GULF SHORES, Ala. -- From fairway level, you can't see the ocean at Kiva Dunes Golf Course, but you sure can feel it, taste it and appreciate it. After all, it's only a thousand yards away.
What you can see are natural dunes, wetlands, an alligator or two and one of the best-designed and conditioned golf courses on the Gulf Coast.
This is the baby of Alabama's own Jerry Pate and Jim "Scrappy" Edgemon.
The story of how the 1976 U.S. Open winner and the Kiva Dunes developer met has been well chronicled, but it's worth reiterating.
It was during their college years at the University of Alabama that the two met on a golf course. Pate was practicing on the 16th green at the university course in Tuscaloosa when he let Edgemon play through. To his astonishment, Edgemon's tee shot found the bottom of the cup for an ace, and it wouldn't be the last time he had the good fortune to involve Pate in another winning shot. Years later, when it came time to pick an architect for a cool piece of land between the Gulf of Mexico and Bon Secour Bay, Edgemon bypassed the big names and chose Pate.
"He's been a winner at everything he's ever done," Edgemon said. "I'd seen his work and I knew his passion. I knew, when given the best land, he'd do the best job. And he did. Kiva Dunes is recognized all over the world as one of golf's best and most unique challenges."
Indeed, Kiva Dunes Golf Course is Pate's best known work among a portfolio that might not be large but is very well respected. Kiva Dunes, which opened in 1990, has enjoyed the top spot in the state on many publications' rankings. While some may argue for other golf courses in the area, Kiva Dunes is always a must-play. And in the past couple of years, it's only gotten better.
Better greens, great conditioning at Kiva Dunes Golf Course
A couple of summers ago, Kiva Dunes Golf Course was shut down for a few weeks to install new Champion Bermuda greens. With the installation, personally supervised by Champion breeder Morris Brown, the golf course reopened with some of the best greens in the region, and that continues today.
Kiva Dunes Golf Course also has one of the region's most respected superintendents to take care of the greens in Mike Rienzi, who has seen the golf course through hurricanes, a cold winter and lots of daily fee play. The rest of the golf course, including its plush fairways and white sand bunkers, looks pretty good, too.
As for the difficulty of the golf course, which plays around 7,100 yards from the tips, that all depends on the wind. Located next to the sea, that's usually a given, which means even with the layout's wide fairways, finding the natural wetlands and ponds is pretty easy if you're not in control of your golf ball. Occasionally, though, the wind will lay down, like it did during our review round. That's when Pate's course is somewhat gettable.
"It's usually not this easy," said Mark Stillings, another Alabama alum and longtime director of golf at Kiva Dunes Golf Course. "This is really calm."
Great holes? Take your pick. There is a great variety of par 4s. Some are long and play really long into the wind; some, like the short fourth hole, are driveable for long hitters.
The par 3s also have a lot of bite to them, but Stillings said Pate's favorite is the 13th, a 175-yard Redan-style hole with native plants, sand and deep bunkers surrounding an elevated green that slopes front to back.
Kiva Dunes Golf Course: The verdict
When the wind is up, Kiva Dunes Golf Course can be a bear, which is why it's important to play the proper tees. A group of single-digit handicap players during our review round found plenty of challenge one tee up at 6,500 yards. Moving to the tips, even during a calm day, would have surely produced a few scores in the 90s. Plus, there are a few forced carries that will be difficult to navigate from the back tees by anyone who isn't a near-scratch player or at least carries the driver a long way.
With that said, Kiva Dunes Golf Course is a visual feast. Each hole has a unique look, and even though you can't see the Gulf of Mexico, you always feel its presence. The fairways are wide, so you can let the driver fly, but keeping it on the golf course is key.
The overall facility is also excellent. A large golf shop features plenty of logoed merchandise, both from the golf course and the local colleges, including, of course, the University of Alabama.
There's a large grass driving range, short game area and practice greens. Lessons are available from a pair of excellent teachers -- two-time PGA Dixie Section champion Rea Schuessler and former Swedish national champion Mikki Bjurro.
Kiva Dunes also has a number of condo units and rooms for rent both at the Kiva Village and Kiva Lodge. The lodge is located right behind the 18th green and over the golf shop and grill. Amenities include swimming pools, dunes walkovers to the beach, tennis and excellent dining.