So this boy asks his daddy to send him this huntin dog. (I am enjoined from telling the whole story by the friendly but firm warning that my throat will be slit with a 5-iron if I do. Yes, that 5-iron.)
A group of golf writers and friends were sitting at a long table in the comfortable clubhouse bar at Kiva Dunes, a golf course Pate designed, watching the sunset through the big windows. The sky reddened on this narrow peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and Bon Secour Bay.
Before us were glasses of beer, plates of the freshest shrimp youre likely to find, and the deepening evening. Pate, without once rolling his eyes at the request, was glad to tell the story of the 5-iron shot that won him the 1976 U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club.
My caddie wanted me to hit 4, he says, eyebrows arching.
Pate, who has lived around here for more than 30 years, and his University of Alabama pal Scrappy Edgwin, played the course just before evening. They followed up the golf writers who were scraping it around in an effort to learn more about one of the Souths untapped golf destinations.
Heck, we played nine holes and then started fishin, Pate said. Edgwin laughed and regaled us with tales of the line-snapping bass that live in the courses ponds.
In a scene like this, just try to have a tense muscle.
That theme directs the development Gulf Shores, about an hour east of Mobile and the same distance west of Pensacola, Fla., as a new golf destination. The Gulf Shores Golf Association, just five years old, has lined up nine courses and a bundle of lodging partners in an effort to showcase the little beach town as a hub for golf trips and family vacations that could involve golf. The chief attractions are the simplicity and natural beauty of the place, as well as some quality golf courses.
Interstate 65 runs from Gary, Ind., down to Mobile, said Robert Craft, president of a family company that turned its turf farm into three courses. Thats our customer, right in that corridor.
Of course, Gulf Shores is ready to welcome visitors from anywhere (the local Convention and Visitors Bureau claims a lot of interest from English vacationers), but that central time zone will surely be the areas bread and butter as growth picks up speed. In that sense, Gulf Shores has worked its location to advantage: Plenty of golf, but no casinos (as in Biloxi, Miss.) or country-music theater nightlife (Myrtle Beach). There is a market, claims Craft and his colleagues, that doesnt go for that kind of glitz. And much of that market lives in the corridor Craft mentioned.
After playing some of the golf courses, its hard to disagree. Kiva Dunes, out on that sand spit by the Gulf, has a salt-air, coastal feel that excites the golf senses. Pates greens were only a little slower than concrete, and when the wind was up, there was a temptation to hit nothing but knockdown shots into them.
For the skilled player, this is an enervating test. On at least two holes, Pate set up the tee so that shots have to thread a narrow space between tall bushes or trees. Its an intimidating look, but on the other side, theres room aplenty for landing. Pate likes that kind of golf mind game; he says he learned it from architecture discussions with Pete Dye, no slouch himself in the intimidation department.
Somewhat less arduous but just as much fun is Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club, just a few minutes back toward the town and the road to Pensacola. There are 27 holes here, and exactly one of them is free of water. Once you get past that and keep your ball on dry land, youre free to enjoy the flowing route of the course, with its large greens and intelligent (read: not overdone) bunkering.
Nice touch at Peninsula: At the 1st and 10th tees, barrels of iced-down apples wait for golfers who need a boost.
For those willing to make the 45-minute drive inland to Daphne and Fairhope, there is golf with a different taste. Here the terrain begins to roll like a hurricane sea, even though its just a few miles from the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The result is courses such as Timber Creek (in Daphne) and Rock Creek (Fairhope), which feature mature pines that loom over narrow fairways and three-club elevation changes. This is the land of the railroad tie retaining wall, with pretty vistas from the tees and some heroic opportunities for approach shots. Of course, not all the rises and falls are dramatic enough to make your ears pop. But the variety compared to the coastal courses helps to make a golf trip complete.
If you want, you can grind it out on the Bermudagrass. But with the wall-to-wall Southern hospitality, its hard to be anything but relaxed between rounds. The area boasts miles of the whitest sand beaches in the world, plenty of restaurants (seafood lovers need never come ashore, menu-wise), waterslides and such for the kids, deep sea fishing, shopping and more.
Gulf Shores authorities know that part of the attraction of their location is the lack of crowds ' and of course, this puts them in a tough position. They want to invite the world, but they want the towns ' and its golf courses ' original charms to remain as they are.
Robert Craft smiles. Its a risk were willing to take.
For more information on Gulf Shores, log onto www.golfgulfshores.com or call (866) 636-3483.