Visibility. It’s the central word for a whole range of golf destinations seeking to untether themselves from all the clutter that exists in the golf market today. For golfers that’s a good thing because the supply of golf courses clearly exceeds the demands from players. Locations are busy trying to put their best foot forward in capturing your attention. For golfers that’s a major bonanza and it behooves those looking at various locations to consider spots never on the radar screen previously.
Not many years ago — the game plan was a simple one for developers and aspiring locations. Build a golf course or several together and surround them with upscale housing or in tandem with a resort tied to multiple activities. Those efforts were followed rigorously and often successful — for a time. When The Great Recession of ’07-’09 hit the calculus for golf changed in a big time way. Now, the supply is way out of kilter with the existing demand.
Destinations in the golf industry are facing a more serious and protracted new paradigm. There are fewer players playing — roughly 20-25% lower than ten years ago — and the glut of courses is still impacting what those remaining are forced now to deal with from an operational standpoint.
This past November I traveled to an area I had never been to see what was happening with golf at the center point. The Gulf Coast region — specifically the extreme southernmost area of Alabama — along the Gulf of Mexico and including the far western areas of the Florida panhandle is a spot that doesn’t resonate on a national level. Nonetheless, it’s pushing hard to be noticed. Usually when people hear the expression — “roll tide” — the automatic assumption from many would be the rightful fanfare tied to the much acclaimed University of Alabama football program. That’s true but the Gulf Coast region is also beginning to make it’s own kind of waves with a tide that is indeed rising to prominence.
Many might not be aware but Alabama has been active in the golf community with its brilliant move in creating the Alabama Golf Trail. Started in 1992 and involving a sweeping effort with several courses scattered across the state the Trail has been a lead producer for tourist dollars — particularly outside Alabama. In an unrelated but similar vein — there’s been an ongoing effort to showcase the coastal communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach with golf high on the agenda. The two communities have long been a vacation getaway area for families and the effort has
been — until very recently — concentrated on a drive market via the I-65 corridor. Linking the area to the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys and stretching all the way to cities such as Indianapolis and Chicago and even Canada. Others have been coming from nearby East Texas making the way to the pristine beaches along the Gulf of Mexico.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is not easily accessible via air transportation. You must fly either to nearby Pensacola or Mobile. In all likelihood that necessitates a stopover — likely via Atlanta. From those airports the drive is roughly anywhere from 60-90 minutes via mid-level state roads. For golfers the best time to access the area is either Spring or Fall when temperatures and humidity levels are tolerable. Even winter months can reap good deals as many of the facilities look for customers during the offseason period.
COURSES RATED …
*Kiva Dunes / 18-holes
Gulf Shores, AL
Architect: Jerry Pate
7,092 Yards, Par-72 / 73.9 CR & 132 SL
When Kiva Dunes celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015 a major effort was put forward that few facilities contemplate doing in today’s very competitive golf landscape. The course closed down in July 2015 and did not reopen for several months until early November so that course renovations could be implemented. A number of bunkers were changed to enhance playability and to assist in getting rounds finished in just over four hours.
Smartly, the facility returned to designer Jerry Pate to provide key counsel on the necessary steps. Sometimes when efforts are made to renovate a facility the desire to do one thing can actually do more harm than good. That didn’t happen here. Kiva Dunes possesses a beautiful piece of terrain — free of disturbances. Unfortunately, even with water on both sides of the property you never catch even a glimpse when playing. Just be prepared for the influence of winds that can whip across the property with varying intensity and direction.
One of the more interesting dimensions of Kiva Dunes is the putting surfaces. They are clearly differentiated throughout the round. Some are smaller — some angled to provide a clear best way to approach from the fairway. The contours at the par-3 13th and par-4 16th are great examples of what must be done when a piece of property has such little change of elevation. Kiva Dunes requires top tier shotmaking and the end of the round is where that requirement pushes the meter even higher. The par-4 16th is top caliber hole followed by the par-3 17th — with water lurking left ready to catch the slightest of pulled shots. The closing par-5 is equally well done — a birdie opportunity can be had but never given away cheaply.
Kiva Dunes made the most in closing. Many facilities, in the immediate area, and elsewhere, should consider a re-look at what they provide. Plenty of courses have become tired and in need of a healthy makeover. Course conditions at Kiva Dunes are uniformly good and will likely only improve as the maturation completes itself in ’16. Kiva Dunes is the flagship course in the area — more than your basic resort and very capable in providing an appropriate challenge for all types of players. Few can say that — even fewer deliver. Kiva Dunes does.
*Craft Farms / 36-holes
Gulf Shores, AL
Architect: Arnold Palmer
Cypress Bend – 6,848 Yards / Par-72, 71.8 CR & 122 Slope (front nine opened 1993 – back nine completed 1998)
Cotton Creek – 7,127 Yards / Par-72, 73.7 CR & 128 Slope (1987)
More than anything else — Craft Farms provides a high caliber golf experience tied to smart pricing and focused on customer satisfaction. You get the total connection the minute you arrive on property. Having said that — the facility provides 36-holes of golf from the Arnold Palmer design team which really is a split verdict. The wherewithal to have two 18-hole layouts provides a high degree of elasticity in being able to properly service the full range of golfers and activities. The Cypress Bend Course is the shorter of the two and is geared towards providing a less intense course. There are bunkers and water hazards but the presence is often more cosmetic than strategic save for one or two moments. The terrain is nearly dead flat so there’s little in terms of hole distinction that really spikes inspiration when playing. Cypress Bend is by no means an inferior course — it’s just far from a superior one.
Fortunately, the facility has the benefit in having a big brother layout called Cotton Creek. After a benign opening hole you are quickly introduced with back-to-back holes that are far more rigorous and fail to suffer any foolish plays that might be attempted. There’s a good degree of water that is not simply eye candy but can be quite devilish for those lacking the wherewithal to play quality golf shots. Case in point — holes such as #6 and #7 where water hugs the right side of each hole.
Both nines are relatively equal in terms of hole qualities. The key aspect that makes Cotton Creek memorable is a number of the holes have slight turning points – where shaping a tee shot to get to the most favorable position is called upon time after time. Cotton Creek has width in its fairways but to score effectively you have to get to the most optimum areas in order to have the best angle into the putting surfaces. Bunkering is also artfully done — with real impact as well on a number of holes. Creating quality golf on utterly flat land is no small feat. Cotton Creek, may not be the best course in the area – Kiva Dunes holds that top spot in my mind – but the gap between 1st and 2nd is narrower than Cotton Creek and the 3rd place contenders.
*The Peninsula (27-holes)
Gulf Shores, AL
Architect: Earl Stone
Cypress: 3,606 Yards / Par-36
Marsh: 3,579 Yards / Par-36
Lakes: 3,397 Yards / Par-36
It may behoove The Peninsula to follow a page from the Kiva Dunes playbook. The 27-hole layout is a formulaic layout stuck on dead flat property. As noted architect Tom Doak said in his recently revised Confidential Guide to Golf Courses / Volume 2, “… undulation is the soul of the game,” and frankly The Peninsula provides next to nothing in that regard. When you get flattish fairways with matching putting surfaces the net result in a word is dull. The facility does provides all the customer service amenities and the turf quality is good but from a standpoint of architectural heft there’s little to hang one’s hand upon. There’s nothing bad per se of the three nines but neither is there something that goes beyond the mere basics. The best holes include the par-4 9th on The Lakes, the par-4 1st on the Marsh and the par-4 6th on the Cypress. A concerted makeover could mean a vastly improved golf product because a superior golf product produces instant memorability. That doesn’t mean to say that overly concocted elements need to be created that clearly are out of place. But, at minimum, the putting surfaces need to provide some degree of differentiation which holds accountable approach shots played into them. Creating putting surfaces and enhancing the land areas closest to them would be a big time first step in adding more zip to a course that can gain immeasurably from it.
*Lost Key / 18-holes
Perdido Key, FL
Architect: Arnold Palmer
6,801 Yards / Par-71; 73.9 CR & 145 SL
The story of Lost Key is an amazing one. The course faced major destruction when Hurricane Ivan — a category 3 storm — hit the immediate area in September 2004. The impact was significant as a tidal surge completely covered the golf course and much of the surrounding area. In late 2006 the course reopened after being redesigned by the Arnold Palmer group and the turf changed to Seaside Paspalum for better playability and overall resilience. The layout is done well but there’s one main deficiency — in order to keep play moving management decided to line the fairways with lateral water hazard stakes — even when water is not immediately at issue. The reason? Keep play moving because just off a number of the fairways is thick brush and a few critters that need some serious space. The inclusion of such a technique is a contrivance and clearly not in the spirit of the rules of golf. No doubt pace of play is important because the course would be a likely parking lot if too many stray balls are hit necessitating re-loads from the tees. It might prove useful for at least one side of each fairway to be thinned out so people can miss on one side without encountering twin lateral stakes on so many holes.
The front nine is the more demanding side. A bit longer and more intense so you’ll need to both be accurate with sufficient distance. The back nine is much shorter but the tightness of several of the holes is still present. The ending trio brings you home in fine fashion with a quality mid-length par-3, long dog-leg left par-4 and risk/reward closing par-5. Lost Key provides all the key elements with service and conditioning at the forefront. Playability is central to any golf course — if Lost Key can add this feature without resorting to lining each fairway with lateral hazard stakes then the qualities of the course will clearly be much better for it.
Perdido Bay, FL
Architect: William W. Amick / (R) Bill Bergin
7,052 Yards / Par-72; 74.4 CR & 133 SL
Solid layout that hosted from 1978-1987 the Pensacola Open on the PGA Tour and featured such winners as US Open champions Curtis Strange and Jerry Pate. Course has plenty of water that has to be negotiated and there’s enough strategically based bunkers that force you to come up with solid shotmaking time after time. The main issue with Perdido Bay is that it needs a really good makeover. Having level tees would be a real plus on a number of the holes. On the plus side the holes do move in different directions and you get tested fairly early in the round with the superlative par-4 3rd. Here you have to decide how aggressive you wish to be since fairway bunkers are in play with water lurking just to the right. The same holds true a bit later in the round with the demanding 450-yard par-4 10th. Again, water is strategically placed for the tee shot and approach. Conditioning does not need to be perfect but it must be more than the bare minimum. A bit more attention to the overall details and the designed elements would mean an even more meaningful and memorable golf experience.
*Gulf Shores Golf Club / 18-holes
Gulf Shores, AL
Architects: Carter & Jay Moorish
6,812 Yards / Par-72; 72.6 CR & 123 SL
Gulf Shores is a good golf experience with quality golf holes at times. The par-4 2nd at 443 yards gets your attention quite quickly. The drive is especially tested and the green protected well with water just off to the left. Walk away with a par and you’ve earned some bragging points. The same can be said with the par-3 4th — water again just to the left of the putting surface. Two long par-4’s on the inner half of holes need to be treated with care — the 10th at 442 and the 17th at 465 yards respectively. The grounds are basically flat and the bunkering is good generally to keep you on one’s toes. Rates are very reasonable and turf quality matched the level of the design — not great by any means but more than adequate for a fun time all levels of play.
*Gulf State Park / Refuge Golf Club / 18-holes
Gulf Shores, AL
Architect: Earl Stone
6,563 Yards, Par-72 / 70.7 CR and 118 SL
Refuge Golf Club is owned and operated by the Alabama State Parks system and while the fees to play are extremely reasonable — under $30 to play — the golf course is in need of some serious help to bolster a design in need of some serious attention. Tees, in many areas, were not cut or level. The sand in the bunkers — if one can call it that — is in need of being replaced and a few of the greens had patches of no-grass and some in need of an overhaul. The bones of the design provided by Earl Stone are still present but unless a concerted effort is made the layout will simply fall further and further behind. There are some holes of note — the dog-left par-4 9th at 420 yards is well done with a mega-sized greenside bunker that will capture any approach that is not well hit. The best of the holes comes at the par-4 12th — also a dog-left. Here you need to gauge just how much of the corner do you attempt to cut. The prudent play is get your tee shot to the corner — from there you face a challenging uphill approach to a green that hugs tight to the guarding sand. Refuge provides a modest recreational outlet that can be much better. The overall turf conditions need a concerted game plan with a companion effort to restore and even upgrade the architecture. Until that happens — skip it.
Ratings Guide —
- World Class Golf — Among the elite golfing areas on the planet — go now!
- Outstanding — Few lulls, superior quality – never a dull moment.
- Exceptional — Clear qualities throughout but missing one or two central elements.
- Good – Roughly half and half in terms of quality versus pedestrian golf offerings.
- Fair – Fleeting moments of quality — not worth a special trip.
- Poor — Save your time and money.
OVERALL GOLF ASSESSMENT — Good
For much of the broader American golf market the Gulf Coast area which includes the extreme western panhandle of Florida and the Alabama coastline is an area few have really paid much attention when considering travel options with golf in mind. Unfortunately, the incessant push for players from other locations throughout Florida has meant a steady supply of golfers to the broader Sunshine State. That is unfortunate because the overall offerings in the Alabama Gulf Coast area is worthy of one’s time and dollars.
The issue is really about getting one’s message out beyond the clutter. Far too often many golfers simply congregate at the same locations — many of which are failing to really deliver a golf product of distinction. In fairness, the golf along the Alabama coast and the extreme western areas of the Florida panhandle is moving ahead on a range of fronts and clearly bears watching.
The golf is not uniformly exceptional but it has much more than fleeting moments. To its considerable credit Kiva Dunes leads the way. Ownership is to be saluted in making the key decision to revamp the course in the second half of the ’15 season. The finished product demonstrates the value in thinking long term. The same can be said for Long Key. After enduring Hurricane Ivan it would have been very easy to conclude no future golf of any quality would be doable for the site. Quite the contrary has happened. The Gulf Shores / Orange Beach area is a vacation mecca for families and the golf connection has been one that has come to life as a key add-on to its main purpose. The challenge is getting the golf to an even higher caliber and overall consistency.
The totality of the golf here does not rise to the level of America’s upper echelon locations. That’s not to say it’s pedestrian in what’s provided. For the non-affiliated golfer the area provides a good cross section of golf options beyond the banal level far too many other destination locations are offering and often charging much more for.
The key is following what Kiva Dunes and Lost Key did. There’s plenty of quality non-golf things to do when in the area. The golf side can be even better — but that will take some active ownership at the respective properties to decide what they will individually do. Core golfers are being sought by a plethora of key destinations in America. Is the Gulf Shores / Orange Beach interested in competing at that level? Nothing says it must but then nothing says such golfers will see being there as something that’s more than a day on the sand enjoying the view of the Gulf of Mexico either. Be very interesting to see how the golf product here evolves. The potential is present — but the difference between potential and reality is often a vast divide. A concerted effort could truly bring a total golf offering that slices through the competing clutter and elevates the golf to a status comparable to what the area is doing well on a host of other fronts.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN GOING —
If you wish to stay near to Kiva Dunes, The Peninsula, Gulf Shores Golf Club — be sure to stay at The Beach Club in Gulf Shores.The facility spans over 86 acres at the doorstep of the Gulf of Mexico. The facility features full-service resort amenities. There are four Gulf-front condominium towers and spacious lakeside cottages.Rooms are more than spacious and fully capable in hosting families and large groups. One key thing to keep in mind — The Beach Club is roughly 12 miles to Gulf Shores Parkway (Highway 59). Driving the road during night time can be challenging given the lack of street lights. Be sure to stack up on one’s supplies if staying there. TheBeachClub.SprectrumResorts.com
Should you desire to be somewhat more central to all the key locations — stay at Turquoise Place in Orange Beach. Very easy to spot the twin towers as they share the same color – one is 24 floors high – the other 30. The facility provides three to five-bedroom condos with massive square footage — 2,300 up to 5,600 — and breathtaking views of the Gulf of Mexico. TurquoisePlace.SpectrumResorts.com
WHERE TO EAT WHEN THERE —
Owned Be sure to visit Buffett’s Lulu’s in Gulf Shores. Owned by Lucy Buffett — sister to the famed singer / songwriter brother Jimmy. The vibe is clearly family friendly and sports an authentic realism with southern hospitality at its core. Good range of various food dishes coupled with live music and a real down-to-earth approach when there. No matter the age or appetite level. In addition to the flagship restaurant, the venue includes the Bama Breeze Bar; ; the Sunset Grill for a little taste from the big kitchen; the Fountain of Youth to cool off the kids; the Mountain of Youth, a safe, three-story ropes and climbing apparatus and a new family arcade. A large sand beach area inside the complex complete with pails, shovels and toys galore provides an ideal playtime fix for kids. LuLuBuffett.com
Ta JacTacky Jack’s Orange Beach provides an informal outlet to enjoy good food and company.They have three conveniently located restaurants with others in Gulf Shoresand a third near Fort Morgan. These prime locationsare accessible by both land and sea. They offer menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner, providing you with a range of interesting and delicious options no matter what time you come to dine in our restaurant. Established in 1980 in Orange Beach, it’s one of the area’s oldest and well-knownrestaurants. www.tackyjacks.com.
Fisher’ Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina houses two restaurants under one roof — Upstairs and Dockside — both providing superior food and top tier service. Fisher’s Upstairs is upscale and beautiful yet very comfortable with unique details, such as reclaimed heart pine floors from theGodchaux Sugar Mill mule barn, built in 1892 in Raceland, La. Upstairs is adorned with linen draperies, antique cypress tables, an onyx bar top lit from the bottom and incredible light fixtures. In addition to its breathtaking design and culinary excellence from seafood to steak, Fisher’s Upstairs offers craft cocktails, as well as a carefully curated wine list. Fisher’sDockside is noticeably more casual with an equally thoughtful design. Fisher’s Executive Chef, Bill Briand, spent seven years with Emeril Lagasse and nine with James Beard Award-winner Donald Link. Fisher’s sources ingredients from the best farmers and fishermen in the area to ensure that they are the finest and freshest available. Without question — a visit to Fisher’s is a must item when in the area.www.FishersOBM.com
Click Here for a Q&A with Mark Stillings, Director of Golf, GM at Kiva Dunes Golf & Beach Resort