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Shining Shores: Alabama’s Gulf Coast Surprises

Squeezed between Mobile Bay and the western boundaries of Florida lies a place that remains far too unheralded among golf circles.  With so much attention given to the development of the Robert Trent Jones Trail golf courses in Alabama, many golf travelers have largely ignored the Gulf Shores area.  Simply, there is no reason for it.  There is more than a trail to provide great golf in Alabama – this strip of dazzling beachside land proves it.

The backdrop for the environs is simply startling.  A fifty-kilometre stretch of sugar white sand along the Golf of Mexico is a more than ample backdrop to any activity you can imagine.  “They (the white sand beaches) are just about the prettiest thing you will ever see,” says Kerry Teague of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel.  And that is not just home state bias talking.  Anybody who has been there would probably agree.

Kiva Dunes GC
Kiva Dunes GC

This is a resort area, and it long has been.  Visitors have been flocking to the townships of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for decades.  Easily accessible by car, place, and even water, the region is growing in popularity as people realize the value it offers over Florida locales with a similar setting.

What is extremely inviting about the tract is the fact that everyone is here to relax and people recognize it.  As up and coming as their resorts are, there is little pretence.  If you prefer stuffy service and having to hand out tip money around every corner I am afraid you will just have to look elsewhere.

If genuine conversation and the feeling of being welcome is more your speed, then keep reading.

For those not prone to spending all day on the beach you can go fishing, tour historical sites, or take a hike through a state park.  For those that prefer to golf…well, let’s just say the layouts here will keep you intrigued and occupied.

The bonus that all of this (including the golf courses) is located in a place where you will not need to travel more than an hour each day (and often much less) from your accommodations to enjoy attractions.

Let’s Get Started

Where to start is the biggest question when you consider golf on the Gulf Shore.  Whether you choose one of the many packages offered by affiliated hotels and resorts or simply book your tee times independently, there are a lot of choices to be made.

If you want to treat yourself near the end your trip (but in no way starting with the weakest courses) I would suggest that you defer playing Kiva Dunes to one of your last days.  As the course that is often rated as the best in the state, what better way to put an exclamation point on your journey than with an indelible round?

As an opener I might suggest the Craft Farms Coastal Golf Resort and their two layouts, Cotton Creek and Cypress Bend.  Located just 5 kilometres north of the beach, you can stay onsite at the Courtyard by Marriott and golf until your heart is content.

The first thing you notice about Cotton Creek and Cypress Bend, if you are an experienced southern golf traveller, is that the course is a bright emerald hue from tee to green all year long.  Overseeding eliminates the high contrast, partly dormant, look you see during the winter and spring at many southern courses.

Cotton Creek, although lengthy at 7079 yards, has a design emphasis on getting you to execute shots rather than to severely punish you on every one you play.  There are opportunities to score without the layout being wide open and shapeless.  The large greens provide commodious targets for higher handicap players while creating a number of “interesting” pin placements that can frustrate a better player.  Hit the ball near the flag or expect to bring a three putt into play.

Cotton Creek is the more challenging of the Craft Farms’ courses, just the way its designer, Arnold Palmer, would have wanted it.  His second design, Cypress Bend, uses wider fairways to keep more golf balls in play.  If you do happen to hit a ball into one of one of the grand fairway or greenside bunkers you will have earned your place there.

Another multiple course facility awaits your attention at the Glenlakes Golf Club – located within minutes of Craft Farms.  While not as well known among some golfing circles, Bruce Devlin and Robert Von Hagge have designed some sumptuous golf courses around the word and this facility is no slouch.  The Vista and Dunes nines make up their championship course while the Lakes can be played as a standalone nine.

Each nine does vary in design somewhat but the Vista and Dunes courses are very complementary to each other.  Wide expanses on some holes give a links land feel and the considerable use of bunkering only furthers that impression.

The Lakes is a little less remarkable, offering up target style golf as water comes into play on six of the nine holes.  Spacious fairways help keep your golf balls from drowning.

Pushing much closer to the Florida border, Soldiers Creek Golf Club opened at the Woerner Preserve in 2001, making it the youngest of the Gulf Coast courses.  The Woerner family owns and operates this course and as much as it is a family operation, you can expect all the quality of a top private facility.  The Woerners are well known for their Turf Grass business that supplies fields and golf courses throughout the world (including Augusta National).  The family is heavily involved in all aspects of the course from marketing to day-to-day management, ensuring a high level of personal service.

On their property they were careful to blend a golf course with the indigenous setting, routing holes between forests and wetlands rather than trying to run through them.  They did this for an enviable 7001 yards.

As you would expect turf conditions are always good and the use of Tif-Eagle grass on the greens ensures they are lush and smooth.  Management says they like to keep the putting surfaces fast so you are best to visit the 10,000 square foot practice green before you hit the first hole to adjust to the pace.

The golf course is the first phase of the Woerner Preserve Resort, a facility that will eventually include an upscale Recreational Vehicle Park and condominiums.

Lost Key Golf Club
Lost Key Golf Club

While you are languishing near the Florida border why not slip across and play a round at the Lost Key Golf Club?  Although it may reside in another state, it is heavily associated with the nearby Alabama courses.

For those of you that have never visited a Florida barrier island, there cannot be a better way to do it than on a golf course.  This is exactly what Lost Key Golf Club provides.

The club reopened for business last March after the addition of an impressive new 9,000 square foot clubhouse.  Fortunately the setting, so much a part of the flavour here, did not change much with the redesign by the Arnold Palmer design team.

As part of the change Sea Dwarf Paspalum grass now covers the fairways, a hearty strain of grass more resistant to the salt from the nearby Gulf of Mexico.  The result is also a playing surface that can be mown shorter without fear of killing it, making for optimal ball striking conditions.  The now deeper rough also helps to keep balls from rolling too quickly into the marshes that adjoin several fairways (don’t we all love ways to save strokes).

Lost Key is a thinking golfers course – one where you must execute a shot each time to get the best results.  If you want to play a course where you can just bash away with a driver find somewhere else to play.  You’ll use your yardage book a lot and the GPS on each cart is not just there for show!  Even if you hit some bad shots you should leave with an appreciation and respect for the course.  It would be hard not to with a number of very distinctive holes.  Watch out for the par 5, 12th hole – it can be a bruiser that gets your round “off the rails”.

Working your way up Mobile Bay (remember we are leaving a couple “special” spots for last) you will reach the courses furthest from the beach but still easy accessible with a relatively abbreviated drive.

A couple “creeks”, Rock Creek and Timbercreek Golf Clubs are located very close Interstate 10, making them painless to find.

Timbercreek is the most “northern” of the duo, still just 40 kilometres from Gulf Shores, if you happen to (and I would suggest it) use that as the base for your visit.  Carved from a dense forest of pines, dogwoods, and magnolias by designer Earl Stone, the 27 holes at Timber Creek are a delight to play.

The location away from the beach results in a property with much more elevation change than the others you will find in the area, save one.  In fact, it gives the course a feel of being located in a whole different place.

Although this club has members they are very “public friendly” and it is reflected in the staff who address you just as if you were paying yearly dues, all well knowing you might just be there for the day.

Earl Stone also worked his magic at Rock Creek Golf Club, which joins Timbercreek as also being remarkable for very undulating and flowing property.  It has some of the county’s highest elevation points that allow unrestricted views of surrounding wetlands and forests.

Not only is the golf course at Rock Creek worth a visit (and even a picture of two) anybody will appreciate the chilled apples offered to you on the opening hole of each nine along with ice cold wet towels.  When the temperature climbs and the humidity joins it at uncomfortable levels, you can’t even imagine how good those towels feel around your neck.

At almost 7000 yards it can be brutal from the back tees but there is a fun mix of holes at Rock Creek.  This par three 16th hole is a bruiser with a very undulating green and a forced carry over a marsh from the tee.  It is a tester but you may have a stroke to give after playing the previous hole, a mid-length par four that provides a decent late round birdie opportunity.

The par three holes are very strong at Rock Creek if you play from the back tees so choose your tee deck wisely.  If you have problems carrying the ball a long way don’t be afraid to move up.  There is a lot to enjoy here as far as scenery goes but you want to make sure you are looking at it, not playing from it!

The Gulf Shoes Earl Stone designed trio comes to a close as you move back to the Gulf and the Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club.  As I mentioned, it is always nice to end a trip with “special” locations and this club is just that.  Found on the 820-acre Bon Secour Wildlife Preserve, you are assured of setting unlike any you have played golf on before.

This reserve is home to a montage of wildlife habitat ranging from migrating to birds to nesting sea turtles, all providing a backdrop to 27 holes of golf.  The entire area of the reserve actually covers more than 7,000 acres.

Like Rock Creek you will find chilled apples and cool towels but you will also discover golf holes that combine to form one of the most noteworthy layouts in the entire southeast.

Here you will not be lulled into a coma by holes that simply mimic the previous one.  Varied lengths, doglegs, green shapes, and bunkering features make each hole an idiosyncratic test.

Just as attractive as the Peninsula Club is, just down the road is the jewel of the Gulf Shores, Kiva Dunes Resort.  Fashioned on property that lies directly on the Gulf of Mexico, this location gives it undeniable appeal as well as a natural advantage over competing courses.

Now just over a decade old, Kiva Dunes has been identified by many polls as the best golf course in Alabama.

So why would a course garner such attention?  Maybe more for what it isn’t that what it is.

Rather than being another golf course clearly identifiable by obviously manmade forms, Kiva was built by former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate to NOT stand out.  In fact, his whole effort was to author a course that fit seamlessly with the land – in this case a landscape strewn with sand dunes and gnarly, low vegetation.

Pate did an admirable job is finding a course on this land, using the terrain to identify where holes should play.

If you have the time, play Kiva Dunes a second time or more.  With changing winds and conditions each round sets itself apart as a singular test.

With crisp visions of Kiva Dunes in your mind it makes it much easier to return to home and the real world when your trip is over.

The Gulf Shores of Alabama should not be underestimated for what it can offer to visitors.

So the next time your friends start talking about an Alabama Golf trip, make sure you suggest the Gulf Shores Region.  Sure a certain trail is pretty spectacular but if you just want to put up your feet each night instead of making a drive to another destination the Gulf Shores may be a better choice.

With so much to offer in close proximity, whether you are making a trip with your foursome or the family, you would be wise to check out this piece of paradise skirting the Gulf of Mexico.