The idea seems simple enough: devise a golf trail across the state of Alabama, and you’ll not only create a sound investment for the ‘Retirement Systems of Alabama’ – the pension fund for employees of this US state – but also provide stimulus for the local economy. This is exactly what pension fund executive Dr David Bonner set out to do, together with his right-hand man, Robert Vaughn.
During the 1990s, their vision began to take shape as they were focussing on the first four courses: Hampton Cove in the north, Magnolia Grove in the south-west, Oxmoor Valley in the middle and Grand National in the east of Alabama. Instead of pursuing a lengthy interview process to find a golf course designer, Bonner was convinced he knew the right man for the job. He just had to persuade him to come out of retirement: Robert Trent Jones, one of the world’s most prominent golf course designers.
What crazy person risks their reputation and other people’s pensions on building golf facilities?
Originally from Wigan, UK, the Jones family moved to the US when Robert was just five or six years old. He became a golf professional and carded the best amateur score at the 1927 Canadian Open, and set the course record at Rochester. He studied golf course design and worked alongside Bobby Jones who requested his knowledge to redesign holes 11 and 16 at Augusta. As the two were not related, Robert Jones added his middle name of Trent for ease of identification between these two men of golf. Later becoming Robert Trent Jones Senior with the birth of his two sons, Robert and Rees; themselves now highly regarded in the golf design industry of today.
The trail was right up his street. With 500 designs or redesigns over 50 years, coupled with a solid global reputation and many golf courses dotted around the world bearing his name, it didn’t take much to persuade Robert Trent Jones to come out of retirement. He appointed Roger Rulewich as his cohort, a course designer himself. He could interpret and implement Robert Trent Jones’s unique designs of big contoured greens, plenty of water and a large greenside bunker menacing in its positioning, not to mention a ‘signature hole’ being prevalent throughout the trail. Together, they set about making the field of dreams a reality.
On the other side of the pond, just one year earlier in 1991, Robert Trent Jones Junior had just completed his first golf course design in the UK, the beautiful 27-hole golf course at The Wisley. Dubbed as the father of environmental golf course design, Robert Trent Jones Junior was embarking on his career, as his father was nearing an end to his.
My trip to discover the Robert Trent Jones trail took me west from my arrival airport in Atlanta, out of Georgia and into Alabama; looping around the state to experience some of the 11 Robert Trent Jones trail sites and playing some of the 468 holes along the way. Just an hour and a half transfer from Atlanta and I arrived safe and sound, albeit a little jaded at the Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel at Grand National. After a good night’s rest at this lakeside resort, I was ready to embark on my golf adventures around this beautiful state.
The 600 acre Lake Saugahatchee dominates the Grand National trio of courses; The Lakes, the Links and the Short course, with no less than 32 of the 54 holes bringing water into play at some point. All three courses present some amazing views and some challenging shots. The tree-lined lush green fairways, open inviting greens and infamous bunkering set the bar high. According to Robert Trent Jones himself, the Grand National site is the single best site for a golf complex.
Auburn Opelika country has a lot to offer. During a visit to the colonial-style towns with their coffee shops, and relaxing atmosphere, you’ll soak up the true Southern sunshine and welcoming hospitality. If American football is your thing, you’ll find this is home to the Auburn Tigers. Sport is intrinsically entwined within the State of Alabama.
The Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel at Capitol Hill was my next stop. The hotel overlooks the Capitol Hill golf courses. Someone had a sense of humour when calling the golf courses The Legislator, The Senator and The Judge. Before playing The Judge, I noticed something quite unique. A concrete plaque with clear instructions to play the tee position depending on your handicap was prominently displayed at the first tee. I learned that this is a trademark of the Robert Trent Jones trail golf courses and, in my view, a great idea as it takes out any bravado or guesswork when deciding which tee to play from. The elevated first tee of The Judge gives you a sense of how the course with its steep hills is set in the backwaters of the River Alabama. The carefully-designed skywalks enable you to leisurely take in the swamp-like water, while allowing the trees to grow unhindered. The Senator has been designed to emulate a Scottish links with pothole bunkers and cartoon-like mounds to match. The Legislator is a more traditional course design, but The Judge is the one course that gives those elevated vista views.
Next stop: the Renaissance Hotel at Ross Bridge. There I played Ross Bridge in Hoover, the newest addition to the Robert Trent Jones Trail which was completed in 2005. It sits neatly within its surroundings and remains an equal challenge to visiting golfers with cleverly undulating fairways and large enticing greens. A former mining site with lakes reflecting the established trees and gristmill paying homage to its history, the course meanders around two lakes and an 80-foot drop waterfall adds to the charm of this course.
Next stop – Birmingham. Little known is the Vulcan Statue, sited atop the Red Mountain overlooking Birmingham as a nod of respect to the history of the former iron and steel industry. This 56-foot tall statue depicting the Roman God Vulcan; god of fire and forge, it is the largest cast-iron statue in the world and is today the symbol of Birmingham, Alabama.
The Tutweiler Hotel, a characterful place of days gone by still remains, 100 years later, the place to stay when visiting Birmingham. There is no shortage of things to see and do in Birmingham outside of golf. Steeped in history, southern charm, and let’s not forget the excellent cuisine, it is well worth exploring. Even if you are not into cars and motorbikes, the Barber Vintage museum is a gem. I was taken aback by the sheer magnitude of the place with beautifully restored bikes stacked floor to ceiling along the walkways. There is even a race track outside with a pedestrian bridge leading to a ‘garden’ naturally dedicated to cars and bikes.
Back on the road around Alabama, Muscle Shoals in the North West of the State was my next stop. I was due to play Fighting Joe. Completed in 2004, Fighting Joe was the first of the trail courses to exceed 8000 yards. A long links-style course is a dream for big hitters and visually the course has much to offer too, with the closing hole overlooking Wilson Lake on the Tennessee River. Situated between Wilson and Wheeler dam, whose namesake General Joseph ‘Fighting Joe’ Wheeler was the only confederate General to retain the same rank in the US army. The second course – the Schoolmaster course – is named after President Woodrow Wilson, aka the ‘Schoolmaster’ of politics, which opened slightly later in the summer of 2005. Both are a good test of golfers ability with The Schoolmaster being considered the harder of the two courses with its tree-lined narrow fairways and inviting greens. I played Fighting Joe because the name appealed to me and I could only play one of them in the time I had! A links-style too, but no walk in the park as I found it difficult to put a good score together on the front nine with water in play once again, despite it being less hilly than other courses on the trail. The par 5, 17th is considered the signature hole with water in front of the sloping (towards the water) green, but the 18th is still worth pondering this challenging par 3 with the Tennessee River guarding one side as you take your tee shot trying not to be distracted by the views!
Back on the road heading south, I arrived in Mobile (mo-bee-ull) – a carnival town with so much character, sitting on the edge of the water at the point where Alabama meets the Gulf of Mexico. A relatively small part of the state actually touches the ocean, so capitalise on the fresh sea and an abundance of seafood. Replicating the success of Mardi Gras, the town is known for its fun and friendly atmosphere.
The Battle House Renaissance Hotel with its old style but lush comfort for a couple of nights, was a real treat. Everything was within walking distance, and as you stroll out of the hotel and up the main street at night, live music follows you from street corner to street corner. The musicians entertain the locals and visitors alike who enjoy the evening dancing in the streets. There are plenty of restaurants and our choice for that night’s dinner was at a cafe-style restaurant which served the best Southern fried fish. No airs and graces were put on here, the tables at best had a paper placemat, but this made it easy to relax and soak up the atmosphere. Walking back to the hotel at night, listening to the music playing, dodging dancers, I noticed an over the top ice cream parlour; you name it, they had it, every flavour and colour under the rainbow on offer, a great way to end a good night and a good day.
Based out of the Battlehouse Renaissance Hotel, the next golf game was scheduled at Magnolia Grove. It’s the most southerly location of all the Robert Trent Jones courses in Alabama and there are 54 holes to play. I played the Crossings Course. The other courses featured here are the Falls and the Short courses. Host to the LPGA tour, the Crossings Course is a great parkland course, with the landscape offering marshland, creeks and lakes set amidst indigenous hardwood and pine trees. Opening in 1992, as one in the first wave of golf courses to be completed on this incredible trail, still, enticing golfers to take on one of its challenging courses. The Short Course has previously been named the best par 3 course in America. Despite the early completion of these courses compared to others on the trail, there is a level of consistency with regards to quality and challenge, with the topography dictating their design, giving so many different options when playing the trail. After a good night’s rest, I checked out of the Battlehouse Renaissance as my next round awaited me at Lakewood Golf Club at Point Clear in the south-west of the State.
Walking in the footsteps of President Gerald Ford and Bob Hope, Lakewood was first built in 1947. After a series of enforced renovations due to hurricanes and through regular restorations incorporating or increasing up to ten lakes, the Lakewood courses reopened in 2004. A feature was made of the 200-year-old oaks lining the fairways of the two courses at the Grand Hotel. The 36 holes on offer are the Azalea and Dogwood courses with a four-acre lake coming into play on the demanding par 5 14th hole on the Azalea lined fairway of The Azalea course. Just playing 9 holes the sharp doglegs and established trees lend the appearance of a solid parkland course. Canopies of trees offering welcome shade at times, and with water once again in play at strategically menacing places, make you reconsider your choice of club off the tee. Undulating greens and in places narrow fairways add to the excitement of playing The Azalea course; sadly I didn’t get the chance to play The Lakes course.
That afternoon, in an attempt to maximise my time, I jumped in the car and drove 3 hours north to play a further 9 holes at Cambrian Ridge, in Greenville – not something I would recommend, but a relatively easy route along I65. Known as one of the most challenging courses on the trail, I was happy only to be playing 9 holes after that schedule! The nine-hole courses are called the Sherling, the one I played, the Canyon and the Loblolly with the short course once again being imaginatively named, The Short course. With fairly recent renovations in 2016 of the three loops of 9 holes plus The Short course offering a further 9 holes, it’s a great stopover to see some open views across this beautiful trail and a challenging end to this quick scoot around Alabama.
The original first four courses were completed in 1992. Now over a quarter of a century later and a total of eleven sites and 468 holes spread over 8 resorts and half a million rounds played per annum, the assets have grown from $8 billion to over $37 billion, not entirely credited to the golf trail, but a credit to Bonner’s investments and foresight.