Sweet Home Alabama Golf
Story and photo by Neil Wolkodoff
In golf, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (RTJ) is in another universe.
It is simply the golf version of the Silk Road: 26 courses which span almost all of Alabama, with a unique history, geography, and exceptional golf.
The RTJ was the vision of David Bronner, who managed the state’s retirement fund. The resulting trail realized more than impressive golf. It enabled Robert Trent Jones, a guru of golf architecture, to match the courses to the land and environment. It combined world-class golf courses with accessibility. The influx of golfers provided jobs and an economic engine for the local economy. This sounded like the golf version of The Wizard of Oz, so I went to find out down the trail.
I discovered that with 468 holes over 11 sites, it was unlikely one would play all the courses in one trip. You should fly into one location, and depart from another, so a car or arranged transport is best.
I prefer an adventure that incorporates the primary activity, in this case, golf, with enough alternatives that if I miss one day for something else, I still feel travel-enriched, absorbing the local cuisine, culture, and history. I found Alabama a pinnacle of southern hospitality in just about every regard, more than enough to occupy the golfer on off days or the non-golfer.
The weeklong trek started in Birmingham, which got its modern start in the post-Civil War period in 1871. Steel was and is a part of Birmingham, so be sure to get a view of Vulcan, the original iron man, the most giant steel sculpture in the world and resides in its own park. Get your fast on with 750+ motorcycles and a galactic display of racing and unique cars at the Barber Motorsports Museum and Racetrack. The racetrack portion hosts motorcycle and Indy Car events.
Lodging is an easy springboard with the Renaissance Ross Bridge. You will find these as Renaissance hotel stops for RTJ Golf Trail throughout the trail. These hotels are way better than anticipated, with more than common space and a bathroom sporting a shower and a separate tub. The room setups are very similar in all the locations, making a few days here and there a deja vu stay as you proceed up or down the trail. Another key plus is that all the Renaissance venues have a breakfast buffet, so pre-round fuel-ups are accessible and close.
Golf around Birmingham starts with the Oxmoor Valley. This 54-hole complex follows the natural peaks, valleys, and creeks of the Appalachians. The Ridge Course melds fairway jukes and twists with 150-foot elevation changes. The marque holes are all the par 3s and 5s with elevation changes, water, and rock features. Ross Bridge, located right on the hotel property, is one of the longest courses along the RTJ.
After the round, beer and light fare post-links populate the Back Forty Brewery with their Cart Barn Light. BBQ plus a signature baked potato at Saw’s Juke Joint is a refuel with soul. The only actual and modern distillery in Alabama is Dread River, with a magnificent tasting room, tours, and award-winning whiskey.
On to the Montgomery and Prattville areas, and Renaissance Montgomery is the next lodging stop for exploration of the RTJ. Here is the pool and spa area on the upper level, so you can soak while viewing the city skyline. Away from golf, the Rosa Parks Museum details her sit down to end racial segregation on the Montgomery Bus Line. Fans of country music need to see the Hank Williams Museum, the most famous country troubadour of all time, complete with his 1952 baby blue Cadillac.
The Capitol Hill Courses feature two unique RTJ tracks, The Judge and The Senator. The Judge is the most notable of the two because of the ups, downs, and meandering around the lakes. The opening par 4 is a daunting shot in elevation change with tree trouble on one side and the lake on the other. Fourteen of the holes interface with the lakes, while others border the backwaters of the Alabama River. The practice area is a giant square, offering a unique visual and almost unlimited participants. On the way to Mobile, Cambrian Ridge in Greenville has three distinct 9’s. The Sherling and Canyon have incessant ups and downs, while the Loblolly 9 has rolling twists and turns in the loblolly pines.
Dining in Montgomery gets some German inspiration with food, beer, and art combinations at the Goat Haus Biergarten. The Central Restaurant is an upscale experience with a bit of innovation on classic fare, like the grilled pork chop with strawberry glaze and four-cheese hashbrowns. Cornbread provides a little soak up for the brisket at Jim’ N Nicks.
The RTJ stops by the Gulf in Mobile, and the terrain gets flatter with more marsh and seaside features. The rest stop for this part of the swing trek was the Battle House Renaissance, a hotel dating to 1852. The elegant lobby drew high society and royalty for frequent stays. A great spa with treatments like foot reflexology provides a little extra pep for those tired dogs.
The RTJ has two-course sets along the coast. The Dogwood course at Lakewood Golf Club wanders through massive oaks, pines, magnolias and other coastal foliage. The Grand Hotel also offers another luxury-stay option to park right next to the water. The courses at LGC are first reserved for members, then hotel guests, with limited play allowed for the RTJ. So, expect pristine conditions.
The Crossings Course at Magnolia Grove goes over railroad tracks on two occasions. Tree-lined and rolling, the course meanders through parkland without any real estate development. An absence of water hazards compared to most RTJ courses. Yet, creative bunkering to get your attention on almost all the holes.
Dining in Mobile hits all the culinary cylinders. Fine dining with a 460 view is Dauphin’s 34 floors up. Get that BBQ fix at Dreamland with their signature ribs and links. And, if you need a nightcap, Las Floriditas Speakeasy whips up some Cuban-style cocktails in a bank vault space with prohibition flair.
Tour a real WWII Battleship at the USS Alabama Memorial & Park. Celebrating its 75th year, there is an extensive aviation exhibit and a WWII combat submarine. The ship itself is massive, and you can self-tour or get guided. Many of the spaces in the ship are available for viewing and inspection, from officers’ quarters to the massive gun turrets themselves. A little more nautical history parades at the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, the only museum which focuses on the history of that body of water.
In playing six of these courses, it became obvious these are more than public golf. They can hold their own with many country clubs and resorts. Layout, conditions, pro-shop, club house and practice facilities were all notches above expectations.
Any golfer would find the RTJ a worthy swing adventure. Culture, history, and cuisine along the trail make this pilgrimage more than worth hauling all that golf gear. And I will go back to see the Wizard’s work a few more times.
Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sports Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest, and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.