ocean Course has similar terrain to Whistling Straits, with both defined traps and sand dunes.
“If you look at the past, every tournament they’ve ever had here they’ve always done it that way, and you kind of need to around this place,” Johnson said. “Most of them aren’t manicured with rakes all the time, and there’s a lot of sand here.”
The big time
McGirt, 33, has played countless professional rounds of golf in South Carolina.
But the PGA Championship is just his third tournament in S.C. on the PGA Tour.
McGirt turned pro in 2004 and toiled on mini-tours for several years before reaching the PGA Tour last season.
He’s played events on the Grand Strand Pro Golf Tour, Hooters/National Golf Association Carolina Series, Tarheel/eGolf Tour, Carolinas Pro Golf Tour and Carolina Mountain Tour.
“You name it, I’ve probably played on it,” McGirt said. “All those years of pounding away on the mini-tours and you get out here, then you really start to appreciate it even more. Trust me, I don’t want to go play anywhere else.”
McGirt was an alternate based on top-five finishes in his last two events and learned he was officially in the tournament around 6:30 p.m. Sunday. He played the course and practiced Thursday through Saturday in anticipation of getting in.
He previously played the course just once, in February 1998. How does McGirt, who is 137th on tour in driving distance, assess his chances on the daunting Ocean Course?
“It’s so long, I’m hitting a lot more 3-, 4- and 5-irons than everybody else is, so realistically a top-15 or top-20 is about all I could expect without having just a flat-out awesome week,” McGirt said. “But you never know. I think the wind is going to be the biggest factor this week. … If I get the wind both days I just hope it’s the right direction. I still haven’t figured out which direction I want it blow in, that’s the problem.”
John Daly won the 1991 PGA as an alternate. “Only problem is the difference between me and him: No. 1, I don’t smoke; and No. 2, it’s about 75 to 80 yards between his tee shot and mine. But we’re the same kind of person, we’re kind of just out here enjoying it and having fun.”
McGirt made eight of his first 10 cuts this season with five top-30 finishes, then missed four of his next 11 cuts with two top-30s before tying for fifth in the True South Classic in Mississippi and second in the RBC Canadian Open – his last two events.
Last year, McGirt missed only two cuts in his final 13 events and qualified for two of four FedEx Cup playoff events.
“I don’t know what it is,” McGirt said. “I kind of start out okay, fall asleep for a couple months and come back on when it’s time.”
A day at Kiawah
A dozen junior golfers from the Grand Strand spent most of the day Tuesday at the Ocean Course as guests of the PGA of America.
The juniors ages 9-13 are participants in the local PGA Junior League Golf, and are part of a group of 23 that played in the first-year league at Blackmoor Golf Club and Tradition Club. Meredith Kirk of Murrells Inlet, an LPGA teaching pro at Blackmoor and the league’s Myrtle Beach coordinator, chaperoned the group.
The six-hour experience Tuesday involved catching a ball tossed by Tiger Woods, acquiring autographs, following players on the course, and talking to and taking pictures with 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup Team Captain Davis Love III.
“We couldn’t have asked for anything better than what happened [Tuesday] for these kids,” Kirk said.
Ten of the top Strand players recently finished second at a regional competition at TPC Sugarloaf outside Atlanta, competing in a two-person best ball format against teams from Southeast cities including Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C.
“It’s really a grassroots program that is just going to build momentum with the sponsorship of the PGA,” Kirk said. “I see it going just as far as little league baseball for golf.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.