Golf Gulf Shores – Engulf Yourself

By E. Nolan

Literally only two weeks ago I reluctantly drug my feet through the soft, white, Gulf Shore sand, ambling miserably towards my car – the first steps towards a long drive back to Minnesota. Mid-November it was almost 80 and sunny… people were swimming – outdoors – and the golf courses were packed. It seemed unfair that so many got to live like this through the winter while we braced for freezing temps and embraced our couches.

Aside from in handheld globes and on Christmas I’m not much for snow. I love to sled and snowboard on real mountains, but we don’t have those here. So I’m going to come right out and say it, I’d rather be in Alabama (again) right now. I’d rather be making a tee time than making tea. I’d rather be drinking a glass of wine on the beach watching a warm sunset than wondering why – for six months – that white light in our daytime sky doesn’t have the heat function it does south of St. Louis.

I made my fifth trip in eight years to the Gulf Shores this past month. It’s a hard place to stay away from. Think San Diego of the south…with Iowa prices. For a family of six, there’s just no equivalent coastal vacation value like Alabama’s Gulf Shores. Golf Gulf Shores represents a large percent of that value with seven signature golf courses and a list of lodging hosts that you can pick and choose your preferred amenities from – along 32 miles of sugar sand beaches.

Behind only the gulf’s pristine beaches, golf is the popular draw. Seven dynamic designs draw visitors to six special properties. Craft Farms offers 36 holes of Arnold Palmer championship golf – the only Palmer courses in Alabama – each highly praised and rated by the sport’s most popular publications. Cotton Creek is the original, longer and more littered with risk/reward opportunities. Cypress Bend was Palmer’s sequel on property, acclaimed for its playability and conditioning from inception. With water in play on almost every hole and plenty of distracting beauty, it is truly the perfect compliment to Cotton Creek. And Courtyard by Marriott offers fantastic Stay & Play packages if you absolutely don’t want to go anywhere else.

Exploration can be rewarding though, as five other Gulf Shores courses beckon within minutes of Craft Farms. Kiva Dunes is one such attraction, regularly battling Birmingham’s Ross Bridge and Sylacauga’s FarmLinks for state supremacy. But Kiva Dunes is nothing like those two. It is Alabama’s only beachside routing, with subtle undulation, buried dunes, and windswept fairways. Kiva Dunes is a nature preserve masquerading as a golf course – a Jerry Pate specialty in the south. GolfDigest has long maintained a love affair with the property, proclaiming it routinely as one of “America’s 100 Best Public Courses” and one of the country’s “Top 75 Golf Resorts.” With a full-service clubhouse and luxurious three to four bedroom rental condos on property you’d be prudent to spend at least one day and night here – if not a whole week. You’ll likely agree that “unforgettable” at Kiva Dunes is not hyperbole.

The course that sneaks up on everyone, likely due to its unassuming name, is Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club. Earl Stone’s masterpiece on Mobile Bay has 27 holes and is cleverly constructed on 820 stunning acres surrounded by the Bon Secour Wildlife Preserve. As you would expect from that environment, the course has plenty of water and trees – oaks, cypress and various other forms of vegetation. An Honours Golf property, it is well maintained and the service is excellent. I consider this to be the Gulf Shores’ most pleasant surprise – hands down. I knew nothing about Earl Stone before my visit to Peninsula, but I instantly looked him up post-round…

…and found that he’d designed another course up the road: Rock Creek. From one surprise to another. Given the mostly consistent lay of the land in the area, Rock Creek stuns with its topographical variety, particularly the elevation changes. With panoramic views of the freshwater wetlands and the gorge-ous Rock Creek basin, I hardly noticed the trees – until I hit almost all of them! This round may have been the most fun I had on a course in the Gulf region. Earl has a knack for mixing beauty and beast… to tease without taunting. The course’s slope rating is modest, but there’s no shortage of challenge. Lucky bounces are few and far between, but smiles mid-round should be plentiful.

At this point I was definitely looking for more Earl Stone golf. And Golf Gulf Shores conveniently has another in its portfolio – with 27 more holes: TimberCreek Golf Club. I mentioned earlier playing golf in a nature preserve at Peninsula. Well, golfing at TimberCreek is like playing in an arboretum or botanical garden. It’s more Augusta National… almost “Carolina” golf. For every slice of wetland on property it seems there’s an entire pie of Magnolias, Dogwoods and Loblolly Pines. Just off I-10 it’s a convenient stop into or out of Gulf Shores for a quick, serene round.

The gulf shore does extend into Florida, and accordingly Golf Gulf Shores has one Florida property in its back pocket: Lost Key. Built on the Barrier Island of Perdido Key, Lost Key is the polar opposite of the aforementioned six courses. It has more of a private club feel to it, and is surrounded by galleries of buildings instead of trees. Beyond a doubt, as intended, its beauty is far more internal. Lost Key has the distinction of being the first course in Florida to be certified as an Audubon International Sanctuary – the course itself. It has always been popular, but became even more so when the Arnold Palmer Design Group touched it up in 2006. Decked out head to toe in Sea Dwarf Paspalum, and peppered with a variety of hazards, it is an “unforgettable” experience in every facet of the word.

Golf Gulf Shores is your direct link to luxurious area accommodations as well. From the Brett/Robinson, Foremost, Island House and Staybridge Suites to Spectrum Resorts and Kaiser Realty, Kiva Dunes and Meyer Vacation Rentals… anything you’re looking for they can hook you up with it. Golf packages are the forte of the group, with each property offering you additional, exceptional savings over going at it all independently.

And Golf Gulf Shores even branches out into dining, with a handful of local favorites worthy of their promotion. Cobalt’s “contemporary coastal cuisine” is as popular with boaters as it is with motorists given its waterside location under the Perdido Bay Bridge. Cosmo’s reaches out to the foodie explorer – the eclectic diner – with a creative chef inspired menu, while Live Bait and Live Bait Too! provide animated (busy) karaoke/comedic/budget friendly dining arenas. And then there’s the trio of Tacky Jack’s – Favorite Local Hangouts – in Orange Beach, Fort Morgan and Gulf Shores. The best word I can use to describe them is “indescribable” (helpful, I know) with as varied and people-pleasing a menu, as you’ll find anywhere.

I learned about the incredible value of the plentiful opportunities on the Gulf Shore eight years ago. It was as pleasant a surprise then as it was memorable. I’ve since come to expect the phenomenal Southern Hospitality, the excellent course conditions, and the Black Friday feel of the package deals we’ve gotten. It’s what keeps me going back and will no doubt for years to come. I learned my lesson the best way. Experience. Your turn.