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Pilgrimage to the Panhandle

We could have gone out to one of the many restaurants along the beach, some of which are pretty good. But the native dishes of shrimp--steamed, boiled or fried--oysters, fish, crabs and crawfish are best eaten in a casual atmosphere, and the most memorable meals are accompanied not by wine but by a cold bottle of beer.

So we bought a couple of pounds of "bugs"--steamed crawfish--and a six-pack, sat on the balcony of the beachside condo where we were staying, with our bare feet up on the railing, and sucked heads. It beat, by miles, anything we could have ordered at Maison Pretentious. Besides, we had golf in the morning and needed our rest.

Kiva Dunes is so close to the beach that when you stand over your putt, you can hear the sound of the surf. The course, then, has the feel of a genuine links course, where the designer did not impose his scheme on the land as much as allow the terrain to reveal what was already there. That designer was Jerry Pate, and with Kiva Dunes he created a course that a U.S. Open champion could truly love. It punishes bad shots remorselessly and then seduces you into making bold decisions. When they go wrong, it punishes you again. I hit a four-iron to the green on one par five, thinking I was some kind of golf beast. I got it all and knew I had the range, but the shot leaked a little. So I hit my third out of some palmettos off a sandy lie. I was lucky to bogey the hole, wasting a good drive for the millionth time. That is the fate of golf beasts and typical of the rigor of Kiva Dunes, where the penance for even small transgressions is a stroke or more. On a par three where you hit over a tidy little swamp with blooming water lilies, my wife and I both stepped up with a confidence that came from generally hitting our approach shots well. My wife put her nine-iron into the water left of the green, pin high.

"Mishit or misaimed?" said I.

"Neither," said she, miffed.

I didn't get the situation (typically) and put my pitching wedge in exactly the same place. The hole seems almost criminally unfair.

The course felt, and played, like it belonged, and the local flora and fauna were right at home. While we waited between one tee and the next green (more slow-play miseries), we admired a six- or seven-foot gator and seve ral of her offspring. She hung motionless, two or three feet from the bank, showing only her nostrils and her eyes, which were full of menace. The little guys swam around her playfully.

Kiva Dunes, we decided, was the essence of Gulf Coast golf. The course couldn't be anywhere else, and if you were blindfolded and flown here, you would open your eyes and see the sea oats, the little dune junipers and the short pine trees arthritically bent from the ceaseless winds, and you would know exactly where you were. The course was beautiful and also harder than Chinese arithmetic.

We consoled ourselves with crab claws, steamed shrimp and cold beer a couple of miles down the road at a place called Roundback. We felt like Notre Dame after a tough loss to Michigan. We needed a confidence builder. Bring on Navy.

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