Sometimes it takes a golf destination time to sink in, to seep into the bones of memory after the rounds have been rung up and you’re back to work or off to somewhere else. As for me, the more I think about my initial experience at a place like Gulf Shores, Ala. — where Fairways + Greens found itself at ground zero of Spring Break 2012, the ground itself being primarily snow-white sand — the more I know it’s a keeper.
I’m thinking about Gulf Shores all the time, even a couple weeks down the road, even as I’ve got another road trip, this time to Las Vegas, under my belt. Two years removed from a massive oil spill that knocked this part of the United States for an environment and economic loop, the place is as popular as ever, particularly among value-seeking travelers (golfers included) who have heard that all the gunk is gone (it is), that the beaches are as pristine they last saw them (they are), that the recreational wealth is in great supply (including the nine-course consortium known as Golf Gulf Shores, led by Top 100 course Kiva Dunes), and that the service model still relies on three key things: Smiles, smiles and more smiles, no matter where you stay from chain hotels to beachfront homes, where you dine (tourist faves like Lulu’s or locals’ joints like Hazel’s), where you play or how you spend the remainder of your day.
Yeah, I’m thinking about this strand of sand, pine forests and lovely lagoons a lot, and apparently thousands of others are, too, at all times of year, including summer.
What? This spot on the map is all about wintering where it’s warm, right? Doesn’t it pretty much shut down as the days lengthen?
Uh, not exactly.
Turns out this stretch of sand about 45 minutes southwest of Pensacola, Fla. — easily accessible straight down I65 or I75 from the nation’s midsection — is hopping during the summer months, with its pristine white sands packed with sunbathers who have the Gulf of Mexico for instant heat relief (the water is a balmy 80 degrees), or the comfort of air-conditioned homes, high-rise condos, time shares and hotels just a few steps away along Beach Blvd. Combine that set-up with a handful of excellent golf courses that are just waiting for you to line up a week’s worth of cool early morning rounds at rates that’ll offset that tank of gas nicely, and you’re good to go.
“Ninety percent of our business is drive-in traffic,” says Duncan Millar of Golf Gulf Shores, a nine-course consortium of public and resort courses stretching from I-10 south to the beach. “And we get those Gulf breezes to provide some relief.”
Forming the heart of Golf Shores’ near-the-water lineup is the aforementioned, links-style Jerry Pate design Kiva Dunes, recently ranked tops in the state yet again by a prominent magazine and destined to take its rightful place in the Fairways + Greens pantheon of favorites, too. Though you can’t see either the Gulf or Bon Secour Bay directly from the golf course itself (especially during a recent and unusual spate of dense fog, which turned an already challenging first-time round there into a true hit-and-hope adventure), make no mistake, this is a pure links experience all the way with rumpled fairways wrapped around natural water features, copious and sometimes cantankerous bunkering, rambling greens and the telltale quick-draining capability of sand-based courses the world over. Play Kiva in a healthy Gulf breeze and it’s all you can handle (my maiden effort there led to a triple digit result, but trust me, it wasn’t the course’s fault). Excellent vacation rental lodging and a private club atmosphere complete the must-play picture; I can’t wait to have another shot at it.
Nearby are three more venues that nicely fill out a week’s stay on the strand: Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club, with its 27 holes of traditional, tree-lined southern golf; Gulf Shores Golf Club, which will add a completely rebuilt clubhouse to its already impressive, Carter Morrish-redesigned layout in the near future; and the 36-hole Craft Farms complex with its two highly rated designs, Cypress Bend and Cotton Creek. All are minutes from Gulf Shores main drag of lodging spots, stellar seafood restaurants, surf shops and souvenir stores, and not one of them will set you back more than a C-Note per round. In fact, wallet-friendly fun abounds down here; head east, west or north from what the locals call the "T" — a confluence of highways 59 and 182, where The Hangout hosts a wildly popular music festival every May — and before long you'll come across an outdoor or indoor pursuit that's worth your time and money.
That alone is reason enough to give the Alabama coast a shot: What you save on greens fees, lodging and food will make up for filling the tank or buying an air ticket (both the Pensacola and Mobile airports have direct service from several cities, including Atlanta and Houston). And the quality of golf once you get there will have you thinking one big thought: I’ve gotta get back here. Soon. Maybe this spring but definitely by summer. Or … whenever.
Yeah, I'm thinking about it still.