One of two 18-hole layouts at the private Kiawah Island Club (found at separate locations), the River course predates Tom Watson’s Cassique by some five years. It’s a Tom Fazio design that’s situated between Kiawah Island River and Bass Pond where six of the holes play along the water’s edge and the remaining fairways are routed around woodland, lakes and marshes.
In the book The American Private Golf Club Guide, author Daniel Wexler says “there is plenty of interesting golf here [and] the back nine features a particularly strong mid-section led by the 516-yard 13th (a water-bisected double dogleg) before holes run back-and-forth across an open expanse, with both the 14th and 16th affected by stands of live oaks.”
Pick of the holes on the front nine is “Monocle,” the short par four 5th, where a pond lies to the left of the fairway and a couple of flashed bunkers front the green on either side. The back nine ends with “Clock,” a 440-yard par four where the left side of the hole is separated from marshland on the left by a ribbon of waste bunker that runs all along the length of the fairway.
I played the Kiawah Island Club River course on 11/3/2019.
Tom Fazio often gets criticized for “cookie-cutter” designs but I did not find that to be the case at the Kiawah Island Club’s River course. He moved some land and had to create some artificial ponds for several holes, but he did it in a way that feels very natural. The fairways are pretty wide and forgiving probably because the golf course can be influenced by the winds since it is reasonably close to the ocean. Despite the wide fairways, on some holes it is imperative to pick the correct side of the fairway in order to have a much better approach shot into the green.
The green complexes and the greens themselves are unlike anything I have seen on his other “name” golf courses such as Wade Hampton, Mountaintop or Shadow Creek, to name a few. At the River course they are very sloped and much more undulating with the use of mounds and ridges than he typically does. In my opinion, they are about 25%-30% more sloped. While the greens are a primary defense of the golf course, that is not to take away anything from several of the tee shots or the approach shots. As mentioned, many of the holes require a well-placed drive in order to find the best opening to the green. If your game is not sharp, knowing which side of the green to miss based on pin location is imperative.
There are many good holes here, but I think the par 5’s are the best holes on the golf course. The shorter par 5’s seem to play longer than their listed yardage and every one of them has both good fairway bunkering, greenside bunkering, and a treacherous green. They are splendid holes and challenge you.
The par 3’s are pretty and challenging, but they seemed to be too much alike. I think if I play the course a second time I will be able to notice the differences between them a bit more.
I played the blue tees at 6658. The back tees are 7119. One of my playing partners, a member, holed on for eagle on the fourth after his playing partner hit it to four feet. One never knows in golf what might happen.
The first hole is a par 4 of 406/379 and is reasonably simple as a dogleg left with a pond to the left that creeps against the green and behind it. There is a tree and two large bunkers on the right to avoid. On the green there is a large swale left and a smaller one on the right side. One learns on the first hole that choosing the right line for the putt is difficult, but getting the pace correct is perhaps even a bigger challenge.
If you find the rough, the ball will likely sit down so being able to find the green from it requires a well struck shot. I discovered on the first hole that it is more important to make good contact to lift the ball rather than try to smack it to power it out.
The second hole is a dogleg right par 5 at 558/538 with a tree down the right side to avoid on the tee shot for the long hitter or the second shot for the shorter player. The fairway is wide. The second shot needs to be center/right as there is a pond on the left that is not visible due to a slight uphill. There is a large waste area left of the green and a smaller one behind the green. The green has another mound sort of center left and it is very slow up it but a putt will roll out once it is by. Overall the green slopes back to front and then to either side. I took a double bogey here as a result of a poor chip from just off the green and a three putt. I deserved it but after watching my two playing partners struggle to two putt, (one did, one took three), I asked the caddie about this green and he said it is one of the most difficult to judge the pace unless the pin is on the right or back left. It is a well-constructed green and a sign of the very good par 5’s to follow.
The third is a par 3 of 207/189 with water down the right but not in play as there is a large bunker and a few trees between the green and the water. There are trees left of the green as well. The green has a bowl in the middle of it so on the front side it is rounded between the front of the green and the bowl. The back of the green slopes back to front down to the bowl. It is another good green. I discovered on this hole that a putt from just off the green needs to be hit a bit firmer as the grass here will kill the speed. I liked to use my putter from just off the green but on this course a wedge is a much safer option.
The next hole is a 378/369 par 4 with fairway bunkers on either side to this very slight dogleg left. The green has two bunkers in the front with the right side of the green slightly raised. There is a big slope right to left. The first member I played with (they played the white tees of 6246), hit it to six feet and the second member holed out for an eagle. It is a fun hole but certainly the easiest one to this point.
Five is really a beautiful hole as a short par 4 of 343/321. The green sits off to the left behind a pond and bunkers go down the entire left side of the fairway to the green. The green sits up on a hill with another bunker near the top of the hill on the right side. Our pin was back right, one of the more difficult pin positions. A pin location on the upper tier requires a second shot to go just to the left edge of that right bunker due to a slope on the green right to left. If you carry that right bunker you will find a flat portion of the green behind the hole. There is a huge swale in the middle of this green that brings the front half of the green a up to five feet lower than the upper. From the upper center of the green it goes severely right to left which means a ball hit slightly left center will either roll back down the slope of the green or go off the green to the left down a hill leaving a partially blind chip. Big hitters will sometimes drive the green based on wind direction. It is a very clever short par 4 and instantly became my favorite at this point in the round.
There was an 11 feet long alligator sunning itself on this hole.
The sixth is a par 3 of 179/160 with a pond fronting the green but offering a bail out area right. There is a waste area left of the green where one can find another alligator. The green has a spine in it that can send balls back towards the water on the left front. It is a nice hole but I thought there was not as much uniqueness in it.
Seven is a long par 4 along another big pond on the right and measures 482/432. There is a lot of room to the right but I found the second fairway bunker on the left. The green does not have bunkers but it does have another nice horizontal swale in the long and narrow green. It is a good hole but not having as much character as some of the others.
Eight was the one back tee I know I cannot attempt as it about 240 yards to clear the water. Since I was on the blue tee the angle called for me to carry some water but with the angle you could play a shot going left to right. This par five is on the other side of the large pond from the seventh so the water is all down the right side of this 547/505 hole. The water pinches in with a bit of wetlands on the front right of the green which is raised and surrounded by five bunkers. The green has several tiers to it and subtle spines. Balls within a foot of each other will break in opposite directions. While I like the second hole, the first par 5 on the course, this one is even better because of the challenge of the tee shot and the green being even better.
Nine requires another long carry over Shullbred Point, travelling over both water and wetlands with the end of the carry having a long, snake bunker before the start of the fairway. It is a par 4 of 422/408 with another fairway bunker on the left side to catch the long hitters. The green has a bunker complex down the right side with the green having a fall off in the front. It is another green that requires getting the pace correct. This is my third favorite par 4 on the golf course.
Turning to the back nine, you take a cart shuttle to get to the tenth tee, just off a parking lot. The hole is a slight dogleg left with a huge fairway to the right. There is a bunker left to avoid on the tee shot, and then three greenside bunkers. This hole is 445/421 but seemed to play 20 yards longer. As the two index it has another good green with a raised area, swales, mounds, fall offs. It is another good par 4.
The eleventh is a par 4 of 388/369 slightly going to the right. There are two very long bunkers down the right side as well as a large tree. There are three trees right of the fairway. This green was not designed by Tom Fazio but one of his shapers and has a big falloff to the left side. The middle is well protected by a front bunker and the right side has an additional bunker on the front. On most courses, this would be one of the better greens, but on the River course is it “average.”
Twelve is the most beautiful par 3 on the golf course at 202/176 with water fronting the green. The bail out is to the left. There is a bunker center front between the water and green and another bunker on the right. The green has yet another mound to it but on this green it is easy to figure out the required pace. One could stand on this tee and admire the beauty of the hole for a long time.
Thirteen is a par five of 516/498 that has a fairway bunker left to be avoided for the best angle to the green. A pond snakes down the entire left side of the fairway passing in front of the green front and to the right. A long hitter will go for the green in two. The shorter hitter is left with a 150-190 yard layup shot. The green has mounds and ridges both front and back. A two putt from 30 feet is not a guarantee. This hole was also very beautiful.
Fourteen is a longer par 4 of 444/416 and seems to play 25 yards longer in the direction of the Kiawah River. There is a slight hill in the fairway that longer hitters will easily carry and pick up extra yardage. Shorter players are likely to just make the crest of it and be left with a 200 yard second shot. There is a long fairway bunker on the left of this dogleg left. The green sits below you but is raised slightly if you come up short. There is a large bunker to the right. It is a more difficult hole than it looks. I give Mr. Fazio credit here because this hole is somewhat “vanilla” but does offer a good challenge.
Fifteen moves back in the opposite direction as another par 4 of 421/416 with bunkers on both sides. This hole has grasses in bunker on the right that bloom two weeks of every year and we caught their lovely purplish bloom. They do not come into play but seem to frame the hole which is uphill from the tee and then flat to the green. The bunkers continue down the left side to another green with a spine/run off on the front left.
Sixteen is the last par 5 at 529/501 and moves back towards the Kiawah River. The tee shot is uphill and then it is slightly downhill to a green that is raised against higher ground behind it but steep falloffs to the front and right. There is a large tree to avoid on the right side. Much to my amazement, I got through the tree (I was trying to go over it) and ended up in a swale just off the green and got up and down to save par. This is perhaps the wildest green I have ever seen on a Tom Fazio designed course. It is hilly, not just mounded and can go every which way. It is a difficult hole due to the green.
Seventeen is the last par 3 playing right at the Kiawah River with a bunker down the entire left side and three bunkers right of the green of this 213/168 hole that was playing 25 yards longer due to the wind and pin location. After the amazing sixteenth green, this green seems very flat even if it is not.
Eighteen plays beautifully along the river as a dogleg left requiring a carry over water and staying as close to the tree on the left side of the fairway as possible to shorten the hole. The green has a long bunker on the left and one on the right and is raised with a fall off on the front and good slope throughout. It finishes in front of the clubhouse and is a lovely setting. It is a very good finishing hole of 440/411 yards but plays another 10-50 yards longer depending on the wind. This is my favorite par 4 on the golf course.
The River course is a wonderful golf course and anyone playing here will very much enjoy it. The course is “manufactured” to build those ponds and the few “hills” in it, but the routing is so good in moving you in all directions that you will benefit or be hurt by the wind. The green complexes are outstanding particularly the slope of the greens. It is almost as if Mr. Fazio decided he wanted to compete with Bill Coore and Tom Doak on the greens.