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Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course: Born of both opportunity and disaster

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Kiawah Island's Ocean Course on Friday afternoon. (Getty Images)

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- The gator floated silently, only its eyes and snout visible as it watched Tiger Woods and others on Friday afternoon at the 17th green at Kiawah's Ocean Course. It didn't move as Woods sank a long putt, didn't move as cheers rolled across the small pond from the nearly full grandstands, didn't move as Woods and his procession walked onward to the next tee.

And why should it? All these golfers and fans would be gone soon enough. The gator, like nature itself, could be very patient if it needed to be.

In a sport that prides itself on century-plus tradition, Kiawah Island is a relative puppy, only dating back to 1991. Built to accommodate the 1991 Ryder Cup, it's a visual reminder of one of the costliest and most damaging natural disasters in American history. Designed by Pete Dye, the Ocean Course was only three months into its development when Hurricane Hugo blasted the South Carolina coast down to sand in September 1989.

The hurricane inflicted $4 billion -- nearly $8 billion in 2012 dollars -- in damage to South Carolina, so the troubles of one golf course on a high-end resort island were, granted, fairly low on the list of concerns for the state. But the course provided a needed focal point for many in the area in the days after the storm.

"When the hurricane hit, several people in the Ocean Course work crew were stranded on the island and remained there until access roads were cleared," the New York Times noted earlier this week. "The day after Hugo headed inland, Dye rented a barge in a nearby town to take him to Kiawah. He started up the bulldozers."

Dye also designed the famed Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, site of The Players Championship, back in 1981, a time when environmental regulations allowed wholesale reworking of entire wetlands landscapes. He hadn't been able to push similar sweeping changes past regulators in South Carolina, but Hugo ended up doing much of the work for him, ripping up trees and reshaping the entire course's routing.

Plus, Hugo opened the door to one of the course's more notable, and diabolical, elements: the way that the back nine sits 6-feet higher than the surrounding landscape so that you can see the ocean when you're playing it. This was at the suggestion of Dye's wife Alice, who told Dye she didn't want to just hear the ocean, she wanted to see it, too. Now, yes, you can see the ocean ... but, unprotected by dunes, you can also feel the wind whipping in every direction. (For a more comprehensive look at the construction of Kiawah, read Curt Sampson's new book "The War By The Shore," about the 1991 Ryder Cup.)

Dye completed the course in time for the 1991 Ryder Cup, and it's gone on to host several notable events. This year's PGA Championship marks its first major (and, possibly, last, thanks to infrastructure challenges around the course. But that's a story for another day). Few visual reminders of the hurricane still exist; trees, vegetation and wildlife have returned in force to Kiawah Island.

Which brings us back to the gator. They're ever-present here, sometimes in action and sometimes just an unseen threat. Already this week, one has been spotted taking down a snake, and another apparently devoured a CBS tee microphone on Saturday morning. Signs dot every body of water, with warnings ranging from cautionary ("There may be alligators here") to definitive ("WARNING GATORS"). Like the rest of the natural world, like the memory of Hugo itself, they're a reminder that we can all enjoy our time here, but we can never assume we'll be running the show forever.

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