“Sitting here at the Flora-Bama
’Bout to open up a big old can of
Good times, unwind.
Sitting right here at the Flora-Bama.
Don’t it feel good?”
— Kenny Chesney, “Flora-Bama”
GULF SHORES, Alabama — Man, I needed this.
That’s the only thought in my head as I roll along Beach Boulevard, windows down, music up, taking in the miles-long row of gleaming high-rise, seaside condos, pastel rental homes, and shabby-chic beach bars and shrimp shacks: I needed this. But hey, after nearly two maddeningly painful pandemic years, we all do, don’t we?
You better believe it.
So I did what many of us do in times of stress — head for the familiar, something a little slower and simpler. And friends, lemme tell you, Gulf Shores, Alabama — this sliver of powdery white sand sidled up alongside the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico — is truly the “comfort food” of golf destinations. In a very good way.
It’d been a minute since we last visited this part of golf country, and a decade or so sure can make a difference to a place. Here on the Gulf of Mexico’s Emerald Coast, as it’s called, we found Gulf Shores looking better than ever, and the golf every bit as great as we’d remembered.
What’s that? Never heard of Gulf Shores? Well, while it might not have the golf-per-square-inch riches of Myrtle Beach or Florida, there’s no shortage of big-time, big-name and reasonably priced courses dotting the map up and down the coast here. The Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area golf scene is flush with variety, beauty, pedigree — and affordability. How affordable? Three-round/three-night stay-and-play packages to Gulf Shores go for as little as $435 on one of the area’s top travel sites, coastalalabamagolf.com.
COAST WITH THE MOST
It wasn’t the mouth-watering price points that brought us back to these shores, however, it was the memory of the area’s killer courses. There are no fewer than 14 gems in the Emerald Coast crown to keep you busy off the beach, built by big-name players and architects like Arnold Palmer, Jerry Pate and Earl Stone, among others.
We started our trip almost immediately after wheels touched down at Pensacola International Airport, which is the preferred place to fly into Gulf Shores from pretty much anywhere (it’s a 45-minute drive away). But just a quick rental car jaunt from the airport sits Pensacola’s Lost Key Golf Club (lostkeygolf.com), a tricky-but-terrific Arnold Palmer track just steps from the gulf’s sandy shores and Perdido Key. Clocking in at just over 6,800 yards, the par-71 course has plenty of sand, wind and water to make the perfect warmup for our weekend.
With comparatively tight fairways and firm, fast greens, Lost Key keeps you on your toes from start to finish. Designed by Mr. Palmer and partner Ed Seay in 1997, the course underwent a major redesign in 2006, adding more than 2,200 native trees and 13,000 wetland plants, as it became Florida’s first Audubon International Silver Signature Sanctuary. But you’ll find little sanctuary in this tight, tough test, which clocks in with a steep slope of 144 and a rating of 74.3. Lost Key’s first hole is a fair and accurate representation of all that you’ll find here, a needle-nosed, 598-yard par 5 with plenty of trees and wetlands to make errant shots pay the price. Other highlights are the impressive par 3s — all five of them — including the club’s signature 13th hole, a 150-yard par 3 playing over water to a heavily sloped peninsula green. By the time you reach the reachable, 580-yard, par-5 18th, you’ll have found plenty of challenge and triumph at Lost Key, a fantastic first stop or final round to bookend your golf getaway.
Luckily for us, this was only the beginning. Heading west on FL-292, past Perdido Key and the world-infamous Flora-Bama, we cross state lines into beautiful ’Bama. Like the Flora-Bama itself, which sits smack-dab on the Florida-Alabama state line, it’s virtually impossible to tell where Florida ends and Alabama begins, as it becomes a blur of towering condos and pastel-painted beach- side bungalows. There’s certainly no shortage of affordable vacation rentals available in the area, many right on the beach or the Little Lagoon that cuts through the heart of Gulf Shores. Our rental was lagoon-side, and included its own private pool and dock, in addition to sleeping 12 battle-weary golfers.
GREAT GULF GOLF
We found the perfect way to start the next day just down the street from our rental, at the Sunliner Diner (sunlinerdiner.com), famous for its classic car motif, ’50s vibes, all-day breakfast and seemingly bottomless Bloody Marys.
Fully charged, we headed off to our next test of gulf golf, at Gulf Shores Golf Club (gulfshoresgolfclub.com), which like the Sunliner, exudes old-school cool, from the plantation-style clubhouse to the Spanish moss making home on the many old oak trees dotting the property. Originally de- signed by Earl Stone in 1963, the club was renovated and modernized by Jay and Carter Morrish in 2007, restoring the greens and bunkers and stretching it to a beefy 6,856 yards. But it’s not the length that will jump up and bite you at Gulf Shores — it’s the subtle, speedy greens and plentiful hazards in play.
You’ll find both right off the bat, with the 345-yard, par-4 opener, a dogleg-right requiring a fade to find the fairway before attacking the green well-guarded by water. Survive unscathed there and you have the template for success the rest of the way. Other highlights at GSGC are the sweet, 172-yard, par-3 sixth hole, a watery, well- guarded one-shotter, and the awesome, 327- yard 11th, a drivable par 4 begging you to try and fly the beach-sized fairway bunkers. Gulf Shores’ finisher is one of the best in the area, a 526-yard, par-5 test, taking a pair of perfect shots to get home in two. If you can successfully navigate over the creek guarding the small green, you’ll have a good chance to end on a high note.
Working up an appetite, we headed to one of Gulf Shores’ biggest, baddest and most happenin’ hotspots, The Hangout (thehangout.com). This massive entertainment complex is home to several stages for live music, outdoor games and fire pits, and one of the area’s famous annual attractions, the Hangout Music Fest. Held each May, the massive beachfront festival features such heavy hitters as the Foo Fighters, The Weeknd, Paul Simon, and The Chainsmokers. This year’s lineup is headlined by Post Malone, Halsey, Doja Cat and Tame Impala, among dozens of other acts for the three-day extravaganza (hangoutmusicfest.com).
Unfortunately, we were there in the offseason, so we settled for a few buckets of Coronas and some of the bar’s delicious seafood boil, a shrimp, snow crab and sausage-filled tradition ’round these parts. But we’ll definitely be back someday in busier times (if only for a foam party).
Rested and ready to begin anew, next up was Craft Farms (craftfarms.com) which features a double-dose of Arnold Palmer-designed tracks on the site of R.C. Craft’s former soy farm. The 7,000-yard Cotton Creek (built in 1988) and the 6,800-yard Cypress Bend (added in 1998) each offer impeccable conditions, challenging golf and a 4 1⁄2-star rated experience by Golf Digest. Like much of the Gulf Shores area, the club was hit hard by Hurricane Sally in 2020, which made landfall and gave the clubhouse and courses quite a lashing. Work was still underway to repair the stately, plantation-style clubhouse, but the courses have fully recovered.
Both courses wind their way through a lovely residential community, and not surprisingly play very similar — plenty of water, wide fairways, big bunkers and fast, undulating greens in pure Palmer style.
The older, longer, somewhat tougher of the two, Cotton Creek, features water on 14 of its 18 holes, including the sinister sixth hole, a tricky, 395-yard par 4 with a wrap- around pond in play all along the right side and the approach. You’ll contend with the eponymous creek on Cotton Creek’s awesome 11th hole, which crisscrosses the fair- way twice in its 397 yards. Place your tee shot correctly, and you’ll face a mid-iron into the two-tiered green.
Cypress Bend is a touch drier and shorter than its big brother, but take it lightly at your peril. Despite being a decade younger, Cypress Bend has a similar look and feel to Cotton Creek, creating a contiguous championship complex that gives you an idea of what to expect in the second act of your double feature.
Highlights of Cypress Bend include the picturesque par-3 sixth hole, which plays 170 yards from the tips while navigating water left, water right, and beautiful bunkering all around. The awesome 11th hole is a 375-yard par 4 that takes a precise tee shot to avoid water along the left side of the fairway, followed by a surgical second shot over water to a green guarded by a bunker on the left. That’s a good tuneup for the track’s fantastic finishing hole, a 505-yard par 5 that forces you to carry the creek, avoid it all along the length of the right side, then carry it once more on your approach to the postage-stamp green. Glorious.
KIVA IS KING
After a very long night at arguably the area’s most famous (or infamous) landmark — the Flora-Bama (see below) — we prepared for the other main event, Kiva Dunes.
Kiva Dunes (kivadunes.com) a stunning, secluded golf resort close to the area’s beautiful beaches, is the poster child for one of America’s hidden golf havens. It’s been named the No. 1 public course in Alabama, one of America’s Top 100 courses, and it’s little wonder why: Kiva’s a beauty to behold and the perfect example of the quality and affordability people can find in this corner of the country.
Designed in 1995 by developer Jim Edgemon together with his friend, former U.S. Open champ Jerry Pate, Kiva is the unquestioned crown jewel in the Emerald Coast lineup of courses. Kiva has grown into a full community, replete with rental properties, condos and beachside bungalows, tennis courts and pools and plenty more. But we weren’t here to look at rental real estate (at least, this time), we were here for the 7,092 yards of green goodness called Kiva Dunes.
Right from the 415-yard, par-4 open- ing hole, which begs you to break out the big lumber, you know you’re in for a rip-roarin’ time. Other highlights include the sublime No. 9, a 428-yard par 4 bisected by an intracoastal-esque pond protecting the green, and the gorgeous, 175-yard, par-3 13th, with a wide waste area in front and the club’s impressive elongated lake on the left. That lake touches no fewer than six holes at Kiva Dunes, making it the track’s unheralded architectural hero (or villain). You’ll see that lake up close and personal when you tackle the spectacular, 458-yard, par-4 finisher here, with the lake running nearly the length of the right side and up past the biggest green on the course — 49 yards deep!
Later on, looking out at the 18th from the back patio at Kiva Dunes, with drinks in hand as the setting sun cast everything in a warm orange glow, we just had to smile at our return trip to the Gulf Shores area. When it comes to beauty, affordability and just good ol’ fashioned beach-bound fun, friends, we had to agree: Kenny Chesney had it right.
Don’t it feel good, indeed.
Visit gulfshores.com for more information.
The Flora-Bama packs enough fun for two states at once
Some landmarks are flat-out famous. The Grand Canyon. Mount Rushmore. Disney World. Others — the really fun ones — aren’t just famous, they’re infamous.
That, friends, is the Flora-Bama Lounge & Package.
The Flora-Bama, for the uninitiated, is a massive entertainment and music venue almost too big to seat in a single state, and sits squarely against the Florida-Alabama line. As with any infamous landmark, the legend tells of it spanning two states, but in reality the entirety of the bar rests in Perdido Key, Florida.
Originally constructed in 1964 when the Alabama county next door was still dry, the Flora-Bama quickly became a popular destination (go figure). In the nearly 60 years since, it’s added on and added on, becoming a mishmash of ante- chambers and music stages and satellite bars, and is now more beloved than ever.
From its famous Bushwacker chocolate milkshake mixed drink, to its live music 365 days a year, the bar’s events range from chili cookoffs and fishing rodeos to the Annual Mullet Toss (the fish, not the hairstyle) and big beachfront concerts.
One night there on a previous visit, a giant tour bus rolled up, and out piled the platinum-selling country band, Big & Rich, who were thirsty and ready to hang out. It’s true what they say, at the Flora-Bama, you just never know what the night has in store.
Visit florabama.com for more information.