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The Ghost Links of Alabama

One man’s daily struggle to raise an American golf dream from a sandy grave

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Listen to a reading of this feature by Jim Hartsell

Upon my first visit, in 1998, the Isle Dauphine Golf Club was a course only by the most liberal definition. While on holiday with my young son, Jake, we picked up our balls on several holes because the fairway grass was simply too high to be playable. But I will never forget pegging it on one of the back nine’s par 3s. Perched a mere 15 feet from the white-sand beach of the Gulf of Mexico, I realized we were standing on one of the few true links courses in North America. Scant few knew it even existed.

Today the grass is back to playable, but the course’s relative anonymity remains. The challenges facing Isle Dauphine are myriad, among them local ownership issues, lack of funding for everything from maintenance to marketing, and its location in a hurricane hot spot. But its potential as a bucket-list golf destination is on par with almost any of the newly constructed outposts in this era of the build-it-and-they-will-come golf resort. I know it, and Dale Snellman, the man single-handedly keeping Isle Dauphine open, has staked his career on it.

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The barrier islands of the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf Coast are a remote and environmentally fragile paradise. Horn Island, located off the coast of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and accessible only by boat, inspired the legendary eccentric Southern artist Walter Inglis Anderson to frequently row a small skiff 10 miles each way to paint and sketch its stunning natural landscape and wildlife. In the name of artistic inspiration, Anderson once rode out a hurricane on Horn Island by strapping himself to a pine tree. He said he had to fully experience the forces of nature. Such is the draw of the barrier islands. Similarly, a certain type of golfer is pulled, almost instinctively, to the spectacle of seaside links golf. The act of hitting a ball on firm, sandy ground with the surf in view is a rare and special pleasure. The holy grail for a golf course site—sandy soil and hard by the ocean—is virtually nonexistent in North America. When found, that type of naturally occurring golf terrain—so abundant throughout the United Kingdom, most famously in Scotland—is often located in areas so environmentally sensitive and unstable as to preclude even the thought of man-made development. So it is with the majority of the Alabama and Mississippi barrier islands: With their beauty comes a natural instability in the form of severe weather and the constant erosion caused by it. Human habitation is tenuous; golf course construction is a virtual impossibility. The fact that Isle Dauphine Golf Club still exists today—right on the Gulf of Mexico—seems almost unthinkable.

Dauphin Island is located 15 miles east of Horn Island and 4 miles off the Alabama coast. With a total land area of 28 square miles (depending on current sea levels), the island has a surprisingly rich and diverse history. The long, narrow strip of sand was first inhabited by Native American Mound Builders as early as 1100 A.D. Evidence of their long-lost culture, in the form of ancient shell mounds, remains visible along the island’s north shore. Spanish explorers lived in the area briefly in the late 1500s, staying long enough to create the first map of the region. The French settled there in 1699 and controlled the Alabama coast for about 70 years, gifting the island its modern name. In 1821, Fort Gaines was constructed on Dauphin’s eastern tip to defend the entrance to Mobile Bay and its strategic port. The island remained sparsely populated until the state of Alabama completed the first bridge across the bay in 1955.

Commercial and residential development didn’t materialize at the rate officials expected, so, in the late 1950s, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, with assistance from the city government, devised a plan to promote tourism in the area by creating a resort and residential community. The group drafted an ambitious master plan with streets, parks, commercial areas and residential lots. Sufficient acreage was set aside for the centerpiece of the project: the Isle Dauphine Golf Club. The development was promoted by the chamber of commerce as “The Gulf Coast’s Great New Playground.”

Remarkably, the golf course was afforded prime seaside real estate in the master plan, with no intervening residential sites blocking direct views of the Gulf—the antithesis of the typical American developer mindset. Golf was experiencing a boom, thanks in large part to a young Arnold Palmer smiling on TV screens across the country, and officials believed a seaside golf course was the perfect way to bring much-needed tourism dollars to this remote area.

The Maddox Construction Company of Chicago was hired in late 1960 to design and build the golf course. Originally a road construction company, the firm switched exclusively to golf course construction in 1921. By the late 1950s it had completed projects all over the United States and was recognized as a leader in the industry. Not known as designers, the firm typically worked to construct plans prepared separately by a golf course architect. In the case of Isle Dauphine Golf Club, however, it served as both designer and builder, foreshadowing a now-common approach. Charles Maddox, the president of the company at the time, is credited as Isle Dauphine’s designer.

According to a June 1962 article in Business Magazine of Golf, there was a multitude of seemingly insurmountable obstacles on Dauphin Island:

1. The course site consisted almost entirely of sharp-crested sand dunes that were difficult to grade.

2. White sand covered the entire course area, with scarcely a trace of soil or organic material, which was desperately needed to grass the course. The only soil available to the builders was in swamps and a small lake about 4 miles from the site.

3. There were no roads over which that soil could be hauled, and the heavy trucks and grading machinery could not negotiate the soft sand.

4. Both the inland swamp and the swampy areas of the course site contained an abundance of standing water, in some places 3 feet deep.

5. The salt-infused sand of the beach blew and shifted with every breath of Gulf breeze, onto the prospective fairways, tees and greens.

The Maddox Construction crew surmounted these obstacles with an admirable amount of ingenuity. A levee of man-made dunes, using construction debris, was created between the beach and the 18th fairway to protect the course from wind, unusually high waves and varying sea levels. With the passage of time and decades of blowing sand, today the dune line looks like it has been there since the time of the shell mounds. The low wetland areas were built up with sand and topsoil from on-site excavations, and a stormwater drainage system was developed with an overflow drain line extending onto pilings out into the Gulf. This system also alleviated severe construction-drainage issues. Several small, spring-fed freshwater ponds were utilized for irrigation. With an adequate layer of topsoil added to the sand, the site provided excellent seaside turf conditions. Creative as the Maddox team was, it is highly unlikely that current environmental regulations governing construction would allow for any of this to be done to a U.S. property today.

The course opened for play in spring 1962. In Golf Digest’s debut ranking of the top 200 American courses in 1966, Isle Dauphine made the list. Residential property sales and commercial development continued to expand. Members of the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association, chartered as the legal owners of the course and associated buildings, were granted “free” membership to Isle Dauphine. They paid a nominal greens fee of $2.50 per round, and visitors who were signed on as a guest by a member paid $4 per round and were granted “full use of the clubhouse.” That model was more in line with the visitors’ culture found in clubs in the United Kingdom, which was then and remains today highly unusual for private golf clubs in the United States.

A stunning modern clubhouse, designed by Ellis and Winter Architects of Mobile, was also constructed. Beyond serving the golf club, the building was envisioned as the center of social activity on the island. Considering the state of civic architecture in mid-20th century Alabama, its progressive design is remarkable. Decreasing circular forms are stacked on each other like a layered wedding cake, with the basic plan consisting of a dining room and locker level, a ballroom level and a bar/lounge on the top floor. The bar level opens onto a roof terrace overlooking the 18th green and the vast expanse of the Gulf, creating one of the greatest—and still most relatively unknown—clubhouse vistas in the country.

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The clubhouse is no longer open on a daily basis. A local seafood restaurant, Pirate’s Bar & Grill, now occupies the original detached pro shop and grill, proudly warning patrons to “beware of other restaurants that serve frozen fish or shrimp from China.” Dale Snellman runs the course out of a small prefab storage shed located between the first and 10th tees. There is no honesty box; Snellman collects the $10 greens fees in person. The 200-square-foot structure—the type for sale on back roads across Alabama for “No Money Down/$100 per Month”—has enough room for a desk and a small counter with a few sleeves of discount golf balls. An American flag flies from a power pole next to the tiny front porch.

The slow but steady decline of Isle Dauphine Golf Club can be traced back to Hurricane Frederic in 1979. One of the most devastating storms in United States history, Frederic completely wiped out the 4-mile-long Dauphin Island Bridge, along with much of the Alabama Gulf Coast. It took more than three years to build a new bridge. During this time, the island was accessible only by a highly unreliable ferry service; many residents and influential course members fled the island, never to return. The once-great links began its inexorable slip away to the forces of nature.

In Snellman’s reckoning, the course was further decimated by mismanagement in the mid-1980s. By that time, struggling to retain local members, the course made an ill-fated bid to attract players from the Northeast heading south for the winter and over-seeded with winter rye grass. It would burn out in late spring, and the subsequent maintenance of the dominant Bermuda grass was not taken seriously, leaving the course poorly conditioned during the summer months. Local play, sorely needed to keep the course a viable financial proposition, decreased even more.

The course limped along, open to the public through the 2000s, and finally closed altogether in 2012. It was reopened in early 2016 as a nine-hole course, led by the maintenance efforts of Snellman, who managed to get the place in semi-playable condition. When nature is unregulated by man, it takes over with alarming haste, especially on the Gulf Coast. Snellman remembers what it took to reopen the completely overgrown links: “I volunteered 30 days of my time to bush-hog the entire golf course,” he told me. “The Dauphin Island Property Owners 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% under water because a drainage pipe had been capped. The place had entirely gone to seed.”

Despite those efforts, the new course operators (which did not include Snellman) couldn’t keep it open. The links once again sat idle for months, and nature began yet another reclamation project. Snellman, however, refused to give up. In 2018, he secured a three-year lease from the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association to manage the property. Working virtually by himself, he managed to tame all 18 holes and reopen it. The back nine has been restored to its original position along the Gulf. The course is playable today, though just barely.

Photo by Kevin D. Liles

Snellman is a one-man crew. When he is not cutting grass, he runs the course from the shed/starter’s hut/pro shop. On the day of my return visit, the pro shop was locked and nobody was in sight, so I took my bag and followed the sign to the first tee. It was almost overwhelming to be back at Isle Dauphine after so many years, thinking about that perfect day two decades ago with my now-grown son. It was a hot afternoon in late May. Ominous storm clouds were gathering to the west, yet the ever-present Gulf breeze provided welcome relief from the relentless coastal humidity.  As I walked to the second green, a tall, lean man in a large straw hat drove up to greet me—the lone golfer on the course. “The Outlaw Josey Wales on a lawnmower,” I thought. After shutting off his equipment, Snellman ceremoniously removed his hat and introduced himself. “Do you need a cart? I can go get one for you. It’s only $10 more,” he said kindly. I replied that I preferred to walk, but when I mentioned my lifelong fascination with the course, his face immediately lit up. He spoke glowingly about Isle Dauphine at every turn. He comes from a golfing family and proudly mentioned that his sister, Denise, won the Alabama Girls State Junior Championship on this very course in 1973.

A Mobile native, Snellman first played Isle Dauphine in 1971, when his father obtained a corporate membership. The family spent much of their leisure time at the course during the club’s halcyon days. There were as many as 700 members, and golf was the center of social activity on the island; the biggest event of the year was the annual Fourth of July tournament. Childhood recollections are often idyllic, but Snellman spoke in great detail about what made the course special. The dune holes on the front nine were not yet overgrown with scrub oaks, and the course was in excellent condition year-round. The turf played firm and fast, like a true links should. He looked wistfully out at the fairway and said it was not unusual to get 30 to 40 yards of roll on tee shots with the right trajectory.

Snellman has spent a lifetime in the game. A PGA-certified professional, he attended the University of Southern Mississippi on a full golf scholarship, becoming a pro in 1984. He has held various positions in the industry over the years, having worked with several golf course architects including Ron Garl, John LaFoy and Gil Hanse. Now his life is dedicated to Isle Dauphine and finding a benefactor to help him once again realize its potential.

Snellman is an old-school Southern man: polite, fiercely proud of where he’s from and speaks only when he’s got something to say. He holds nature at bay as best he can, but he knows what good golf looks like. He was painfully aware of the course’s condition during my visit. In addition to his love for the course, I also sensed resignation—a quiet man fighting a Sisyphean battle. The encroachment of coastal scrub oaks, pine trees and other natural vegetation—never part of the original design—gives a claustrophobic feel to sandy holes on the front nine that scream to be open to the sky and the vast Gulf of Mexico beyond. But there is only so much one man can do. “When I took back over in June of 2018, the greens were a zero on a scale of 10,” he said, sweating in the sticky Gulf air. “At least now they are a 2.5. I work seven days a week and 10 to 14 hours a day to keep this golf course open in hopes of finding the golden egg one day.” Then he cordially said he had to get back to work, but invited me to chat further in the pro shop after I finished and came to settle up.

Snellman knows Isle Dauphine is a blank canvas—now all he needs is a blank check.
After multiple closures, Dale Snellman made it his mission to keep Isle Dauphine alive. He now logs 14-hour days as the course’s pro, general manager, grounds crew and whatever else is needed.

Why hasn’t a well-financed developer ever come in to restore and create the great American links on such prime oceanfront golf property? There are plenty of reasons, but, as with most things, it comes down to money. Developers are reluctant, and rightfully so, to invest substantial capital in a property they cannot own or, at the very least, lease over the long term. The Dauphin Island Property Owners Association legally owns the golf course property, and by all indications it seems unlikely that it would be willing to sell. A long-term lease would appear more viable, although the last few agreements have been for just three years. Then there’s the weather: The pool of potential developers is greatly reduced upon discovering the reality of investing $10 to $15 million in a property that sits square in one of the most active hurricane regions in the U.S.

Then again, maybe all Snellman needs to do is get someone with deep pockets to walk the back nine. This time, I was even more impressed by Maddox’s routing. He took full advantage of the high dune land on the north side of the course, with several of the most wonderful and natural green sites I have seen. The Gulf of Mexico is in view from almost every hole; the 10th, 11th, 13thand 18th holes would not be out of place on the Western Isles of Scotland. It was easy to get excited about a restoration of the original layout, with the links more fully exposed to the elements—Scotland in the barrier islands. Immediately after my round, I texted some photos of the course to Rob Collins of the King-Collins Golf architecture firm. His response came immediately: “Wow! It could be like Pine Valley and Pinehurst No. 2, but on the ocean.”

Snellman’s dream may be a long shot, but he’s not wrong.

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Like many native Alabamians, every summer vacation of my childhood was spent on the state’s Gulf Coast. Golf was always a big part of these family holidays, with several brothers and cousins getting up early every morning for the first tee times at Gulf State Park. I realized that, for me, the pull of Isle Dauphine went well beyond saving a golf course. After the round, Snellman and I continued our chat. It took a few minutes, but he opened up about his hopes for the future. I took his business card and promised to do whatever I could to help him. “I appreciate that,” he said quietly. “This place deserves another chance.”

Not quite ready to leave, I walked out to the beach by the 18th green. My mind pictured 12 stunning, world-renowned new holes—like the mythical Shiskine on the Scottish island of Arran. But in the late-afternoon sunlight, with the oranges of the Gulf sunset shimmering on the greens, I began to see Snellman’s vision of something different, something more uniquely American: the Gulf Coast’s great new playground.