By Roger Cox, Editor, and Brad Wolverton, Contributing Editor
Fifteen times—that's how often Tennis Resorts Online has ranked the Kiawah Island Golf Resort the world's No. 1 tennis facility. Kiawah has earned the top spot so many times that it has caused tennis directors at some competing resorts to question whether the rankings are rigged.
But make no mistake, they've won fair and square. The tennis program here benefits from a number of world-class features, including:
But the tennis program is but a small part of Kiawah's overall appeal. Part of the allure of this place is that it offers something for everyone. Beachgoers marvel at its 10 miles of pristine white sand coastline. Golfers rave about its five championship courses. Families rise before dawn—trust us, it's worth it—to catch a glimpse of the island's endangered loggerhead turtles, some of which weigh over 300 pounds. And people congregate at low tide every day to watch local dolphins strand feed, a spectacle Netflix captured in its popular nature series, Animal.
The resort occupies virtually all of the 10,000-acre island from which it takes its name. Charles Fraser, famous for his sensitive development of Sea Pines Resort, laid the original plans for Kiawah, which opened in 1976. Roughly half of the island is to remain in its original state, and the variety of vegetation—some native, some planted—is impressive. Much of the development clusters near East Beach, home to an elegant beachfront hotel—a Forbes Travel Guide 5-Star winner called the Sanctuary—and a Forbes 5-Star winning spa, all just steps from a tennis and pickleball complex named for the resort's longtime emeritus tennis director Roy Barth. The island's far eastern end, by contrast, embraces many private houses and the two most famous golf courses, Osprey Point and the Ocean Course. An on-property shuttle makes going from place to place easy, so does an extensive network of bike paths. The resort itself is close enough Charleston to make forays into the historic city easy—driving time is about 45 minutes—yet far enough removed that the island feels like its own destination.
Over four decades after the first condominiums were constructed on Kiawah, the island's glorious 10-mile-long beach remains a nesting ground for thousands of endangered loggerhead turtles and its protected wilderness still provides a home for deer, bobcats, alligators, and more than 200 species of birds. But make no mistake about it: civilization has arrived in a big way. Two resort villages, five golf courses, an expansive racquet club—the former site of the U.S. Claycourt Championships and a Fed Cup tie—a 255-room hotel, and more than 500 resort-managed villas and homes trail through a landscape where once there was only woods and marsh.
As the name suggests, the resort puts great stock in its five golf courses. Each of the 18-hole layouts bears the name of a different architect. Gary Player designed and then redesigned Cougar Point, complete with a stately clubhouse near the resort entrance. Renovations to Tom Fazio's Osprey Point and to Pete Dye's incredible links-style Ocean Course—which has hosted a Ryder Cup and multiple PGA Championships—retained the structure of both courses, while adding elements that improve the experience for golfers. Jack Nicklaus reimagined his Turtle Point Course. The fifth course, Clyde Johnston's Oak Point, is in Kiawah River Estates just outside the entrance to the island.
In spite of its absence from the resort's name, tennis—and, to a growing extent, pickleball—are as enmeshed in this place as any activity. Until recently, there were two racquet clubs. Though only one remains, it has benefited from the more than $200 million that the resort has spent in recent years on facility upgrades and enhancements, with more on the way. As part of those expenditures, the Roy Barth Tennis Center built 10 additional Har-Tru tennis courts, bringing its total to 22 (three of them hard and lined for pickleball; the resort is also building six new dedicated pickleball courts in 2023).
This sprawling complex benefits from its location near The Sanctuary, a world-renowned hotel just a four-minute walk away. Until his retirement in early 2018, former touring pro Roy Barth had been the only tennis director the resort had ever known. Barth handed the reins reigns to his son Jonathan, who himself had been head pro at the resort since 1999. Together they've designed one of the country's foremost tennis programs, one almost perennially ranked No. 1 in our annual reader poll. (Roy, meanwhile, has written a book, Point of Impact, and has a website with on-court tips and videos from his teaching career.
Pro Shop: 843-768-2838
The Roy Barth Tennis Center sits amid a halo of tennis villas four minutes on foot from the beachfront Sanctuary hotel. It has an expansive pro shop and is further distinguished by having one of its hard courts dedicated to a self-feeding ball machine capable of spewing balls at a rate of 1,200 per hour. The courts—19 clay, 3 hard, including 8 pickleball courts—form a semicircle around the weathered wood pro shop, whose decks provide a comfortable place to watch the action. (The resort is considering a proposal to overhaul the pro shop with space for strength training, locker rooms, a snack bar, and more.) Winding paths through pine trees lead to courts variously bordered by palmettos, pampas grass, oleander and flowers. Each pair of courts has access to an awning-covered patio offering shade, benches, and an electric water fountain.
Tennis Staff. Until his retirement in early 2018, former touring pro Roy Barth, one of the founding members of the ATP Tour, had been the only tennis director the resort had ever known. Now his title is Emeritus Tennis Director, a role that allows him to continue to contribute and pass along his considerable teaching expertise. That leaves the management of the tennis operation and Director of Tennis title to his son Jonathan, who has been a integral part of establishing and running the tennis programs.
"Making major changes isn't my goal," Jonathan Barth told me, "but I'm very excited about the efficiencies that will come from having all the programs in one location." That includes the summer Barth-Hawtin Tennis Academy that he helped found.
Tennis Programs. During the busy March-to-October season, the racquet club offers a weekly menu of programs including instructional clinics, two-hour Tournament Tough workouts, drill sessions, adult mixed doubles round robins, parent-child doubles round robins, and private lessons. In addition, the staff helps guests find opponents at the appropriate level, even guaranteeing a match given 48 hours notice. Barth credits the 150-200 resident club members for helping to arrange hits and for welcoming guests to join their standing morning matches.
Activity reaches its zenith in summer when the resort adds a weekly pro doubles exhibition, as well as three-day junior tennis camps, junior tournament tough workouts, and a Tiny Tots program. On selected weekends during every month except July and August, the resort adds a 3-day doubles mini-camp, which consists of 8 hours of instruction covering all aspects of the game, including basic strokes, strategy, angles, visualization, and supervised doubles play. Participants also receive a copy of Barth's instructional manual, "Tips for Better Tennis." Finally, private camps can be arranged to suit the specific needs of a group.
Barth-Hawtin Tennis Academy. This year-round academy focuses on helping prepare junior tennis players for competition in state, sectional, and national level tournaments with an eye to preparing them for college play or even the professional circuit using a combination of match-play drills, supervised play, conditioning, mental toughness/strategy sessions, and technique assessment with video analysis. The academy now offers a full-time residential program as well as day camps that run weekly from Monday through Saturday during the summer.
As part of its push to develop junior talent, Kiawah now hosts 10 to 12 junior tournaments every year, from lower-level to national-level events, including 18-and-under national tournaments over Labor Day weekend. It also plays host to "Racquet War" events for adults, which have attracted hundreds more players to the resort. Tennis director Barth is always looking for more ways to engage and entertain newcomers. "My goal is to fill the club every weekend where it's not turning away my residents," he told us.
Pickleball Programs. Like many resorts, Kiawah has seen explosive growth in pickleball, filling multiple courts at a time at all hours of the day with dozens of people. The loud thwock of the plastic balls can be heard throughout the grounds. And the inclusive, festive environment surrounding the game, pairing people of all ages and different skill levels, make it an appealing sport for the resort. Many families face off in fun-spirited battles, while other guests enjoy competing against—and socializing with—fellow travelers. So far, the pickleball and tennis people seem to get along fine. But Barth knows that, as pickleball has become more popular, and taken up more courts, it could run the risk of alienating tennis players. To serve both populations, the resort is adding more dedicated pickleball courts. The resort has 8 pickleball courts lined on three tennis courts, with plans for 6 new dedicated pickleball courts in 2023 (construction starts in March). So far, the resort has two dedicated pickleball professionals—one full-time and one part-time—but if the sport keeps growing as fast as it has, expect that to change.
Spa & Fitness
Beach. Ranked one of the great resort beaches in the country, this broad ribbon of hard-packed sand extends in a sinuous line for 10 miles along the entire length of Kiawah Island. Although there are hundreds of villas and homes, as well as the hotel, all of this environmentally sensitive development has been pushed back behind a beltway of low dunes blanketed with foliage. No building is taller than five stories and all have earthen tones that blend with the surroundings. More than four decades after the resort opened, the beach remains pristine enough for endangered loggerhead turtles to nest there.
Golf Courses. With five courses, each bearing the signature of a major golf architect, and a golf academy, Kiawah has obviously focused its attention on attracting golfers. That includes staging major golf events like the Ryder Cup in 1991 and the World Cup in 2003. The Senior PGA Championships were held in May 2007 and the PGA Championships were hosted at The Ocean Course in 2012 and 2021. Golf packages, which include the right to make advance reservations for tee times, can be booked by calling 800-654-2924. Greens fees vary seasonally..
The Ocean Course: Regarded as one of the finest golf courses in the world, The Ocean Course, designed by Alice and Pete Dye, excels in design quality, shot values, and sheer beauty. Having hosted the 1991 Ryder Cup, the 2012 PGA Championship, and the 2021 PGA Championship, it has been witness to many famous moments in golf history. The Atlantic Ocean can be seen from every hole on the course, and holes 14 through 18 run directly along the sea. A modern course based inspired by the classic designs of famous links courses in the British Isles, The Ocean Course is walking only. Par: 72. Length: 7,356 yards.
Cougar Point: Renovated in 2017 under the direction of architect Gary Player, Cougar Point is highlighted by a stretch of holes 4 through 6 that follow the Kiawah River, giving then sweeping marsh vistas regarded as some of the most serene on the island. Its natural beauty and exceptional playability make this course a favorite among resort guests. Player designed the course with creative placement of multiple tee boxes on each hole, creating an enjoyable and challenging round for golfers of every level, from beginners to the scratch golfer. Par: 72. Length: 6,875 yards.
Oak Point: Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019, the Clyde Johnston-designed Oak Point offers strategic challenges. Undulating fairways, an open, exposed front 9 and winding, woodland back 9 led Johnston to describe the course as "Scottish-American." Par: 72. Length: 6,701 yards.
Osprey Point: Tom Fazio's popular Osprey Point makes full use of Kiawah Island's maritime forests, lagoons, and saltwater marshes. Its many open and wide fairways and generous greens afford forgiveness even for errant shots. Par: 72. Length: 6,932 yards.
Turtle Point: Featuring three oceanfront holes, this characteristic Jack Nicklaus design comprises narrow fairways, approachable greens, and strategically placed lagoons that place a premium on accuracy and a carefully thought-out approach to each shot. Turtle point is a true shot-maker's course, requiring golfers to use every club in the bag and favors a thoughtful approach over sheer power. Par: 72. Length: 7,062 yards.
Spa & Fitness Center. The third floor of the Sanctuary houses an elegant spa with lavish treatment rooms that perennially earns a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star rating. Guests looking to work out, meanwhile, have a small but well-equipped fitness center and indoor lap pool on the main level of the hotel.
And ... Night Heron Park is a 21-acre playground containing a 25-meter swimming pool with lap lanes, a wading pool, a toddler splash zone with baby bouncers, two open-flume slides, a full length basketball court, a soccer field, playground equipment on a sandy base, a pavilion with a snack bar and new market/café, an excellent nature center, and one of two bike rental outlets (the other at the Cougar Point Golf Clubhouse). Use of the park is complimentary to guests who've booked through Kiawah Island Golf Resort. There are three additional swimming pools, two at the Sanctuary, the other adjacent to the Cougar Point Golf Pro Shop. Nature Program. To better introduce the Kiawah's flora and fauna, local naturalists and historians conduct canoeing, kayaking, walking, and biking tours, including a few outings suitable for preteens.
During the summer and over major holidays, the resort operates its Kamp Kiawah program for children ages 3-7 as well as Camp Xtreme and Adventure Camp for kids ages 8-15. Located at Night Heron Park, these programs provide a half day or full day of supervised activity, dividing children into groups ages 3-4, 5-7, and 8-15. For teens, they offer a specialized set of activities including late-night movies, basketball and volleyball tournaments, dances, and pool parties. That is all supplemented by organized family activities that could include movies, cookouts or ice-cream socials.
Modeled on the Lowcountry's grand seaside mansions, The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort strives to feel more like a tasteful residence than a typical luxury hotel. Of course, most residences don't have 255 guestrooms, every one with a balcony or terrace and views of the mounded sand dunes and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, let alone a spa, fitness center, retail shops, several restaurants, and a couple of swimming pools, including one infinity pool for adults only. Yet for all those amenities, it exudes the individual character and soul-pleasing comfort of a boutique hotel. Moreover, it is only a five-minute walk from the Roy Barth Tennis Center.
The alternative is to book a villa. They range in size from one to four bedrooms. Prices vary according to size and location, with the most expensive fronting the ocean. All have fully equipped kitchens. Windswept, which has elevators and many rooms with sweeping views of the ocean, is one of the more appealing complexes if you want to be near the beach.
The resort's restaurants, cafés, and eateries afford a diverse range of culinary options even as they stay true to Coastal Carolina roots. The newest addition, The Players' Pub at Cougar Point Clubhouse, serves comfort food in a classic American pub setting. Also noteworthy is Jasmine Porch, a Lowcountry bistro located in The Sanctuary, with walls of authentic Charleston brick, oak-plank floors, windows on the ocean, and an outdoor terrace. For a luxurious night out, donâ€™t miss the Ocean Room at The Sanctuary, which features an array of fresh catch options in addition to an impressive lineup of steaks, including a dry-aged Tomahawk ribeye. Cap it off with a visit to Beaches & Cream, a sweet shop featuring locally made ice cream.
If you like the sound of Kiawah, check out:
For something similar but in the mountains rather than on the beach, check out:
Kiawah Island Golf Resort
One Sanctuary Beach Drive
Seasons. Although the resort operates year-round, winters can be cool and activity at the tennis center slows. Spring, summer, and fall are thus the busiest seasons. Average high temperatures range from the low 60s in December and January to the high 80s in July and August.
Travel Instructions. Kiawah Island Golf Resort is 35 miles from Charleston International Airport (CHS). Rental cars and limousine service are available from there to the resort.
General Tourist Information. For general information about Charleston and the surrounding area visit the Charleston Visitor Reception and Transportation Center website.