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Pilgrimage to the Panhandle

Peninsula was somewhere between Cotton Creek and Kiva Dunes. Geographically and style-wise. But for some reason, there was no slow-play problem here. The course was lenient and, in some cases, downright merciful. You could play a bad tee shot out of tall grass, threading some pine trees and perhaps saving the hole. The greens made big, inviting targets, and even when you missed them you could bump the ball up off the fringe or play it out of the generally shallow bunkers. The course was in excellent condition, better than any we had played all week.

Peninsula was a confidence builder, and our spirits were raised. That night we dressed up and went to dinner at the Perdido Beach Resort. I had pompano, Marsha red snapper. We drank wine. We looked to the future with confidence.

Which lasted for two holes at Lost Key. Maybe three.

We had been warned--by our waiter, at the hotel, the night before. "People around here," he said, "don't call it Lost Key. They call it Lost Ball."

It was at Lost Key that I went into the sawgrass armed with a three-iron against the moccasins. This was another Palmer course and, in fairness, it did maximize the terrain. You can't drain and fill the way you once could in Florida (Lost Key is just across the line), so this course took what it could get. The fairways were exceedingly narrow, the roughs were generally unplayable and downright forbidding and the approaches required the kind of marksmanship you get from Tomahawk missiles. By dusk, on the back nine, we had surrendered and were just having fun. So, of course, we were playing better, even though the course was still winning. We admired a pair of osprey nesting in a weathered old pine snag. Listened to the mournful cooing of the doves. Smelled the salt air coming in off the Gulf about a half mile away. We both birdied a nasty little par three, and as we were driving off, a three-foot-long moccasin slithered across the path, about a cart length in front of us. I thought about following him into the dune juniper with my three-iron on the theory that this course was tough enough without deadly serpents. But my wife persuaded me to let him live. Maybe she was feeling charitable after draining her sixteen-footer. Or maybe she believed that this garden needed snakes.

We had, in truth, a great time at Lost Key. It is the kind of course that builds resolve, if not confidence. Next time, I said, I'd come with my game face on.

We were only a few minutes from Rusty's, where fried mullet has been served for a couple thousand years. Mullet are to the coast what catfish are to the interior, and if you made a pile of the bones of all the mullet that have been fried at Rusty's, it would look like a slag heap outside a West Virginia coal mine. When I first started going to Rusty's, I was served fried mullet in a galvanized wash bucket. The place has progressed now to plates. But the fish, crisp and hot from the grease, was the same. Also the coleslaw and the hush puppies and the cold beer. "Let's go inland tomorrow," I suggested. "Get away from the beach for a while."

Rock Creek, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, is laid out over rolling terrain. The fairways are lined with pine, oak and dogwood. There are a few low, swampy places, but the overall sensation is that of being on high ground, which was a nice change. Also, the course was designed by Earl Stone, who designed Peninsula. Earl, we decided, was a compassionate man. We played out of wide fairways, for the most part, and hit to voluptuously broad greens. It was hard to believe we were a mere hour's drive from Lost Key. The dogwood looked especially chaste and beautiful, but that could have had something to do with a string of honest pars.


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