August 22, 2017
|Golf the Alabama Gulf Coast:
Mix two parts sugar-white sand with one part crystal blue water, stir in nine lovely golf courses, and you have one sweet vacation.
|Peninsula Golf Club|
Larry BerleWhen I first heard I was going to the Gulf Coast of Alabama, my friends said, "You are headed for the Redneck Riviera." But perception and reality turned out to be quite different. This is a beautiful place to visit with great golf, fine food and beautiful beaches. Hurricane Katrina missed this part of the Gulf, and the effects of last year's oil spill are minimal. It's a beautiful vacation spot that draws southerners escaping the heat of summer and snowbirds escaping the cold of winter.
Fly to Pensacola or Mobile for easy access to the Gulf Coast of Alabama, which is halfway between these two communities. The accommodations are plentiful, ranging from RV and camping grounds all the way up to beach houses and luxurious condos. We stayed in the Turquoise Place condos, 24 stories of luxurious three, four and five bedroom residences, perched right on the beach with sweeping gulf views and all the upscale amenities you would expect, including hot tubs and outdoor kitchens on the balconies.
There are plenty of things to see and do on the Alabama Gulf coast besides golf and hanging out on the stunning white sand beaches. The Blue Angels, the Navy acrobatic flying team, is based in Pensacola and you might see them practicing Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. You can visit the Battleship Alabama. This is a bird lover's paradise, and there are bird watching trails that help you appreciate the large diversity of native and migratory species. It is the last stop for migratory birds heading across the Gulf of Mexico. As you might imagine, you can do some great deep sea fishing here. Or you can do what I did - play lots and lots of golf on some wonderful courses.
Gulf Shores Golf Club
Our golfing adventure started at the Gulf Shores Golf Club (formerly known as The Golf Club of the Wharf). It was built in the 1960s and was the first golf course in the Gulf Shores area. In 2005 it underwent a substantial renovation by Jay Morrish and his son, Carter. Jay Morrish is best known for designing some great courses in partnership with Tom Weiskopf. The renovated Gulf Shores course offers options for all skill levels. You can tackle this par 71 layout 6,900 yards from the tips all the way down to 4,866 yards. The renovation added water features, new bunkers and wider fairways. People who remember this course before the renovation say "You would never recognize it."
There are 5 par threes, a feature I like because the par threes and par fives are usually the most interesting holes on a golf course. Pine trees frame the generous fairways, the greens are large and fast, and many are open in the front, meaning you can run the ball up. Gotta love it when one of those, uh, thin shots we're all prone to ends up the green. The grass is a new strain of Bermuda called Mini Verde, with reduced grain that makes it similar to Bent. There are some homes on the course, but in most cases they are set well back and are not intrusive. There is water on a majority of the holes, but in many cases it's not actually in play.
This place is fun and all levels of golfers should enjoy it. There is GPS on the carts so you always have a visual of the holes and the distances you're facing.
Peninsula Golf Club and Kiva Dunes
These are probably the best, and most expensive, golf courses in the Gulf Shores region. They both are wonderful.
Peninsula Golf Club sits on 820 acres and is adjacent on two sides to the Bon Secour Wildlife Preserve. Peninsula Golf Club was designed by Earl Stone, of whom I had never heard, but he clearly knows how to design a golf course. The Peninsula course sports plenty of streams and ponds, with holes framed by cypress trees, pine trees and natural vegetation. It's like being in a bird sanctuary. The hundreds of birds singing were music to my ears. As I walked a golf course years ago at dawn someone said to me that the singing birds were "the sound of a golf course waking up." That statement has stuck with me. My awareness of the sounds of nature on a golf course has increased since then and makes the game even more enjoyable.
The course was in excellent condition with fast greens, the day we were there they were running almost 11 on the stimpmeter. The greens are large (one is almost 50 yards deep) which makes for plenty of pin placements. To put that in perspective, 50 yards is pushing the limit of many NFL field goal kickers. There could easily be a three or four club difference between back and front pins. Walking is allowed here, but it would be a challenge because of lots of elevation changes and some long hikes between greens and tees.
Kiva Dunes is a Jerry Pate design built in 1995, and a spectacular one at that. It sits very close to the Gulf shore. You are never close enough to see the water, but you can feel the wind and smell the salt air. There are 4 sets of tees ranging from 5,006 to 7,092 yards. It meanders through the dunes with plenty of streams, lakes and ponds. Watch out for gators. Most of the entire course plays east or west. There are some doglegs, but hardly anything runs north and south, so you are usually hitting downwind or into the wind, and there is plenty of breeze here most days. We played with the director of Golf, Rea Schuessler, and he shot 64. What a display - it's not that easy!
Rock Creek Golf Club is another Earl Stone design and is owned by the same company as the Peninsula. Houses line the fairways of this course. There are many elevation changes and many doglegs, but with generous landing areas and beautifully contoured greens. I was surprised to see the incredible elevation changes in this part of the state that make this golf course so interesting.
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
The now famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is the brainchild of Dr. David Bronner, who grew up in Minnesota, went to the University of Alabama, and never returned to Minnesota. He is CEO of Retirement Systems of Alabama, the pension fund for teachers and state employees, and in the early 1990s he decided to invest $150 million of the pension fund's money in what became the RTJ Golf Trail. Bronner's vision was to build several 54-hole golf stops immediately and simultaneously. He wrote letters to five leading golf architects, most of whom were skeptical about his ability to pull off such a grandiose project. Robert Trent Jones was the only one who took him seriously, came for an interview, and got the job. Needless to say, Dr. Bronner was able to pull it off. The Trail now has 11 locations and 26 courses - 468 holes of fabulous and affordable golf. Green fees range from $45 to $64, plus cart fees.
When Dr. Bronner couldn't attract a major luxury hotel chain to the Trail, he built the hotels himself. It has been quite a profitable investment, but perhaps more important, it has boosted the image of Alabama as a tourist destination and as a business location. At least three car manufacturers have opened plants in the state since the Trail opened. Hailed by the New York Times as "some of the best public golf on earth," the RTJ Golf Trail celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2012.
Magnolia Grove is the most southern location on the RTJ golf trail, located just outside of Mobile. There's an 18-hole par three course plus two full-length courses: The Falls and The Crossings. Both make the list of America's Top 50 Affordable Courses. Both courses feature quite generous fairways framed by towering pines, sprawling live oaks (some over 200 years old), dogwoods, and, of course, magnolias. Magnolia Grove is somewhat reminiscent of Augusta National because of its elevation changes, the tall pines with pine straw below, and the same beautiful white sand you are accustomed to seeing on TV. Stepping into one of those sand traps in bright sunlight without sunglasses can be almost blinding. The greens are firm and quick.
The Falls course is named for the waterfall that tumbles across the fairway in front of the tenth green. If you are out to play nine holes, this is not the course, because number nine does not return to the clubhouse. The only par 71 on the trail, the Falls winds its way through creeks, marshland and lakes. Some of the waste areas have been spread with crushed oyster shell waste, which gives an intriguing and unique look.
The Crossings course hosts an annual LPGA event. It has plenty of pulpit and cloverleaf bunkers to test your skills. They have been renovating the Crossings by softening the contours of the greens and clearing some of the brush under the trees along the fairways (makes it much easier to find balls that run through the rough). Number 14, formerly a long uphill par three, now features a shorter downhill shot over water. The new hole is so beautiful that I would consider it a signature hole.
Lakewood Golf Club, at The Marriott Grand Resort in Point Clear, Alabama, is also part of the RTJ Trail. There are two 18-hole championship courses here, Azalea and Dogwood
With tee choices ranging from 7,500 yards down to 4,725 yards, they offer good challenges for all levels. Part of the original course was designed by the legendary Perry Maxwell. Lakewood is the only spot on the trail that has a membership in addition to being open to public play. Therefore it only gets 30,000 rounds a year. For comparison's sake, Minneapolis City courses probably see twice that. The fairways are wide open and the cart paths are all concrete.
Because of the light play in winter, they do not overseed here. That makes it easier to grow good turf grass. The Azalea course's signature hole is the par-5 number 14. It winds its way to an island green surrounded by a four acre lake. The approach shot demands pinpoint accuracy.
The Dogwood course is equally wonderful. The front nine is lined with houses-there are virtually no houses on the back nine. Both of the par-threes on the front nine have two greens. They are small and this is so every other day they can rest one green. Needless to say, different greens change the hole dramataically.
Twenty five years ago on number 10 one of their giant sprawling oak trees blew down. Rather than digging it up by the roots and disposing of it, they piled dirt on top of the tree trunk, and tree still lives. Number 12 is a wonderful double dog leg and Number 13, a par three, features a bunker 40 yards off the tee with a mound behind it. The director of golf told us it is there to create the illusion that the hole plays shorter than its published distance. Many players are deceived. Even with forewarning, it got me too - I came up 15 yards short.
Yes, the golf courses are wonderful, but the Marriott Grand hotel and all its amenities are absolutely fabulous. Come for the golf, but stay at the Grand. You won't regret it.
The Battle House
I know this seems like a very odd name for a hotel but don't let that stop you. It sits on a site that was Andrew Jackson's military headquarters during the War of 1812; however, it's actually named for James and Samuel Battles. This grand old hotel was originally built in 1852 and re-opened with a shiny new renovation in 2007. When you walk in the door, you step back to a time of opulence and gracious living. It has a wonderful fitness facility and pool and a hot tub on the roof, where I sat and soothed my weary bones as I watched a beautiful sunset.
Mobile is a wonderful bayside town. It came as a surprise to me that one of it's claims to fame is that it was the home of the first known American Mardi Gras celebrations (yes, even before New Orleans). And for you baseball fans, it was the childhood home of Hank Aaron.
Here are three wonderful restaurants I ate at on this trip - and how to find each of them. They were all very good but Lulu's was especially memorable - on the water, owned by Jimmy Buffet's sister, and just a very fun place. I don't eat seafood, but my travel companions feasted on shrimp, oysters, flounder and other bounty pulled from the gulf waters. Fried, boiled or blackened Cajun style, my pals made it clear it's wonderful down here. I can tell you the steaks and barbecue are as good as anywhere.
Southbeach at The Beach Club, Gulf Shores, AL: www. thebeachclub.spectrumresorts.com
Live Bait at The Wharf, Orange Beach, AL: www.livebaitrestaurant.com
Lulu's at Homeport Marina, Gulf Shores, AL: www.lulusathomeport.com
If You Go
A couple other interesting points about Alabama
For you music lovers, Alabama is home to Muscle Shoals, the famous rhythm section that had such a dominant influence on rock and roll. It is also home to the renowned Crimson Tide, the football team of U of AL. It got its name years ago from a sports writer. The offensive line was so powerful in a game played in red mud against Auburn in 1907 he described them in an article as "rolling over the defense like a Crimson Tide" and it has stuck all these years.
Larry Berle is a travel writer who writes on many travel topics but specializes in golf travel. He is author of A GOLFERS DREAM: HOW A REGULAR GUY CONQUERED THE GOLF DIGEST LIST OF AMERICAS TOP 100 GOLF COURSES. Learn more about his book at www.GolfersDreamBook.com and from there you can also access his travel blog.
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