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Kiva Dunes

Presented with a to-die-for site on southern Alabama's Gulf shore, Jerry Pate fashioned a masterpiece among sugar-white beaches, immense sand hills and gnarled beach oaks

By: Steve Eubanks

Appeared in January/February 2000 LINKS

When future golf developer Jim “Scrappy” Edgemon first met future U.S. Open Champion Jerry Pate, the two men were dubiously studious undergraduates at the University of Alabama. Edgemon, a pretty fair 6-handicapper who enjoyed golf at least as much as school, found himself playing behind Pate at the University course in Tuscaloosa on a particularly slow day.

“Jerry was piddling around on the greens, taking three and four putts from different places,” Edgemon recalls. “Finally we got to the [par-3] 16th, and he waved us through.”

While Pate’s memory is a little fuzzy on the “piddling around” part, he definitely remembers the moment the two men were officially introduced. “It was my second year at Alabama, and I was out playing with Tab Hudson from Jasper, Alabama,” says Pate. “When we got to 16th, these guys were pushing us, so I waved them up. One of the guys hit a 6-iron and I thought, ‘Man, that looks pretty good.’ It took one hop and started rolling at the hole, so I pulled the pin and it went in for a one. That was my introduction to Scrappy Edgemon.”

Two decades later, Edgemon sought to recapture a little of that same magic by hiring Pate to design a golf course for Edgemon’s Kiva Dunes Golf & Beach Club—a development set on a sliver of unspoiled waterfront property between Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, on the sugar-white beaches of south Alabama just a few miles from the town of Gulf Shores. “I had seen the property as early as 1985,” Pate recalls. “And I remember thinking at the time, ‘Course architects would kill for this site.’”

He was right in that respect. From the dining room on the second floor of Kiva Dunes’ clubhouse, you can see cargo ships in the Gulf on your left and shrimp boats churning toward port in Mobile Bay on your right. Between the two bodies of water are 250 acres of towering sand dunes, covered in beach oaks and pines, and home to 18 holes of links golf that are as timeless as any in the world.

“One thing I learned playing in the British Isles and Ireland is that great links courses have balance,” Pate says. “There’s a balance of short and long holes that play into and against the wind. At Kiva Dunes I went to painstaking depths to route the golf course around the wetlands so that nine holes run east and nine holes run west, which, again, is very typical of links golf. The summer wind typically moves with the sun, and the winter wind comes out of the west, so you get a different look depending on the time of day and time of year that you play.” 

Pate also went to painstaking extremes to ensure Kiva Dunes would be a memorable test and a cornerstone of his design career. Although he had become well-known for his co-design and consulting work with architects such as Tom Fazio, Bob Cupp, Ron Garl and Pete Dye, Kiva Dunes was Pate’s first project in which the entire design and construction rested on his shoulders. He took the responsibility to heart, calling in favors and drawing on his years of experience as both a player and a student of good design.

“The first thing I did was call Pete [Dye] and tell him I needed a good shaper who could work in a dunes layout. I understood that the problem with these kinds of courses is that designers and shapers want to make every hole the most dramatic hole in the world. Soon the golf course becomes unplayable. You have to keep in mind that you have 18 holes out there and you can create some challenging and dramatic holes, but you still have to make it fair.”

Dye understood exactly what Pate needed, so he recommended Scott Pool, the shaper Dye used at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, site of the 1991 Ryder Cup matches. Pool turned out to be a perfect choice, serving as Pate’s  right-hand man during construction.

“Scott had a great imagination,” says Pate. “I could describe how I wanted to flash a bunker or how it should be scalloped out, and he could do exactly what I envisioned.”

The two men also understood that they had been given a gift in the quality of the land. “The base was sugar-white sand that perked at 60 inches an hour,” Pate said. “That’s like sucking water down a straw.” That sand base made building the 61 bunkers that dot the layout easy. According to Edgemon, “All we had to do was dig a hole and rake what we found underneath.”

But to understand the balance Pate was trying to achieve, you have to look at Kiva Dunes from different angles and different tees, and as with most great links courses, you need to experience it on different days to fully appreciate its subtleties. The course record is 63, shot by Jeff Gallagher on an unusually windless day in 1994, the first year the course opened. Since then, other touring pros such as Andy Bean, Larry Rinker and Dicky Pride have all challenged the layout, with varying degrees of success. Regional qualifying for the PGA Tour has been held at Kiva Dunes three of the past four years, with scores ranging from 14-under-par to 5-over advancing to the finals.

Director of Golf Mark Stillings sums up most of the Q-schoolers’ opinions when he says, “I think depending on the wind and what they shot, some guys say this is one of the greatest golf courses they’ve ever seen, and some say it’s the worst. It all depends on your perspective.”

You have plenty of options from which to gain perspective. Pate generously sprinkled a minimum of five teeing areas per hole around the wetland vegetation and waste bunkers, so depending on how much perspective you’re interested in, you can pick a course that’s anywhere from 5,000 to 7,100 yards long, with plenty of variety. Length isn’t your biggest concern at Kiva Dunes, however. The biggest obstacle to good scores is the wind, the dunes and the untouched vegetation.

Natives to the region call them beach oaks, or scrubs, but a more apt description might be jail-bush or mangled-tree-from-which-there-is-no-recovery. They don’t tower like their inland cousins, the water oaks, nor do they branch out to provide any sort of natural canopy like those stately oaks that line the antebellum drives of Montgomery. Relentless ocean winds have beaten the beach oaks down to miniscule heights (6 to 12 feet), but what these tenacious arbors lack in stature, they more than make up for in breadth and density.

You’re lulled into an illusion that there are wide open spaces around the sand, water and berms, but don’t be deceived. Like the gnarled cypresses of northern California and the cork oaks of southern Spain, once a golf ball becomes entwined in the punishing branches of the beach oaks, a drop is your only option, with a bogey or higher to follow shortly thereafter.

But bogeys are inevitable at Kiva Dunes. In fact, a few of them were built in by design.

“I wanted to create at least one par-4 [No. 4, 465 yards from the tips] where if you’re downwind it’s a driver and a mid-iron, and if it’s into the wind you have to hit two woods and you still can’t get there,” says Pate. “By the same token if that wind is in your face on the seventh, you have number five and number 14, two relatively short par-5s, that are downwind. In that situation, your fours become longer and your fives become shorter, which is the way it should be. It’s like St. Andrews in that par on each hole doesn’t mean anything. You just try to finish in 72 shots.”

Nowhere is Pate’s attention to detail and penchant for spectacular-but-fair tests more evident than on the relatively short 13th, a 175-yard par-3. The green is large and receptive, but enormously elevated and guarded by six greenside bunkers and a lake.

“That’s my Redan hole,” Pate says. “Early in my career I played a lot of golf with Ben Crenshaw and I learned a lot from him about the history of architecture. I remember Ben telling me about the Redan hole at North Berwick. Redan means fortress, and in 1982 I finally went to North Berwick and saw it for myself. Charles Blair Macdonald was the first to bring it to America, and Seth Raynor improved it. The 14th hole at Shoreacres in Chicago is a Redan hole, as is the fourth hole at the National Golf Links of America. The 13th at Kiva Dunes is a combination of all the good things I saw in those Redan holes, plus I added a Pine Valley look with a tree and some natural wasteland out front.”

Even though Pate’s Redan hole is a completely man-made creation, there is nothing about the elevation changes or the positioning of the green, tee or bunkers that suggests it is anything but a natural extension of the surrounding dunes. In fact, all of the holes at Kiva Dunes give you the impression that they have been around forever. In the tradition of all great links courses, this one looks like men just started playing golf on what they found.

“Good architecture is timeless,” says Edgemon. “If you think about the great links courses in America—Shinnecock, National Golf Links, Kiawah Island—unless you know the history of those courses, you can’t put a date on when they were built. I think we’ve come pretty close to that same sort of thing here.”

Only time will tell, but Kiva Dunes is certainly off to a great start. 

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