Kiva Dunes is pure coastal golf

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

GULF SHORES, Ala. - There's always a debate about whether any true links courses exist in the United States.

The first task to settling the discussion is to agree on what the word "links" means. It's often used to describe a course with few trees, or evenmore vaguely to describe any golf course in general. Historically thecriteria have been more specific - most true links courses resided near anocean or sea. In fact, the word "links" was a term to describe the land thatconnected, or linked, the higher agrarian grounds to the beaches along thewater. It was on these largely infertile sandy transitional areas that thegame of golf was first played.

In the United States there is little true linksland, as least as is found in the United Kingdom. The closest we have is probably a few areas on Long Island and perhaps South Carolina. What the United States does possess, however, is a special category of it own, coastal courses, courses that are built on or near oceans or large bodies of water, but not necessarily on sandy linksland.

One of the most exhilarating coastal golf courses in the southeast is Kiva Dunes, located on the narrow Gulf Shores Peninsula on the extreme southern edge of Alabama. The resort is bordered on the north by Mobile Bay and on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, and the golf course - 18 holes designed by Jerry Pate and developer Jim Edgemon in 1995 - is within 100 yards from the Gulf (dunes and a single strand of homes prevent actual views of the ocean).

Nonetheless, Kiva Dunes is pure coastal golf - it's built amid existing dunes, patches of roughed up coastal vegetation, and the refreshing maritime winds that blow constantly across the property. In fact the omnipresent wind gives the golf at Kiva Dunes its most distinctive quality.

There are differing philosophies on how to route a course on a windy site. Scotland's Muirfield Golf Club was innovative because it returned both nines to the clubhouse (a break from the traditional linear out and back format), with each loop circling out in a different direction to ensure that the golfer was shown the wind in every possible aspect.

Kiva Dunes is perhaps more in line with the old links example. Every hole after the first - a mid-length par-4 that begins in a northwesterly direction - runs almost due east-west. But rather than heading straight out and back, the routing is compacted like an accordion with many internal switchbacks.

With winds blowing predominantly out of the north or the south, the routing positions every hole against a crosswind (eliminating too many headwind holes, undoubtedly a consideration for resort players). The narrow aspect of the property, as well as the presence of protected areas, might also have limited the designer's ability to route the holes in multiple directions.

"Routing is so important in any design," Pate says. "I tried to make Kiva Dunes a golf course that not only gave you a lot of options, but one that tested all the shots."

The more the wind blows at Kiva Dunes, the more fascinating the course becomes. In addition to some large waste areas and off-limits wetlands, Pate added a rather American style of bunkering with curvaceous edges and white sand. There's no small amount of contour to the course either, and thinking players will ride them for all they're worth in the dry season.

The key to driving the ball at Kiva Dunes is to be brave. In severe crosswinds, drives started down the rough line on one side of the hole can end up on the opposite side of the fairway - fortunately there's plenty of room for it. To excite matters there are numerous internal water hazards on the course, meaning that on some days players may have to aim a shot out over a hazard and count on the wind to blow it into play. Couple that with the dense, scrubby vegetation that separates each hole and Kiva Dunes indeed tests all the shots. It's wide, but on some days it doesn't seem wide enough!

The greens are also designed for the wind. They're large and roundly contoured, and most are open at least partially to the running shot with well-placed fronting bunkers forcing the player to choose which side of the green to play to (the first hole, often a headwind hole, is a good example). Other greens, such as at the short par-4 10th and the gorgeous, secluded par-3 13th, are elevated and fall off to chipping areas on every side.

The profound par-5 15th takes this model to an extreme. The pulpit green is raised enough so that the putting surface isn't visible from the fairway, and the drop-offs into bunkers left and behind are nearly 10-feet deep. At 509-yards for the men it's reachable in two under certain conditions, but it 's definitely a green that's best approached with a wedge.

Both Golf Digest and Golf Week rate Kiva Dunes among the top public courses in the country. GolfWeek rated it as the second best public access course in Alabama in its 2003 listing, while Golf Digest tabs it number 58 on its 2003-2004 100 Best Public Courses list, wedged between Pinehurst No. 8 and Troon North.

"It's flattering to have our golf course included on this list," says MarkStillings, Director of Golf at Kiva Dunes, "considering that [thosepublications] employs many, many raters to scour the country to single outthe very best golf course designs."

Indeed, there are few places like Kiva Dunes. The combination of a uniquebrand of golf, a stunning natural setting graced by miniature seasidevegetation, sand dune areas, and the perpetual salty winds coming off theocean make it a rare and powerful coastal golf experience.


Opened: 1995
Architects: Jim Edgemon and Jerry Pate
Par: 36-36-72
Yardage: 5,006 to 7,092 yards

Where To Stay and Eat

Kiva Dunes is one of ten courses in the Gulf Shores Golf Association, an organization that promotes golf and leisure accommodations in the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach region of Alabama.

GSGA partners with 15,000 local resort and hotel rooms, many of which areonly steps away from the region's 32-miles of beachfront. The area is alsohome to some of the country's best fresh seafood, fishing, and outdooractivity.

Kiva Dunes offers its own accommodations, leasing two-, three-, and four-bedroom condominium units onsite at Kiva Lodge. Adjacent to Kiva Dunes is Gulf Shores Plantation, offering restaurants as more rental condominium units. Stay and play package for 2004 range from $100 to $160 per person, per night at Kiva Lodge, and $85 to $158 at Gulf Shores Plantation.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Course Comment

    Martin E. Dozier wrote on: Mar 26, 2005

    Kiva Dunes was the best golfing experience that I have encountered. The surrounding lanscape accompanied with the overall quality of the course grounds, made this a unique experience.
    I am looking forward to getting another oppurtunity to play at your breathtaking golf course.