Ambition in Alabama
How a father and son’s dream turned a sleepy beach town into a world-class golf destination
By Dave Finn
This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Chicago District Golfer.
Without determination and dedication, dreams don’t come true. It took time, effort and more than a little grit for farmer Robert Craft and his father, J.C., to realize their ambitions. Thirty years ago, the pair opened Cotton Creek Golf Club in Gulf Shores, Ala., and since then, the town has never looked back.
The Craft family understood that Gulf Shores had forever been recognized as a beloved summer vacation destination.
From Memorial Day until Labor Day, tourists and travelers flocked to their sunny shores. The problem was that come the fall, all the vacationers returned home. Restaurants and shops closed for the season and many condos and resorts stood empty until the following spring.
At first, the townspeople resisted the idea that golf could bring greater prosperity to their area, but when it was announced that Arnold Palmer would be the architect and builder of their future, they quickly embraced a new opportunity.
The Crafts looked to Myrtle Beach as a good example of how golf was used to expand the tourist season using an inventory that was already in place. As Robert Craft said, “We copied the best.”
Today, the Alabama Gulf Coast boasts seven championship golf courses and more than 15,000 rooms.
Craft Farms Golf Resort offers two 18-hole courses designed by the legendary Palmer. Both are well-manicured, resort-style layouts that are easy to walk, and with five sets of tees, there’s a yardage for players of all abilities. Cypress Bend has wide, subtle fairways that meander through live oaks and towering pine groves. With water evident on every hole, positioning is a golfer’s best friend.
Gulf Shores Golf Club is the elder statesman in the area, designed in the ’60s, then updated in 2005 by the father and son team of Jay and Carter Morrish. This par-71 has private-club conditioning with a mature, tree-lined parkland feel to go along with relatively flat generous fairways and short rough for ease of play. But don’t be fooled because water comes into play on 12 holes. There also are many strategically placed trees and deep, soft-sand bunkers that provide more than enough trouble along the way.
When Kiva Dunes Golf Club opened in 1995, Golf Digest honored it as one of the best new public courses in the U.S. and still rates the place as one of the finest in Alabama. This superb Jerry Pate design is a links-style layout offering plenty of forced carries over sand dunes, lakes and natural wilds, so there’s plenty of challenge.
In 2015, Kiva Dunes spent $1.5 million to replace the greens with Bermuda Tiff-eagle as it is much more heat, salt and wind tolerant. The landscaping team also trimmed lower branches under most oak trees that line the fairways, and eliminated some of the flashed-up bunkers.
A word to the wise; the greens are hard since they are relatively new and extremely fast with an average size of 7,500 square feet. In fact, the 18th is the largest putting surface in the state at almost one-third of an acre.
The Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club is a favorite in Gulf Shores simply because it is so photogenic. Architect Earl Stone designed 27 holes around some 30 lakes that gracefully flow through an unspoiled natural terrain. The immaculately conditioned Lakes, Cypress and Marsh nines feature wide fairways, lots of natural grasses and well-defined water hazards on every hole. The greens are large and extremely fast, thanks
to the Champion Ultra Dwarf grass.
Many visitors come to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., to enjoy the golf in a location that many see as a hidden gem, but they quickly discover additional reasons why this area attracts more than 5 million visitors every
year. The local motto is “Leave Only Fingerprints,” but there are plenty of memories to be made on a 32-mile stretch of pristine, white quartz sand beach and an appreciation for genuine Southern hospitality.
The King Reigns
When the Craft family hatched the idea of building its own golf course, it immediately hired a consulting company to do a feasibility study on the project. Hearing that the community needed a “marketing accelerator,” they were determined to recruit a signature architect.
It just so happened that when J.C. Craft and his son went looking, the newly established Palmer Course Management company was also looking for its first client. Fate brought the Crafts and Arnold Palmer together and a bond was formed that would last a lifetime.
“My father was a lot like Arnold,” said Robert Craft, “a self-made man who was determined not to fail.”
When J.C. passed away, Palmer personally called Robert Craft’s cell phone so he could express his condolences to J.C.’s wife.
“That shows the kind of man he was,” said Robert, who was unabashed in his opinion that Palmer was “responsible for kickstarting our destination.”
Robert Craft has been the mayor of Gulf Shores since 2008.