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Pilgrimage to the Panhandle

The most celebrated courses in the area, though, were farther west, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay at Lakewood Golf Club, part of Marriott's Grand Hotel Resort & Golf Club. The courses have lots of character and a membership of old-South snobs, but you could play there if you were a hotel guest. The golf was good any time of year, but when the azaleas were in bloom, the courses were sublime. Between those two courses lay a long, ripe stretch of low, coastal country that was largely vacant. There were some small settlements where fishermen lived, and a few people had built very simple summer cottages--no heat, no air-conditioning. There were a few beer joints and honky-tonks and a couple of places where you could eat raw oysters and fried shrimp. Mostly there were miles and miles of empty beach, acres and acres of piney woods and lots of low swampy country where a boy could fish and kill snakes. Then, twenty years ago, the area was gripped by a development fever that has not broken yet. High-rise condominiums soared out of the sand dunes. Big hotels moved in and marinas sprang up along the shores of the bays and bayous. New restaurants appeared, and they printed their menus on paper instead of on the walls.

The place just boomed, and the sons and grandsons of people who had spent more time behind a mule than inside a car began arriving in Japanese and German automobiles to spend a couple of weeks at the condo. A lot of them wanted to play golf. Now, twenty years into the boom, a determined golfer could come to the area and easily play a different high-quality public course every day of the week, and if he worked at it a little, he could stretch that into two weeks.

My wife, Marsha, and I live in Vermont, and the prospect of going to the Gulf Coast late in March seemed just about irresistible. We would be exchanging the last remnants of snow and ice, as it transitioned to mud, for the dogwood and azaleas. Instead of sitting inside, listening to the furnace, we would be walking on the beach and even swimming. We would also be playing golf every day.

It was, as they say, a no-brainer.

"Amazing how this place has changed," I said as we drove past lavish new homes that were part of a resort-and-hotel complex called Craft Farms that was built around three courses. We were playing Cotton Creek, which, at eleven years, was the oldest of them. "I think these used to be soybean fields," Marsha said as we pulled up to the bag drop. "I'd say it looks better as a golf course," she added, and I couldn't argue. The course, which was designed by Palmer, flowed from a high, sandy plateau down into the wet marsh country in a way that felt almost entirely organic. The fairways were long but not exceedingly tight. If you went too far off-line, however, you were either in a gum-and-bay tree swamp or water. There was plenty of water, and I found some of it. I looked around for alligators but didn't see any.

We had time for wildlife viewing; Cotton Creek was crowded. The kid at the bag drop had warned us. "Spring-break crowd," he'd said. "Lots of beginners out there."

For a stretch of four or five holes, we waited at virtually every tee. But there are worse places for slow golf. We sat in our cart, watching a heron work the edge of a cattail bog, while the foursome ahead of us crossed the fairway again and again, unloading to hit, then piling back into the carts to drive another fifty abrupt yards before parking, unloading and hitting again.

"The heron has much better tempo," my wife said. It took us four and a half hours to play our round at Cotton Creek (we normally go around in about three and a quarter hours), and when we finished, we were hungry.

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