The Arnold Palmer that started Alabama Gulf Shores golf, Craft Farms still shows its love for golfers
GULF SHORES, Ala. - Mike Howe picked Craft Farms out of the phone book. Not the best way to choose a golf course these days to be sure but instructive in this case.
Howe, on vacation with his wife from Wisconsin in a search for potential retirement homes, saw Craft Farms had two Arnold Palmer courses. That was enough for him to stop his looking for a golf course in this beachside Alabama land and make a tee time.
"I figured if it's Arnold Palmer, it can't be bad golf," said Howe, who's old enough to have been a member of Arnie's Army.
This is essentially how the Alabama Gulf Shores originally became a golf destination. R.C. Craft - a self-made man with a turf farm - convinced Arnold Palmer - a self-made mega famous golf tycoon - to build a golf course on a flat sod farm in the middle of nowhere. At nearly the height of Arnold Palmer's fame. The Craft Farms site didn't even have plumbing - or any guarantee from the city of getting it anytime soon - when R.C. approached Arnie.
No matter. The golf course got built, the people started coming and other golf courses followed, turning this area with 21 miles of white sugar sand beaches into a tourist destination for grown ups.
You don't go on a Gulf Coast golf vacation for a history lesson, though. Craft Farms succeeds today because it recognizes its history while concerning itself with the product golfers are experiencing now.
"We don't see as many of the hardcore 36-hole-a-day guys anymore," Craft Farms General Manager Grant Brown said. "Now it's more couples and people who want to play 18 and have a good steak dinner. Then maybe come back and play 18 the next day and go fishing and have another nice dinner.
"We're seeing quite a bit more family golf trips, too, especially in the summertime, with the kids golfing right along with mom and dad."
They think about golfers at Craft Farms. You don't have to talk to Grant Brown to see that. The clubhouse and golf shop are separate, white veranda buildings that look like they came straight out of Charleston or Savannah or some other charming, historic Southern enclave. There's plenty of room to kick back or enjoy a nice pre-round breakfast, heavy on the hash browns.
The finishing holes on both Cotton Creek - the original Palmer design which opened in 1987 - and the Cypress Bend course - the newer, 1998-opened Palmer - both wrap around lakes, giving you the dramatic ending 18 chance that most golfers love.
The starters - who are in a separate white shack in another old-school touch - and the marshals are always around if you need them, but they're not unnecessarily bothering anyone.
Craft Farms gives off the sense of having been around a long time - even longer than the 21 years it has - because it's a well-run operation that's never changed its family ownership or lost its passion for golf and the people who play the game for fun.
"I like all these different tees they have," Howe said, having played Cypress Bend and moved tee boxes a few times when the backs became a little much. "It gives you a lot of options."
Choice is Craft Farms' specialty. You can play the traditional Palmer design with small greens and a big challenge, Cotton Creek. Or you can play the more forgiving one with wide fairways and large bunkers, Cypress Bend.
"Cypress is more coastal, probably a little easier, more modern," Brown said.
It also puts the water into a two-course complex that sometimes plays out like marshlands with tall grasses, clears and little dips and rises in the fairways - even though when Palmer first looked at the land it was flatter than any stretch in Kansas. Cypress isn't anywhere close to just level sod anymore, though, and you'll see that very dramatically on No. 13.
This 543-yard par 5 doglegs around not one, not two, but three lakes/ponds. You have the chance to hit it in the water on any shot on Cypress 13, even better odds of landing in a long mammoth bunker stretch and there are plenty of opportunities to find uneven lies, too.
"It seems like they put every lake in the state here," Howe said, looking down 13.
The Verdict on Craft Farms
It's nearly sacrilegious to take a golf trip to the Gulf Shores and not play Craft Farms, the place that started it all. Fortunately, this isn't some rote, used-to-be-good tourist stop, though. The golf's still as good as it's ever been at Craft Farms, arguably better than ever.
The greens were in excellent shape on this early spring play, so much so that several golfers commented on them.
Trees are much more of a factor on Cotton Creek than Cypress Bend, and some of the approaches on Palmer's original are downright diabolical. You'd better be able to bend your shots.
For something that used to be so isolated, there are now plenty of signs of modern progress - with views toward a shopping center on a few holes and houses on others. Craft Farms definitely made a neighborhood.
This is a place that golf nuts will love - right along with the guy who just happens to stumble across the complex. You're in a golf zone with the beach a short drive away. What's not to like?
If you really think about it, it's hard to imagine that only R.C. Craft and Arnold Palmer had the vision to see this.
Alabama Gulf Shores hotels
There are condos for rent that overlook Cypress Bend and turn making those Craft Farms tee times into as easy a thing as rolling out of bed and making a walk. One of the bonuses about an Alabama Gulf Shores golf trip is how close together everything is, though, and you have the option of staying at a number of spots.
The Island House Hotel, right on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico, is a good choice. Even if you're not a beach person, you can still sit out on your balcony and breathe in some sea air. General Manager Barbara Walters - more commonly known as Alabama's Barbara Walters in these parts - might be the most welcoming hotel host you've ever had, too.
It's well established that Palmer never would have consented to building a course on a flat piece of land in what was then a remote spot if he hadn't hit it off so well with R.C. Craft. Though Craft died the year before Craft Farms' 20th-anniversary celebration, Palmer still came back for the event to honor the family and his friend's legacy.
July 23, 2008