The Kiawah Island Club should not be confused with Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Kiawah Island Club is an exclusive private members club for Kiawah Island property owners, so you’ll need to befriend one or perhaps buy a property here as part of the deal!
The Kiawah Island Club boasts two courses with the clubhouses separated in distance by a couple of miles – the River course designed by Tom Fazio, and the Cassique course. The Cassique was the first North American architectural ensemble of five-time British Open champion Tom Watson and it’s actually an impressive debut design.
Named after the Kiawah Indian chief who once hunted this land, the Cassique course opened for play in 2000 and it’s thoughtfully routed through maritime forests and along the salt marshes where the Kiawah River meets the mighty Atlantic.
Watson has fashioned an intriguing course and the Cassique has many links-like attributes, not least because it’s a course to walk rather than ride. Some holes will provide a reminder of links golf while others will tempt you into thinking you’re playing on a heathland track somewhere to the west of London.
A bunker renovation program was completed on the course at the end of 2018, using synthetic revetted faces from Durabunker with the Better Billy Bunker liner. The new sand hazards are now a mix of classic Golden Age-style bunkers and revetted, links-style traps, like the two on the 6th hole that closely resemble the “Spectacles” on Carnoustie’s 14th hole.
Now, do you fancy buying a slice of that Kiawah Island Club real estate?
With so many wonderful golf architecture books, blogs, and other resources available with the click of a button, it is rare for me to arrive at a course without having done any prior research. In fact, today, online media determines where I am most likely going to play next.
For that reason, my round at the Kiawah Island Club’s Cassique course was a truly uncommon delight in my golf journey. While driving to Charleston for work, I received an impromptu invitation to play as a guest at Cassique. With a tight afternoon schedule, I was a bit hesitant to re-route my GPS all the way to Kiawah with no background whatsoever. Fortunately for me, my playing partner insisted and reaffirmed the special nature of the routing.
Passing through the entryway, one immediately knows that the Kiawah Island Club is an extraordinary place. The driveway is charming and provides some peek at the natural landscape and golf course. The staff were beyond welcoming, and the locker room was absolutely luxurious. After warming up on the driving range, my playing partner, caddy, and I were off.
As mentioned in other reviews, the front and back nines could not be different. The front nine, particularly on the first six holes, has almost no trees and is a manmade faux-links. The back feels more prototypical Lowcountry (think Hilton Head). The very unique style of the front left a significantly stronger impression on my mind than the back. Despite this, the course was loaded with standout holes, including:
• #1: The 1st provides a preview of front nine challenges to come. The tee shot is visually intimidating with pot bunkers peppered throughout the landing zone. These are true “fairway” bunkers, surrounded by short grass. The left hand side of the fairway provides a slightly better angle to this diagonal green which features a charming chipping area long left.
• #2: The 2nd is a thought provoking par five. If played as a three shotter, there is a wide landing area off the tee with a metal, and lots of room short of the green. Should one want to play aggressively, they must contend with a pond left and bunkers right off the tee, in addition to a tiny creek immediately short of the green. That creek may also complicate a more conservative player, too, sucking in the dreaded ‘flubbed’ wedge shot. Between the manmade mounds, ponds, and line of trees, you would never realize this is the closest hole to the entry road. Cassique does a wonderful job of taking one away from the stresses of everyday life.
• #3: The large dune on the right hand side of the 3rd is intimidating. From the tee, it would appear the best shot is a wrapping left-to-right fade around this mound, when in fact, the left hand side of the fairway provides a far more preferable angle.
• #4/5: There are three possible routings of the 4th and 5th holes using a few tee boxes and green options. During my round, the very short par three 5th ended up being my favorite hole on the entire property. While it was refreshing to have a sand wedge in hand off the tee, the wild swales in the green complex and its surrounds were daunting. My shot, which struck about five feet from the hole initially rode one of this fierce tiers and ended up 10 yards short of the green.
• #6: The par five 6th is visually intimidating from the tee with bunkers scattered throughout the landscape. The long bunker running on the left hand side of the hole into the tidal marsh is so naturally attractive. Seeing small crabs running around while playing golf gave me further appreciation for the way in which this manmade design surprisingly works so well with its ecosystem.
• #8: With the first six holes providing seemingly endless width, the 8th took me by surprise. Off the tee, players must take off as much as they can choose over the Kiawah River to this fairway. However, the actual playing area is an especially small island. Blasting a shot safely out to the right, as I did, was not actually that safe. Landing in thick fescue rough, I had absolutely no opportunity of hitting this tiny green even though it was a mere 75 yards away. Architecturally, despite its reduced scale, this hole was among the most provocative.
• #11: This par five provides challenge from start to finish. From the tees, players must either try to blast their shot over tall trees (and, a massive, blind bunker) or take their medicine and play straight. Even the more conservative path is not straightforward as one must play deep enough into the landing area without going into the woods. The hole location will determine the best angle of approach on the layup – if one needs to play to the left, they must avoid a cross bunker, and if one needs to play right, they must avoid thick woods. Going for the green in two is also an option, but an alligator filled pond awaits any shots which go long.
• #15: Emerging out into the marsh again, the views at the 15th are magnificent. With salt air blowing in various directions, the tee shot must avoid a peppering of pot bunkers. Personally, I found that pocket of bunkers to be a bit overwhelming and somewhat random, rather than strategic, given the quantity. Centerline bunkers complicate the approach shot, also. The best angle of attack into this sharply diagonal green is from the far left hand side of the hole which, consequently, also happens to be the safest play away from the hazard.
With so much width, especially on the front, strategy abounds at the Cassique course. While I can understand how the faux-links-style holes might be a turnoff for purists, I found them to be refreshing in context. Perhaps that is why I found some of the back nine holes to be somewhat forgettable. It is too bad they were not constructed with a similar flavor.
I found rating Cassique to be very difficult. While the front is easily a 5 on this scale, the back is no better than a 3.5 or 4. Regardless, if one day you receive the same phone call I did, take the invitation immediately and see this amazing golf property yourself!
Cassique is actually the first Tom Watson designed course I’ve ever played. I’m told that most of the holes were modeled after or influence by holes that Mr. Watson likes from the UK though I had a hard time personally drawing comparisons. This course is of course built in the flat country swamp land here so all the features were man made and literally million of cubic tons of dirt was moved and shaped to create this course. Nothing wrong with that of course if budgets allow. They utilized all the dirt to make some very dramatic features and a fair bit of what I’d call containment mounding to frame holes at least on the front 9. The course receives a major plus for me for being a very easily walkable routing, greens and tees relatively close to each other. I enjoyed the holes even though as mentioned the shaping is dramatic and looks anything but natural to my eye.
The front 9 has an interesting feature revolving around the 4th and 5th holes as there are basically two completely different routings. You can play either a par 4 to an elevated green to the right or a par 4 along the course boundary to the left. When the course is set up to play the option to the right the following hole is a great drop shot par 3 to a heavily bunkered green. Play the left option and the following par 3 plays to the same elevated green as the par 4 from the right option only comes at it from a totally different angle which results in the tee shot coming in to a long narrow green that drops off severely to the right and in front.
This variation also greatly changes the par 4 8th as you either tee off from an elevated tee to the right or from a tee transforming the hole into a severe dogleg from the left that is much lower. I have to admit that I think this is creative but from a maintenance perspective only serves to run up member costs. I also even though I didn’t play the hole to the left would say I much prefer the set up we played on the day. My host pointed everything out and explained the set up thoroughly. He also preferred the set-up we played.
The back 9 starts in the forest but then transitions for the last few holes into a typical South Carolina course with lovely open vistas of alligator infested land. Cassique is an excellent members club and a fun course to play. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area and are invited by a member.