Gulf Shores, Alabama goes from 'emerging' to 'emerged'

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Kiva Dunes Golf ClubGULF SHORES, Ala. - What do Gulf Shores and Elisha Cuthbert have in common? They've both gone from "emerging" to "emerged" over the past two years. The former as a golf destination; the later as Hollywood's next twenty-something bombshell.

While Cuthbert - a show stealer in the hit movie Old School and Kim Bauer on Fox's cult drama 24 - is off limits for most traveling golfers, Gulf Shores is as accessible as the girl next door.

More than 460,000 golfers made their way to the area's nifty cadre of courses in 2003. And about that many are expected to descend upon the region's sugar sand beaches and lush green fairways in 2004.

Most arrive via rubber tire travel from nearby population centers like Atlanta, Birmingham and Pensacola. Others hop planes from the Midwest and Northeast in search of the "next" Myrtle Beach.

No matter how they get here, these legions of determined duffers all discover a similar phenomena - a value laden golf destination with an eclectic assortment of daily fee and resort courses, and vast array of accommodation options ranging from on-course condos and to Weekend at Bernie's style beachfront housing.

Bang-for-the-buckers will be shocked to learn the most decadent track in town - Kiva Dunes - never breaks the $100 mark for 18 holes with a cart. High-end daily fee circuits like Cotton Creek and Cypress Bend at the Craft Farms Golf Resort can be tackled for under $80.

Stay-and-play packages - the concept that put Myrtle Beach on the golf map - generally range between $70 to $90 per golfer, per day, depending on the pedigree of the courses and the lavishness of the digs involved. A round at Kiva Dunes ups the ante a bit, but it says here it's worth every penny. Carts fees and taxes are included, eliminating any fine print arguments.

Cotton Creek Golf ResortUnlike the Grand Strand, though, Gulf Shores is golf first, nightlife second destination. Golf widows take solace in the fact the area is devoid of gentlemen's clubs (sorry boys). There are plenty of local establishments, however, at which to belly up. None more famous than the Flora-Bama Lounge and Package in nearby Perdido Key. This rambling honky tonk straddles the Alabama/Florida border and cranks out live music and "cole" beer seven days a week.

Gulf Shores other raison d'ĂȘtre is the food; seafood that is. Natives will tell you the local catch is among the best in the world, and folks around here aren't given to hyperbole. Grouper is the staple fish, and it is served fried, broiled or blackened. Red Snapper and Amberjack also make their way onto local menus, as do fresh crab, scallops and oysters.

It is easy to see how tales of 36 holes a day and honky tonks by night may paint a picture of a golf destination that oozes testosterone. Allow us to digress. The region's unique blend of sugar sand beaches, affordable golf and unforgettable eateries sets up perfectly for a couples golf trip. Just trade in the three-bedroom, on-course condo for a romantic oceanfront room and 36 holes for 18 and a trip to the Tanger Outlet Centre in nearby Foley and you're off and running.

The Must Plays

Peninsula Golf & Racquet ClubKiva Dunes Golf Club - Jerry Pate's local connections and commitment to thought-provoking routings led to the Alabama native getting dibs on this once in a lifetime piece of property just 1,000 feet from the Gulf of Mexico. Kiva opened in 1995, giving Gulf Shores the marquee course it needed to do battle with the big boys. The layout bobs and weaves among coastal dunes and windblown corridors and features the most extreme putting surfaces in the state. The 18th hole, with its 4-club green and the Caribbean colored resort hotel looming in the background, has to be seen to be believed.

Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club - This 27-hole, Earl Stone designed facility is just a smooth pitching wedge from Kiva Dunes, making for an enticing 36-hole day that will have you driver deep in the area's best golf. The three nines, Marsh, Cypress and Lakes, roll through an 820-acre tract sand wedged between the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay. Thirty lakes and hordes of white sand bunkers dot the property, yet Stone does a remarkable job of keeping all three nines playable for weekend warriors.

Lost Key Golf ClubLost Key Golf Club - One of the cruel ironies of Gulf Shores is that its warm-up/getaway day course is the toughest track around. The Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay design is known locally as "lost ball" for reasons that will become obvious when attempting to grove a 250-yard drive into bowling alley sized fairway flanked by Everglades style marshland. While some may argue that Lost Key is overly penal (does a 144 slope from the tips have anything to do with it?), it never fails to disappoint with its pristine conditions and hole variety.

Cotton Creek/Cypress Bend/Woodlands Courses (Craft Farms) - No two names mean more to Gulf Shores golf than Craft and Palmer, and both are on display at Craft Farms Golf Resort. The Craft family, sod farmers turned golf course purveyors, put Gulf Shores on the South Coast golf map back in 1988 with the original Cotton Creek course. Patriarch R.C. Craft and son Robert hit it off so well with Palmer (a fellow farmer's son), they once had to pull the King off a sod harvester. Fast forward 15 years and Craft Farms is now a 54-hole golfing panacea that includes another Palmer design, Cypress Bend, and a Larry Nelson credit, Woodlands, that is popular with CF's large membership base.

Solid Seconds

Rock Creek - This Earl Stone design near the junction of Hwy. 98 and 104 in Fairhope looks like it was flown in from the RTJ Golf Trail. Tall pines and hardwoods provide the backdrop for a layout that features more elevation changes than you'd ever expect around coastal 'Bama.

TimberCreek - Another member of the "creek" family and yet another Stone signature course. TimberCreek is a 27-hole camp on the northern side of I-10 sporting three nines from three seemingly different families. Magnolia is long and hilly, Pines is shorter and flatter and Dogwood is a little of both. A major greens renovation project in 2002 has the putting surfaces in tip top shape.

Glenlakes - Glenlakes is further proof that Gulf Shores adheres to the Myrtle Beach philosophy of multiple nines. The 27 hole layout comes courtesy of Bruce Devlin and Robert Von Hagge, a duo known as much for their work abroad as here in Dixie. The Dunes Course - Gulf Shores' humble approach to a links style course - is the preferred play among traveling golfers.

Soldier Creek: Relatively new courses are a good indicator of a golf destination's economic well being, and Soldier Creek, circa 2001, is just that. The 18-holer was designed by Scott Clark, a former superintendent at the Peninsula Golf Club. Thus the trendy TifEagle Bermuda greens that roll as true as the day is long.

Eating out

Seafood - mainly Grouper and Snapper - is the regional specialty. There are few better places to hunker down on a nice filet than the Beach Club (situated between the Peninsula and Kiva Dunes). For a more casual, Jimmy Buffett style ambiance (literally), head to Lulu's at Southport. Lulu is the sister of one James Buffett, and there's always the off chance you can catch an impromptu performance from the pirate himself. Golfers can not live on seafood alone. Enter Nolan's - home of the locally famous "steer butt steak." Da butt is rumored to be a favorite of former Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints head coach Mike Ditka. On arrival or getaway day, pull up a stool at McGuire's in Pensacola, home of the 18 cent bowl of bean soup and the $100 hamburger.

Stay and play

Pick your poison - beach house, oceanfront condo, golf villa or chain hotel. Better yet, simply call the Gulf Shores Golf Association and let them size up your budget, logistics and preferences. The GSGA handles packages for all ten local courses and incumbent leaders Mike "the General" McArthur and Doug "Six Pack" Schepker have all the local scoops. Call (888) 815-1902 or log on to www.golfgulfshores.com for more information.

Orientation

The main route into Gulf Shores is Hwy. 59, which runs north/south and connects to Interstate 10. The primary airport serving Gulf Shores is Pensacola Regional Airport, approximately 45 minutes east. The peak golf seasons are spring and fall and summer is the prime time for beach goers.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


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