Trail Blazing Golf in Alabama
By John Grossmann
I’m living a dream. A much-shared dream.
I’m in the heart of Alabama in the town of Prattville, standing on the 17th tee of the Senator, one of three courses at Capitol Hill, which readers of Golf World magazine named the number two public golf site in America. The Senator is a Scottish links-style course. Virtually treeless. Mounds as high as 40 feet (fashioned of piles of buried, repurposed tires) line the fairways, which just a month earlier hosted the Navistar LPGA classic. The greens are big and undulating and fast. And yes, the course is taking a toll in my scorecard: more sixes and sevens than I’ll admit here.
But with golf there’s always another hole, the chance to rediscover one’s “game,” and after making par on the 147-yard 16h hole, I’m feeling more confident taking a practice swing with my driver, even staring out at the second toughest hole on the Senator: a double dogleg, 475 yard par 5 that’s described on the course guide as “a classic risk reward hole that can make or break a round. The trouble on this par 5 comes from the precision it demands with each shot. A well-placed drive will leave you with the option of playing safe and laying up or going for the green in two with a shot that must carry a deep ravine.”
My tee shot flies straight and comes to rest in the middle of the fairway.
It’s day one of a challenging outdoor adventure I’ve dreamed of for years: hitting the trail not with a backpack and hiking boots, but rather with a golf bag and golf shoes. The trail being Alabama’s acclaimed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a statewide string of 11 golfing destinations featuring 26 courses and 468 holes. Sometime in 2012, the 20th anniversary of the opening of the first courses (Hampton Cove in Hunstville, Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham, Grand National in Opelika, and Magnolia Grove in Mobile), the RTJ Golf Trail will host its 10 millionth round of golf.
Little wonder, considering the ringing praise it has received over the years:
“Some of the best public golf on earth.”– The New York Times.
“One of the 50 coolest places in golf.”—Golf Magazine.
“Maybe the best (golf) bargain in the country.”–The Wall Street Journal.
Greens fees along the trail average $50. Even during peak season, the typical fee is $64. RJT Golf Trail courses are not, however, your average or typical public golf courses. A second Capitol Hill course, the Judge, featuring 12 holes along the Alabama River, has been singled out by Golf magazine as one of 10 public courses in America worthy of hosting the U.S. Open.
From the elevated tees on the so-called Backbreaker nine at Silver Lakes in Anniston the view extends to the Appalachian foothills. Scratch golfers desiring a supreme test of their abilities will face exactly that playing any number of The Trail courses from the tips. The challenge is almost criminal. Two courses–the Trail’s newest, Ross Bridge in Hoover, and Fighting Joe at The Shoals in Florence—exceed 8,000 yards from the Pluto-like black tees. But with five different sets of tees on each course, there’s a proper challenge for every handicap–and helpful first tee starters to point to the colored tee markers most suited to a golfer’s game.
Even the steepest greens fee and hotel accommodation on The RTJ Golf Trail, the $135 peak rate at Ross Bridge and $189 room at the castle-like Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa, runs about one-third to half the tab for comparable resort golf experiences at The Greenbrier or Pinehurst or the Four Seasons Resort in Jackson Hole. Ross Bridge is a splurge without the wallop to the wallet.
Standing over my ball I consider for all of maybe two seconds the high-risk choice of trying to clear the yawning ravine and reach the green with my second shot. I grab a 7-iron—enough club, I hope, to clear the water, but not too much, I hope, to overshoot the narrow fairway of the hole’s second dog leg. A smooth easy swing (Why was this MIA on the front nine?) produces the desired result: my second shot also finds the fairway—leaving me a good angle to the green.
To folks with checklist mentalities, those who take pleasure, say, in traveling to all 50 states, or dream of watching a ballgame in every major league park, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail offers an appealing mega game beyond the game at hand. That is, scheduling (most likely with multiple visits) and playing the Trail end-to-end, all 468 holes, including those on several par 3 short courses. Golfers teeing up this dream can get a Trail passport stamped at each course and, upon completion, receive a free three-day, two-night Trail package. Throughout 2012, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the RTJ Golf Trail, those who reserve a tee time on the 20th day of the month seven days in advance can play for $20.
And to think all of this—the world’s largest golf course construction project—very nearly didn’t happen.
“They thought I was nuts. I won’t tell you their names, but you know them,” says Dr. David G. Bronner, creator of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the visionary who dreamed of this ambitious golf project, effectively blazing the trail for other multi-site tourism experiences like Vermont’s Cheese Trail and Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. Before them all, Alabama created its so-called golf trail (more on that in a bit).
Bronner, the longtime CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the pension fund administrator for more than 300,000 Alabamians, wrote to five famous golf course architects at the start of the 1990s, outlining his plans for a unified string of quality golf resorts, some with as many as 54 holes. Four of these course designers thought the idea folly; only one, Robert Trent Jones Sr. took the time to ask Bronner if he was indeed serious.
Bronner was passionately serious. For starters, he wanted to counter the poor press his state had received in 1990, when the PGA championship was played in Alabama at the Shoal Creek Country Club, which at the time still had no black members. Affordable public golf for all, with courses close to the interstates, he felt, could have a dramatic impact on his home state. “Back then, Florida was the attraction of the South,” he explains. “You drove down, you had two choices. You either went through Georgia or you went through Alabama. My theory was, can I divert them on their way down, can I hold them for a day or two instead of just blowing through the place, and also hold them for a day or two going back?”
The golf courses and hotels would attract tourists. Restaurants would follow. Industrial development, too. Building almost exclusively on donated public lands (in Birmingham, US Steel shared its holdings) helped keep costs down and ensure solid returns for the state pension fund. As predicted, the golfers have come. In game changing numbers. When The RTJ Golf Trail opened in 1992, Alabama’s tourism was pegged at $1.8 billion. Today, due largely to The Trail, the total has jumped to $9.2 billion.
Bronner called the string of courses a trail after he’d talked with highway officials and learned that while you could not put up an interstate sign announcing, say, a turn for Grand National in Auburn/Opelika, you could have a sign that read Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, because regulations permitted signage for The Appalachian Trail and other trails. So Bronner built a golf trail, with Robert Trent Jones in charge of design until his death in 2000. “He took it on as the greatest adventure of his life,” says Bonner. “He got really excited. Roger Rulewich (Jones’ protégé, who would take over for his mentor) said: ‘You got Trent so fired up he’s pulled out his old sketchbooks again.’
“Trent’s favorite course was Opelika. I think 34 of the 54 holes have water features. That was exciting for him,” says Bronner, explaining that most of Robert Trent Jones’ worldwide courses didn’t have the luxury of so much water to work into the design.
Bronner, no surprise, is also a golfer. Yes, he’s played all The Trail courses. His favorite? “I love Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham, especially the Ridge course. Being originally from Minnesota, where the tallest thing I saw was corn, I just love hills and distant vistas. Greenville has the same opportunities to have great views of holes in the distance. Same way with Silver Lakes now, since we hardly have any trees there after the recent tornadoes.”
My third shot, an 8-iron, flies true and rolls to a stop about 12 feet from the flagstick.
Vesa Jarvela, a 56-year-old real estate appraiser from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has made the long drive from Canada to Alabama with his older brother Olavi a half dozen times in the last decade—enough that the duo has organized this year’s trip to get the final stamps on their Trail passports and receive their free lodging and rounds of golf. “What interests us,” says the younger Jarvela, “is you’re playing high end courses for a pretty reasonable rate. We go there for brotherly bonding. It’s always a fun trip, guaranteed good golf. My brother is a senior and I’m pushing a senior, so we play from the whites (the second shortest tees). I’m telling you–I’d need a nine iron at some holes to get back to the black tees–the back tees. Unreal.” Everyone, he acknowledges, putts on the same greens, which he admits are quite challenging. “You’re not going to be standing on too much level real estate.”
My putt is slightly downhill and should break about eight inches left to right. I aim left of the hole and send the ball on its way….
When golfers review the RTJ Golf Trail their criticism tends to be as rare as the birdies on their scorecards. Some complain that many of the clubhouses, frugally saving on design and construction costs, were built from the same blueprints and thus lend a bit of a Groundhog Day experience to a week-long tour. My only quibble is that these are not generally walkable courses. Changes in elevation on some courses make walking tough and more generally, long distances from many greens to the next tees make a cart all but necessary. Granted, a cart makes sense for golfers playing 27 or 36 holes the same day, which is not uncommon among those determined to play all The Trail courses.
…the ball is curving right, tracking towards the hole, losing speed. Then it disappears from sight. Birdie.
I’ll card a couple more birdies the next few days, as I enjoy four more RTJ Golf Trail courses: the front nine at Capitol Hill’s Legislator course; Grand National’s Links Course; the Ridge Course at Oxmoor Valley; and the stunning layout at Ross Bridge, complete with Grist Mill and an 80-foot waterfall. Not that I’ve got a checklist kind of mind, but that’s 81 holes down, 387 more to go to complete The Trail.
Off the Trail:
Those flying into Birmingham, a geographically central springboard to many of The Trail courses, might also consider two very different but rewarding area courses.
•Highland Park www.highlandparkgolf.com is the oldest golf course in the state. Opened in 1903 as the Country Club of Birmingham, it occupies high ground in a residential neighborhood of early 20th century Arts & Crafts style homes with panoramic views of the downtown skyline from many holes. Short (only 5,800 yards from the back tees) but challenging, the course offers a surprising variety of hole configurations, including a couple of drivable par 4s and a short downhill par 3 that’s reminiscent (though minus the Pacific, of course) of the 7th hole at Pebble Beach—requiring a nerve-wracking wedge shot.
•FarmLinks www.farmlinks.org in Sylacauga, 45 miles southeast of Birmingham, is a gem of a course built on and completely surrounded by the 450-acre, fifth generation Pursell family farm. Longtime sellers of a patented, time-release fertilizer perfect for golf courses, the family built the stunning links in 1999 as a unique agronomic research and demonstration course to showcase different grasses and growing regimens hole by hole for the steady stream of golf course superintendents flown in for three-day educational and recreational stays at the resort’s lodge and cottages. Also open to the public, the course has earned an equally steady stream of awards. Golfweek named it one of America’s best public courses. Golf Digest called FarmLinks one of the 75 Best Golf Resorts in North America.
The signature hole on the course, the ridge-top-to-valley floor par 3 fifth, offers panoramic views and a 170-foot vertical drop. But my favorite hole is the picturesque 18th, a long and spacious par 5 with hay bales in the bordering fields and a pair of towering oaks flanking the fairway—stately trees that look even prettier once your second shot is safely past them.
John Grossmann has written about food and travel for Gourmet, Cigar Aficionado, Saveur, and SKY. He was a finalist in the food journalist category of the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. He is the co-author, with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, of the book One Square Inch of Silence, (Free Press).