A lost American links on the Gulf of Mexico
In the late 1950’s the Mobile Chamber of Commerce devised a plan to promote tourism in the area by developing a resort and residential community on Dauphin Island, a then largely unoccupied barrier island located 4 miles off the coast of Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico. The first bridge to the island had opened in 1955, opening the possibilities for development. A master plan for the usable land was laid out for streets, parks, commercial areas and residential lots. Sufficient acreage was set aside in the plan for what was to be the centerpiece of the project, the Isle Dauphine Golf Club.
The Maddox Construction Company of Batavia, Illinois was hired to design and build the golf course, which opened in late 1962. According to a June 1962 article in the Business Magazine of Golf, there were a multitude of seemingly “insurmountable” challenges faced by the builders:
“1. The site consisted almost entirely of sand dunes. This same white sand covered the entire course area with scarcely of trace of soil or organic material of any kind. As a matter of fact, the only soil available to the builders was contained in a swamp and a lake about four miles from the course site. There were no roads over which dirt could be hauled and the trucks and grading machinery could not negotiate the soft sand.
2. Both the inland swamp and the swampy areas of the course site contained much standing water, in some places to a depth of three feet.
3. The salt-impregnated sand of the beach blew and shifted with every breath of wind, toward and onto the prospective fairways, tees and greens.
4. The existing sand dunes were sharp crested and difficult to grade, and in great need of topsoil for the establishment of turf.”
The builders overcame many of these challenges, including severe drainage issues, with an admirable amount of ingenuity. They created a levee like line of man-made dunes, using construction debris, between the beach and the 18th fairway to protect the course from unusually high waves and sea levels. With the passage of time and blowing sand, the dune line looks like it’s been there for 500 years. The course was ranked in the top 100 in the United States in the 1960’s by at least one major golf publication. A stunning modern clubhouse and pro shop also opened in 1962 and remain in reasonable condition, although the original pro shop/grill now houses a local restaurant. The clubhouse is used mainly to host local events.
Playing Isle Dauphine for the first time in 15 years last week, I was struck by the excellent routing. It takes full advantage of the high duneland on the north side of the course, with several wonderful green sites. The Gulf of Mexico is in view from every hole. The 10th, 11th, 13th and 18th holes would not be out of place in Scotland. You can only imagine what the original links was like, more fully exposed to the elements. The slow decline of the course over the decades has rendered many of the dunes holes virtually unplayable. The encroachment of trees, that were never intended to be part of the original design, give a claustrophobic feel to wonderful holes that scream to be open to the sky.
The steady decline of the course can be traced to Hurricane Frederick in 1979. One of the most devastating storms in United States history, Frederick wiped out the Dauphin Island bridge. It took over 3 years to build a replacement. During this time, the island was only accessible by an unreliable ferry service. Many residents and influential course members fled the island, not to return. The once great course started to slowly slip away to the elements. When I first played the course in 1999, it was in barely playable condition.
The course limped along and then finally closed altogether in 2012. It was reopened in 2016, led by the efforts of longtime local member Dale Snellman, who managed to get the place in semi-playable condition. Nature takes over quickly in Alabama, especially on the Gulf coast. Dale recalled those original efforts to reopen the overgrown links:
“In May of 2014, I volunteered 30 days of my time to bush hog the entire golf course. The DIPOA board was going to pay someone $10,000 to do the job and I rented a tractor and did it for $3,300. The course was 40 percent under water and had gone to seed.”
Despite their best efforts, the new course operators were unable to keep the course open. The course sat idle for several months. Snellman secured a 3 year lease to operate the Isle Dauphine in 2018. He has managed to get all 18 holes open and restored the back nine to its original (and appropriate) position along the coast.
Dale is a one man crew, running the Starters Hut from a small shed between the 1st and 18 th tee. I met him on his lawnmower as I was playing the 10th hole. I introduced myself and told him that I have always loved the course. It immediately became apparent that this is a labor of love for him. His told me his sister, Denise, won the Alabama Golf Association Girls State Junior Championship at Isle Dauphine in 1973.
He is from Mobile and started playing Isle Dauphine in 1971. His father had a corporate membership at the club. It was much different on the island in those days:
“In the 70’s, it was a 700 member private club. We always had a top chef in the clubhouse who produced wonderful meals. The golf course lost 1,000 trees in 1979 during Hurricane Frederick, so you can imagine how tight the front nine was. The sand dunes on the front nine were not overgrown and there were not as many trees on them. It was much more scenic.”
In his mind, the serious decline of the course started in the mid 1980’s:
“The management would overseed the entire golf course for the snowbirds and when the rye grass would burn out in the late spring they would not pay a lot of attention to the Bermuda grass after that. So we had a good course in the cold months and a bad course in the warm months. Sounds kind of backwards for the locals doesn’t it?”
He attended the University of Southern Mississippi on a full golf scholarship, turned pro in 1984 and is a Lifetime Member of the PGA of America. I immediately knew that I was talking to a man that understood and appreciated golf courses, especially the wild potential of the American linksland he is valiantly maintaining. He has worked with several golf course Architects over the years, including Ron Garl, John LaFoy and Gil Hanse.
We discussed my long-imagined pipe dream of an architect like Rob Collins of King-Collins Golf reworking the course into what would surely be an instant masterpiece of American golf. He immediately seemed excited about this possibility. As a widely traveled and experienced golf professional, he is painfully aware of the current condition of the course:
“When I took back over in June of 2018, the greens were a 0 on a scale of 10. At least now they are a 2.5. I work, and have worked, 7 days a week and 10-14 hours a day to keep this golf course open in hopes to find the golden egg one day.”
Undoubtedly there are many obstacles to this dream of finding the golden egg. However, you only have to walk out from the 10th fairway over to the 18th to see the unbelievable potential of this place. There is room for one or maybe 2 more new holes in the natural linksland. When I sent my photos to Rob Collins he said, “Wow! It could be like Pine Valley and Pinehurst #2, but on the ocean.”
It could indeed. You can easily imagine golfers traveling from all over the country to play an authentic American links. A man with the passion and determination to match Dale Snellman could be what it takes to bring the ghost links of Alabama back to life.