Only one notion will generally come to mind when traveling golfers hear the word “Alabama.” Their thoughts are immediately drawn to the world famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the most ambitious public golf course project in history.
Now some thirty years old, the Trail has been a staggering success since its 1988 inception. The Trail will welcome its twelve-millionth visitor in 2017, an awe-inspiring number, especially considering the course came into being just as golf’s popularity was reaching its peak and shortly before the game began its slow, inexorable decline that continues today.
The original construction was mind-boggling in scope. The project consisted of 324 holes at seven different sites throughout the state, the land being shaped by some seven hundred pieces of earth-moving equipment simultaneously. The end result, including an additional fifty-four holes later added at Prattville, moved Alabama from an afterthought towards the forefront of golf tourism.
However, there’s more great golf in Alabama that’s found beyond the pale of the Trail. Check out tiny Gulf Shores, for example. This formerly sleepy beach community, about an hour south of Mobile, has little more than ten thousand residents, but there are several courses here that are well worth a visit.
First and foremost would be Kiva Dunes, a Jerry Pate design that has received a number of well-deserved accolades since it debuted in 1994. The course is tucked into a beautiful piece of land on Fort Morgan Peninsula, a narrow sliver of earth separating Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Jerry Pate doesn’t spring to mind on the short list of successful players turned architects like Nicklaus, Crenshaw and Weiskopf do, but he should.
Pate won the U.S. Open, U.S Amateur, Players Championship, and was both a Walker Cup and Ryder Cup participant. But to some, he’s anonymous as both a player and course designer. It’s too late to do anything about the former, but the latter reputation is destined to change.
Kiva Dunes offers a scenic nature walk through the sand dunes, scrub oak, pine, and natural wetlands that are endemic to this beach area. As can be expected on such an exposed piece of property, the buffeting wind can be as difficult as any other hazard on the 7,100 yard course. Mere mortals would best attempt to get around starting at the middle markers some six hundred yards closer, while less skilled players should likely opt for the white tees at a shade under 5,900 yards. The immaculate conditioning of the Tifway Bermuda fairways will doubtlessly impress those who can keep the ball in play. Those who have to scramble to find the putting surface will be equally pleased at the Tifdwarf Bermuda greens, which are large and undulating, but not prohibitively slick.
The designer kept the rolling nature of the dunes evident on the fairways, made liberal use of fairway bunkering filled with native sand, and dug cavernous sand pits green side. The end result is a facility that’s both daunting and stunning, and one of the must-play courses in the L.A. (Lower Alabama) area.
Not ten minutes away on the peninsula is the aptly named Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club, a 27-hole Earl Stone design. This is a much larger property than the 250-acre Kiva Dunes. The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge touches the 820-acre parcel on two sides, and part of the property abuts Mobile Bay.
Thirty lakes, abundant vegetation and numerous waste areas that line the fairways are the most notable difficulties on yet another finely conditioned track. The original eighteen holes are the Marsh and Lake nines constructed in 1995, the Cypress nine was added in 1999. The Lake nine is the most scenic, with views of the nearby bay, and also contains the majority of housing in the development. Marsh is considered the most difficult, and Cypress, with its subtly bending fairways and abundance of bunkering, offers the most shot making challenge.
Another nearby course worth a visit is Rock Creek in the town of Fairhope. This championship golf course is both forgiving and visually spectacular. Numerous doglegs are prominently featured throughout the layout along with natural rolling terrain and impressive elevation changes unique to the southern Alabama region. Tall pines and hardwood forests line each fairway and freshwater wetlands ripple throughout the course, adding to the impressive visual effects of the course.
The second hole at Rock Creek will linger long in the memory. This 434 yard par-4 drops seventy feet from tee to fairway with a forced carry approach shot over wetlands to a green featuring a bulkhead wall thirty feet high. Suffice it to say that any player in position to line up a birdie putt on this gauntlet knows how to golf their ball.
Finally, no mention of golf in Alabama can be complete without at least passing mention of the infamous Trail. The southernmost outpost in Mobile known as Magnolia Grove is certainly one of the best of the eight separate locations. The Falls course is nothing short of harrowing; a roller-coaster ride through hills and valleys, with epic approach shots required to find the surface on massive, well bunkered greens. The Crossings course occupies even hillier terrain, although the shot-making requirements aren’t quite as demanding. Their par-3 course is a beauty as well, considered one of the finest in the country.