Course Review: Alabama's Kiva Dunes

Kiva Dunes
Kiva Dunes Golf and Beach Club
Native scrub oaks frame many holes at Kiva Dunes, along with bunkers and water hazards.
By Mark Aumann
PGA.com

Published: Friday, March 20, 2015 | 11:44 a.m.

Located on a strip of land bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and Bon Secour Bay near Gulf Shores, Ala., Kiva Dunes Golf and Beach Club is the state's top-ranked course, according to Golfweek, and is near the top on almost every other list.

Blessed with ample amounts of sugar-white sand and natural lakes, Kiva Dunes was a perfect place for a golf course. And it came about by a happenstance meeting, many years earlier and several miles to the north. Playing a round of golf at the University of Alabama course in Tuscaloosa one day, student Jim "Scrappy" Edgemon asked the player ahead if he could play though -- and promptly aced the hole. The other player was another student and golf team member -- Jerry Pate -- who went on to win the 1976 U.S. Open.

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So when Edgemon was presented with the opportunity to create a course at Kiva Dunes, he turned to fellow Crimson Tide alum Pate as his architect. And the result is spectacular: a course that seamlessly fits into the surrounding terrain, and yet offers tremendous challenges and strategy. And if your golf game isn't up to par, there's enough scenery -- and a variety of animals -- to hold your interest.

"It's quite unique in terms of its site and visual appeal," Kiva Dunes general manager, director of golf and PGA Professional Mark Stillings said. "It's one of the few links-style courses that you might see here along the Gulf Coast. 

"It's very natural. We didn't disturb much of the native environment here. We routed the course through the natural surroundings so from Day 1, it gave everybody a real natural feel."

GETTING THERE: From downtown Gulf Shores, take Alabama 180 west toward Fort Morgan. In 12 miles, turn left onto Plantation Road. The clubhouse will be on the right.

ABOUT THE COURSE: No. 1 is a straightforward par-4 that gives you a nice preview of what's to come: wide fairways with bunkers strategically placed for the long hitters, and scrub oaks along the edges for those who have a tendency to hit it somewhere other than straight.

And hitting it straight is imperative, but even more of a challenge when the wind blows at Kiva Dunes. And that's the majority of the time, according to the homeowner with whom I played. And what's somewhat unique is that there's no prevailing wind. Sometimes it's off the Gulf. Sometimes it's off the bay. And in the winter, it'll blow parallel to the shore. That means you can play Kiva Dunes on multiple occasions and the course will play radically differently, depending on the wind direction.

That means not only having to concentrate on trying to carry a number of large hazards on many tee shots while taking into consideration the wind, which could help you -- but in most cases, is doing its best to send your shot off-line.

"Just because of the dimensions of the site, most of the holes run east and west, with some variation," Stillings said. "In the summertime, we get a lot of southeast wind, so it provides some downwind holes and others back into the wind. If it's coming straight out of the south or north, you get a lot of crosswind.

"You can play five or six days in a row, depending on the direction and stretch of the wind, and the course will feel entirely different."

Woe to the faders and slicers, because much of the trouble is on the right, starting with the second hole -- where you have to carry a massive bunker that continues down the right side of the fairway, and then contend with water on your approach -- and continuing pretty much throughout the rest of the front nine.

Golfers who draw the ball will find the opposite is true on the back nine. Four holes have water hazards that run the length of the left side of each hole, and two others have narrow bunkers/waste areas.

Stillings' favorite hole is the par-3 13th, which plays 137 yards from the white tees and 175 from the tips. 

"It's a short to medium length hole, but it has a raised green," Stillings said. "There's a lot of undulation in the green and a deep-face bunker in the left front. 

"It's very natural, with a lot of exposed sand and the gnarly scrub oaks. If you pinned me down to one hole, that's my favorite."

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Once you reach your intended target, the challenge is just beginning. In addition to being protected by all manner of bunkers, Kiva Dunes' greens are large but not particularly inviting. Divided by ridges, plateaus and undulations, each green demands accuracy.

This is one course where paying attention to pin placements is paramount. Plus, having someone in your group who's played there before -- and can offer suggestions -- is a bonus. You can easily land on every green at Kiva Dunes and still three-putt every hole, if you happen to wind up putting yourself in the wrong spot.

Straight is good. Straight and long is better. But there are several holes where strategy comes into play. One of those is the par-4 ninth. There's a water hazard that bisects the fairway between 180 and 225 yards out. Depending on where you wind up, you'll still have a pretty good carry into a peanut-shaped green -- with water left and sand right.

CLAIM TO FAME: In addition to its claim as one of Alabama's best, Kiva Dunes has hosted the state amateur and several PGA Tour qualifiers. The course will celebrate its 20th anniversary in April.

WHAT TO SEE: Depending on the weather, the beach is the place to be. There are a number of public beaches all along the Gulf Shores area, with wide stretches of white sand. That also means plenty of seafood restaurants. In addition, Gulf Shores is host to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. And if you're into history, Fort Morgan -- which protected the Conferate port of Mobile from Union attack -- is just a few miles down the road from Kiva Dunes. There's a ferry that runs between there and Dauphin Island.

KEY COURSE DETAILS

Address: 815 Planation Drive, Gulf Shores, AL  36542

Phone: 251-540-7000

Website: kivadunes.com