Beyond your old, tired golf vacation: Alabama Gulf Shores brings design thrills, beach parties

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Want a break from the usual golf destinations: Scottsdale, Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach? Head to the Alabama Gulf Shores for excellent golf courses such as Kiva Dunes.

Sugar Sand beaches - Alabama Gulf Shores
It's all about the sugar sand beaches on Alabama's coast.
Sugar Sand beaches - Alabama Gulf ShoresCraft Farms Golf - GreensKiva Dunes Golf Club
If you go

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. - After a while, planning a golf vacation spot for you and your buddies can take on a tedious familiarity. It becomes like ordering from that same neighborhood restaurant you go to every Friday, the one that changes its entrees less often than Cuba switches leaders.

Let's see ... Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Scottsdale, Las Vegas, maybe Orlando. Which one will it be this year?

No one's saying those destinations aren't great. A man can get bored of even superb steak after having it day after day though. Or in this case, golf trip after golf trip. You may find yourself asking if there's not something different out there.

There is, and you just may find it by looking to Alabama's beaches. That's right, Alabama's world-class beaches.

"We're not as under the radar as we used to be as a golf destination," Kiva Dunes Resort General Manger Mark Stillings said. "We've made a lot of strides. At the same time, I think there are a lot of people who still don't even realize Alabama has beaches.

"For some reason, Alabama sort of gets lost in the beach discussion. You'll hear people talking about the beaches in Florida of course. Texas even gets a lot of beach talk with South Padre Island. We're overlooked even though we have better beaches than all of them."

You'd find these distinctive white sugar sand beaches in the Alabama Gulf Shores along with everything else you need in a golf destination. That's the thing about the Alabama Gulf Shores: it's not one of those haphazardly clobbered together want-to-be poser golf destinations.

The Alabama Gulf Shore's courses are close together, providing a real sense of being in one distinct destination. In other words, you're not going to spend half the trip in the rental car.

"You drive a lot less here than you even do in Myrtle Beach," first-time Alabama Gulf Shores visitor Mike Howe said. "I like that. Makes it more relaxing."

The courses measure up to what you want from a top-flight golf escape too. Alabama Gulf Shores includes arguably the best course in Alabama, a seaside links look you have to play to believe, a few Arnold Palmer designs and other courses with unexpectedly high hills or unexpectedly postcard worthy water holes.

"You really can't go wrong with almost all of the better courses around here," said Haymes Snedeker, the older brother of Masters breakout Brandt Snedeker and an All-SEC golfer himself at Ole Miss who grew up in Nashville and has played throughout the world.

The party's at Lulu's on Alabama Gulf Shores

Of course, like any self-respecting golfer, Haymes Snedeker likes to have a good time after the round, and he's found an easy place to do that. The Alabama Gulf Shores is full of bars with local flavor. Many are on the water, including Lulu's, the most famous bar in several states.

Down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, everyone you play with seems to tout Lulu's too, even though it's a state away. It's owned by Jimmy Buffett's sister. Food's served, it occupies several open-air buildings, there are three different big bars and nightly music acts get booked by a guy who knows musical talent well enough to have managed the entertainment at New Orleans' House of Blues.

There's also a gigantic sand area where kids can play while their parents enjoy an adult beverage just a few feet away.

Who says you can't party just because you have toddlers?

On the week of my visit, a group of St. Louis golfers racked up a tidy $10,000 bar tab.

"If you can't have fun at Lulu's, something's wrong with you," Haymes Snedeker laughed.

It helps that Lulu's and the Alabama Gulf Shores in general draws a big spring break crowd, including plenty of lovely Southern co-eds from places like Ole Miss (the school that produces the most Miss Americas in the country) - and a good share of aggressive Cougars too.

It helps that Lulu's Assistant General Manger Johnny Fisher (the guy who books the bands) is a golfer who appreciates other duffers.

It helps maybe most of all that you'll have played a good golf course earlier in the day. One that will leave you with some extra cash for the bar. Maybe even 10,000 bucks extra if you're in the right tax bracket.

Kiva Dunes - Alabama's best course - maxes out at a $99 high season greens fee. That's the highest priced course on the Alabama Gulf Shores. Craft Farms - the facility that brought Arnold Palmer to a then largely unknown beach region and essentially started the high-class, reasonable price movement on the Gulf Shores - charges $82 prime times for its two Palmer signature designs.

And it only goes down from there. Rock Creek Golf Club - an Earl Stone design with rollicking, rolling hills and zany brainy design features like the wood wall wrapped behind the second green - sets a golfer back just $69.

"It's important for us for people to feel like they got a good deal and a lot of service for their dollar when their trip's over," Todd Edwards, general manger at the 27-hole Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club, said. "That's how you build the destination and keep golfers coming back."

The Alabama Gulf Shores is like a fine restaurant that's still trying to impress, as opposed to that long established giant dining institution that knows its customer base is guaranteed.

"The thing I like is that the people around here - the guys in the golf shops, the folks at the hotel front desks - really seem to want you to be happy," first-time visitor Jerry Harrington said. "Do you think anybody in Orlando really cares if I'm happy?

"There I'm just a number."

No numbers on the Alabama Gulf Shores. Unless it's your hole, beer or beach babe count.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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