It had been seven years since the last time I visited Kiva Dunes in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and boy was the return worth the wait.
The undisputed king of courses near this great vacation destination, Kiva Dunes was designed by former US Open Champion Jerry Pate and originally opened for public play in the Spring of 1995.
Situated between the Gulf of Mexico and Bon Secour Bay, decades of havoc caused by strong coastal winds, storms and multiple hurricanes led to a multi-million dollar renovation in 2015 (also overseen by Pate) since my maiden visit. The course replaced its Champion turf grass on their greens with Tif-eagle, which is more playable for the average golf enthusiast while also being more sustainable given the site’s constant exposure to salt water and the elements. Its windswept bunkers were also reworked in addition to leveling out all the tee boxes. A lot of trees have been removed over the years, as well (many a result of hurricanes) – a lot!
The result of that renovation and tree loss/removal is now a more playable golf course. It’s still got a ton of bite with just under 7,100 yards in length, forced carries, dramatic bunkering and plenty of water in play, but the tree lines are certainly now much more forgiving.
Outside of the way it looks from the air, probably my favorite aspect of Kiva Dunes is its greens. Pate’s design style here is almost Langford/Moreau-esque with oversized putting surfaces that feature massive false fronts and exciting internal contours. Maybe the best example of this is the fabulous par three 13th and its highly elevated green complex. This hole would blend in seamlessly on the Links course at Lawsonia.
My new friend, Easton, and I were treated to an otherworldly sunrise the morning of our round at Kiva Dunes, and I couldn’t have been more excited to photograph the course in such a glorious setting.
The tremendous scale of the Gulf Shores region and beautiful scenery surrounding the Fort Morgan Peninsula offered incredible views with the unencumbered morning light source, water all around to reflect it and the ebbs and flows of its fairways enhancing light and shadows. The white and pastel hued beach homes and bungalows abutting the property lines and beaches only accentuated its visual appeal – it all came together spectacularly.
The golf course
The course starts out with a rather straight-forward par four with a wide fairway that leads to a fairly narrow green. It’s an easy handshake that’s always welcomed at a course as challenging as Kiva Dunes.
The second is the course’s first par five, stretching to 541 yards from the tips and 521 from the first tees in. Water envelops the entire right side of the approach area and makes the setup shot a challenge between the pond and bunkers.
I actually flew this green in two, rolling off the back-right and almost into the water.
The third is an angled shot over water to an oversized green that falls off right, left and long to deep vegetation and sand traps. As I mentioned earlier, Pate’s sloping of green complexes at Kiva Dunes is really intriguing – you can see a bit of that in the top photo below:
A drivable par four, the fourth is a nice risk/reward hole that can set up an eagle opportunity with a big tee shot. The green is well elevated, so
Kiva Dunes has scores of yardage (7,092 from the gold tees), if needed, but plays more manageably from most sets of tees. The fifth is a good example of this, stretching to 576 yards from the tips. It presents a much simpler challenge from the blues (513 yards) and whites (461 yards).
The key shot on five is from the tee, where driving distances pinch between 245 and 310 yards down the fairway. Water on the left is definitely in play, as is the natural vegetation and waste areas down the right.
A ton of contouring was incorporated into the fairways at Kiva Dunes, and a great instance of this is on the par four sixth, shown below. A manageable hole distance-wise, the tee shot plays right-to-left over a vast waste bunker that leads to a really cool little green site.
There’s rarely a level shot from the fairways of Kiva Dunes.
A long four, the seventh is the course’s number-one handicapped hole. Wide open for driving, there’s little trouble to find but a really long way to go (465 from the golds or 424 from the blues).
The eighth is the shortest par three on the course, and to me the most benign. Tipping out at just 161 yards and shortening to 135 from the whites, there’s beautiful white sand all around but one of the most subtly breaking putting surfaces of the bunch.
The front nine finishes with a challenging 412-yard par four with two distinct fairways. A pond bisects the hole’s layout between 220-300 yards (depending on tees and angle) before it plays across the water to a sliver of fairway and green that’s well-protected on the left by alligators and the front-right by sand.
This is a tough finisher and a great par.
The back nine opens with a short 334-yard par four with a wide-open, inviting fairway. Trouble on ten looms near the green, though, where three long bunkers front its entryway.
Another shorter four, the eleventh is a great scoring opportunity if the fairway’s found. Playing back parallel to the tenth, these are two great chances for birdie coming in.
Playing alongside the property’s central canal, the twelfth is a gorgeous knee-knocker of a par four with water bordering the entire left side of its layout. Don’t lose your tee shot left, obviously, but also don’t overcompensate to the right and find yourself hitting from the trees and wasteland.
Kiva Dunes has a terrific set of par threes, led of course by the mesmerizing thirteenth. The others are a combination of long and mid-length shots, including the 193-yard (from the blues/first tees in) third and 196-yard seventeenth, as well as the 155-yard eighth.
Thirteen plays over wasteland to an almost buried elephant-like green complex that divides the left and right sides with a pronounced front-to-back spine.
To me, this is one of the best designed par threes I’ve ever played down south.
As I mentioned earlier, the terrain at Kiva Dunes is wavy with a lot of ups and downs in its fairways. Its very links-like in that fashion (in addition to its adjacency to the ocean) and results in a multitude of uneven and sidehill lies outside of the tee shots. This affect was exacerbated by incredible golden hour light, as you can see in these photos of its back-to-back par fives on the back nine:
The 14th is the most heavily wooded hole on the course, with scrub oaks lining both sides of the fairway and playing to a cleared area shrouded behind an outcropping of trees. The green on fourteen is one of the course’s most challenging, highly elevated with slopes careening anything off-center toward low-lying collection areas.
The second of these consecutive par fives, the fifteenth plays opposite the previous hole and to a slightly more forgiving driving zone. The fairway on sixteen is one of the widest on the course, helping soothe the visual intimidation provided by the canal on that side.
Playing back alongside the northern edge of the canal, the sixteenth is a mid-length par four with one deep pot bunker fronting the left corner of its green.
The seventeenth is the toughest of Kiva Dunes’ cadre of par threes, playing across the canal from the back tees and alongside it from the forward ones. Long (228/193/160) and into the wind, the water left is always in play while the elevated green and deep bunkers surrounding it would make this one-shotter a memorable par or birdie.
Finishing off a great round of golf at Kiva Dunes is the eighteenth. Framed by the clubhouse and resort, the eighteenth has one of the course’s largest green complexes (13,000 square feet according to the website!), and plays
The Gulf Shores of Alabama is a wonderful vacation destination whether with your family or golf buddies, and if you’re looking to hit the links while on Spring Break (or any other time) then your best option is Kiva Dunes. Its challenging layout, awesome green complexes, windswept topography and beachside property lend it a memorable coastal vibe that’s everything I dream of when visiting down south, and its links-like design makes it really unique to the region.
Interested in purchasing images from this photo shoot?
All photos in this article are available to buy as high-resolution digital downloads for personal use. A few of my favorites from this sunrise shoot at Kiva Dunes include:
Have you had a chance yet to play Kiva Dunes? Where do you rank it among the courses in Gulf Shores?
For more on our family and golf vacation experience in Gulf Shores, Alabama, please read The Gulf Coast Road Trip, Part 1: Gulf Shores, AL:
For more on Kiva Dunes, and to compare the course’s aesthetics against its pre-renovated (Spring 2015) version, check out Golf Course Review: Kiva Dunes (AL):