By R.J. Smiley
Playing golf on the bay side of the peninsula between Destin and Panama City Beach at Sandestin Resort can be a study in the migratory birds that winter along the Gulf.
The Links Course at Sandestin is, in reality, a water hazard with a few golf holes sprinkled in. With five holes of the course running adjacent to the huge brackish bay that empties into the Gulf at Destin, the Links Course has the feel of a true links course. Much of the fill used to create this fine golf course and substructure for the many townhomes was mined from the sugar sand that forms the long finger of land that stretches from Destin on the west to Panama City Beach to the east. During the construction and dredging, a series of connected lakes and ponds were also created. These inland holes feel much like a Minnesota golf course would, if the swamps and marshes were dredged to the edge of the fairways.
On a beautiful sunny fall day this past October we were playing the Links Course at Sandestin. We first noticed the pelicans in the distance, as we were putting out on the 6th green. Only the 9th fairway separates the 6th green from the bay. The baitfish were plentiful and the redfish were there in mass. As my birdie putt stopped inches short on this monster hole a squadron of pelicans dive bombed the water only 20 feet from the 9th green. “Wow,” Laura said. “I hope they are still doing that when we get to that green.”
We were just ready to hit our, over the lake, approach shots at the 7th when two pelicans, that left the main flock, did twin aerial assaults on the unknowing fish in the lake below. “I don’t know whether to play golf or just watch the pelican parade,” Bev laughed.
Safely onto the short grass on the short, but water guarded on both sides, 8th fairway, I had to back away from my approach shot twice. The pelicans behind the green were on a full out assault on the mid-afternoon snack in the waters below. This scene continued as we played the entire length of the par-5 9th. On the green, the pelicans had settled onto the water and were searching in earnest for more food. Occasionally they would charge, wings flapping, and make a short dive gulping baitfish.
We took a short break from golf and bird watching at the turn. But on the 10th tee there was a new character to photograph as a stunning white egret stood rock solid searching for food as we played our tee shots. We laughed, because the egret should have joined the pelicans on the bay side for some easy pickings.
The pelicans were a no-show on holes 10, 11 and12, inland holes, water on 10, but 11 and 12 are dry. On the spectacular 13th hole, the pelicans were circling high but not feeding. Our attention was drawn to the huge yachts that filled the Bay Town harbor. Bay Town is an entertainment center and hotel on the bay side of Sandestin. Sandestin is truly a wonderful resort we all commented. The 13th is the toughest hole on the golf course because it is a full three shot par-5 with no bailout on either side. The hole is guarded by the bay on the right, and a lake running the full length of the hole on the left. Even if you have only 100 yards for your third, the shot will terrify the bravest golfer. The green is situated between the lake and the bay, but is only about 10 yards wide and 50 yards deep. As if we needed more distraction the pelicans were at it again. I hit a little knock down 9-iron to about 10 feet and thought to myself, “Those pelicans did not bother me.”
The pelicans were not as active on the bay side 14th and were non-existent on 15, 16, 17 and 18. The sun was growing low in the afternoon sky as we sat sipping a cold beer on the clubhouse terrace. The scorecard was being scrutinized with only a few comments and a lesson on rules violations.
Then without warning and totally silent an endless parade of pelicans glided past. I had time to find my iPhone, open the camera and snap several shots as these graceful creatures with their wings set and rode the updraft off the bay in perfect formation.
One birdie, seven bogies and an X. Endless pelican watching during the round and two Grayton Beach IPAs. Not a bad way to spend the day.