Gulf Shores is nice, very nice, so don't be fooled by the location - Alabama

By John Gordon, Contributor

GULF SHORES, Ala. - "Gulf Shores."

According to the Gulf Shores Golf Association (GSGA), that placeline should bring to mind "32 miles of sugar-white sand beaches, resort-style accommodations and 10 signature golf courses."

"Piercingly blue skies, the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, great seafood, wonderful weather and partying aplenty" might be added in parentheses.

And the words "Gulf Shores" should convey that message to potential visitors, if not for that "Alabama" that follows them. For some reason, a pervasive mind set among most tourists does not allow them to objectively evaluate this glistening white collar hugging the north coast of the Gulf. Heck, even Jimmy Buffet loves it here, writing "Cheeseburger in Paradise" to commemorate a more pedestrian element of the cuisine.

Mention "Alabama" and "golf" in the same sentence, and everyone assumes the Robert Trent Jones Trail, which encompasses 378 holes at eight locations in the state.

To combat those widespread misconceptions, it might be advantageous to think of Gulf Shores as an extension of the Florida Panhandle, for it offers similar amenities. Even the rental condos, such as the excellent Beach Club (beachclubal.com, 888-260-SAND) with its indoor and outdoor pools, spa, and restaurants, are mirror images of those in the upper echelon in Panama City Beach, Florida. The golf product is also similar.

The double handful of courses represented by the GSGA covers the spectrum of styles and architects. They are within minutes of each other and include three at Craft Farms (Cotton Creek and Cypress Bend by Arnold Palmer, and Woodlands (Larry Nelson), Glenlakes (Robert Von Hagge and Bruce Devlin), Kiva Dunes Golf and Beach Club (Jerry Pate), Lost Key (Palmer), Peninsula (Earl Stone), Rock Creek (Stone), Soldiers Creek (Scott Clark), and Timber Creek (Stone).

The most notable is Kiva Dunes where, 10 years ago, Pate drew on his association with Tom Fazio to craft a course that is exceptional in location, design and conditioning. Golf Digest ranked it 58th in its 2003-2004 "100 Greatest Public Golf Courses" list, just behind Pinehurst No. 8 and ahead of the Monument course at Troon North in Arizona. Justifiably, it is the top-rated public course in the state.

Wedged between the Gulf and Mobile Bay, this sandy peninsula has been transformed into 7,100 yards of great seaside golf. Pate's penchant seems to be to hide many of the landing areas from the tee, leading first-timers to agonize unnecessarily over the fate of their shots. Immaculate, creatively contoured fairways lead to quick, swooping greens. Dunes, wetlands, scrub and native grasses provide a satisfactory sense of separation between holes, all of which are maintained to near-Tour standards.

The golf course at Kiva Dunes (888-teekiva, kivadunes.com) is presided over by a magnificent seven-story lodge which houses the clubhouse, pro shop, grill and 23 luxuriously furnished two-, three-, and four-bedroom condos. In the fall and winter seasons, you can stay five or more nights and get two free. There are also beach homes, ranging from two to four bedrooms, for rent. In a reflection of the great value available in Gulf Shores, Kiva Dunes charges only $90 in the spring and $79 in the fall, including cart and tax, and stay-and-play packages are similarly inexpensive.

Peninsula (thepeninsula.com, 800-391-8009) is one of the Honours Golf stable that includes other notable courses in southern Alabama and northern Florida such as Kelly Plantation in Destin, and the Slammer & Squire and King & Bear in St. Augustine. Its 54 holes on 820 acres are bordered by residential developments and the massive Bon Secour Wildlife Preserve, neither of which encroach on the golf experience. Any two of the nines can touch 7,000 yards and involve several of the 30 or so water features on the property which is within sight of Mobile Bay. All in all, though, Stone has done a fine job of weaving a user-friendly layout through live oaks, cypress and other native vegetation, not to mention an upscale neighborhood.

The three Craft Farms courses (craftfarms.com, 800-327-2657) are dissimilar in many ways. Cotton Creek is the original Palmer design in this region and Cypress Bend was recently rated the top "most playable new course" in the country.

Unfortunately, during a recent visit, both Cotton Creek and Cypress Bend were out of play due to green restoration, so Woodlands was the sole alternative. It is a decent design, but the promise offered by the third hole, one of the prettiest par-3s you'll ever see, is never fully delivered upon. Nonetheless, it is good value and a place where most golfers will post a score of which they can be proud.

Does the fact that Lost Key (www.lostkey.com, 888-2LOSTKEY) is referred to by locals as "Lost Ball" give you any indication of what to expect? From the opening hole, a serpentine 571-yarder bordered by deep brush inhabited, appropriately enough, by creatures without legs, the pressure is on to hit it straight. Lost Key possesses several good holes, but the overall experience for the mid- to high-handicapper may be frustrating - and expensive. Not surprisingly, the course, which is just across the state line in Florida, has received one of Audubon's top awards which usually means there's an awful lot of places you shouldn't hit your ball.

And whether you're traveling with a golf group or the family, there's plenty to do.

A partial list: Pirate's Island offers 36 holes of mini golf; The Track-Kids Kountry has four go-cart tracks, bungee jumping, toddler rides, bumper boats, skycoaster, mini golf, and an arcade; the Orange Beach Golf Center has a nine-hole par-3 course and lighted range; Waterville USA (the "USA" is, apparently, to avoid any confusion in the minds of golfers between this extravagant water park and the renowned Irish golf course), offers everything from ejection seats (this is near Pensacola, after all, home to the naval air station that, among other, more serious duties, shelters the famed Blue Angels) to mini golf; deep-sea fishing from A (amberjack) to W (wahoo); parasailing; Adventure Island with mini golf, go-karts, and laser tag, and the ubiquitous factory stores outlet mall.

Any visit should include a stop at the Flora-Bama Package, Lounge and Oyster Bar, a rambling roadhouse/honky-tonk that straddles the Florida-Alabama border. If you are fortunate (?) enough to be there in late April, be sure to catch the world-famous Flora-Bama "Interstate Mullet Toss and Gulf Coast's Greatest Beach Party." This extravaganza "consists of individuals on the beach throwing a mullet from a 10-foot circle in Alabama across the state line into Florida." That unlikely description is verbatim from the "Mullet Toss F.A.Q." section of the event's official Web site, florabama.com.

That same section also informs us that "a mullet is one of the more popular and plentiful fish indigenous to this area. It is the only fish with a gizzard and is said to possess mystical properties." Softhearted readers can rest assured that said mullets are dead, reused several times, and then fed to grateful seabirds. Yuck.

(In an effort that Annika Sorenstam can only hope to emulate, Rose "Rosebud" McCarron - no relation to PGA Tour star Scott - tossed her mullet 35 feet, four inches, outdistancing Kwinton "Bubba" Ohliger by almost seven feet in the "children ages 1-7" category this spring. For the record, Jason Pierre was the overall champ of the 19th edition of the event at 127 feet, eight inches.)

Mullets aside, superb seafood is a mainstay anywhere in Gulf Shores, but for hungry golfers, there is no place like Nolan's which has claimed the region's "best steaks" awards for years. Try the Lebanese salad and the "steak butt" prepared Greek style. (Oh, grow up.) On your way back to the airport, take the time to find McGuire's, a Pensacola mainstay which defies description: imagine a happy confluence of Irish saloon, steakhouse, brew pub, fine dining, all in a manic environment. Where else can you get an 18-cent bowl of soup and a $100 burger?

On second thought, after reading all this, maybe the local tourist authorities are underselling Gulf Shores. All this is offered in a temperate climate that should appeal to Northerners looking to extend their season: the maximum temperature in February is 60 degrees Fahrenheit, 66 in March, 74 in April, 77 in October, 69 in November, and 61 in December. No snow. Enough said.

That's it for "Gulf Shores."

As for the "Alabama"? Get over it.

For details on the Gulf Shores Golf Association, call 877-293-0849, or visit golfgulfshores.com. For general information on Gulf Shores-Orange Beach, call 800-745-SAND or visit gulfshores.com. For information about stay-and-play packages, call 888-666-9252 or visit alabamagolfcoast.com.

John GordonJohn Gordon, Contributor

John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.


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