PRATTVILLE, Alabama – It seems every state has some sort of golf trail, but the granddaddy and the very best in the USA is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, a collection of 26 jaw-dropping beautiful courses at 11 different sites from Muscle Shoals in the north to the Gulf Coast in the south.
The Trail was the final project for Robert Trent Jones Sr., one of America’s most renowned golf course architects and father of Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Rees Jones, both accomplished architects in their own right. It was probably the largest single undertaking in the history of golf course architecture, and I am sure, that is what lured Senior, well into his 80’s, out of retirement. The project included simultaneously building golf complexes each with at least 36 holes at seven locations throughout the state. The first four, each with two championship courses and one short course, opened in 1992; three more sites opened the next year.
Since then, three additional facilities have been built and one existing club near the Gulf of Mexico has been added.
I recently took a whirlwind tour of some of the locations and was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and diversity of the courses, the hospitality of everyone associated with the trail and the incredible value for so much memorable golf.
In its 28 years, the Trail has dramatically increased its national and international profile. “By the end of the first quarter this year, golfers from all 50 states and over 30 countries will have visited and played the Trail,” says John Cannon, President of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Dr. David Bronner, head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, came up with the Trail concept – wooed Senior out of retirement – as a way to boost tourism in Alabama while funding the state’s pension plan. “Build it they will come.” About 15 million rounds have been played so far. When the Trail opened, Alabama was attracting about $2 billion annually from tourism; that number is now close to $15 billion.
I began my Trail experience at Hampton Cove in Huntsville, a 54 hole facility with two drastically different championship-caliber courses and an 18 hole par 3 course. The Highlands course is a Scottish links-style design complete with flowing fescue bordering the fairways with two dynamic finishing holes. Highlands stretches out to 7,428 yards and has four sets of tees to make your links experience both enjoyable and memorable. An old mule barn was saved from destruction and adorns the 5th hole, a perfect photo-op. In complete contrast, the River course laid out on a former soybean farm in the flood plain of the Flint River has 16 holes with water that comes into play. It’s saving grace-zero bunkers- nada, nix, not a spec of sand. The River is a throwback to the bygone days when very little dirt was moved to construct a golf course. The short course is 18 par 3s with just as much thought and design from the RTJ team as its big brothers. “Short” is not the right word- “Captivating” is better.
My next stop was the Shoals Golf Club in Florence, tucked away in the remote northwest corner of the state with two monster golf courses, the Schoolmaster and Fighting Joe. The 7,971 yards Schoolmaster, named for President Woodrow Wilson, has narrow but receptive tree-lined fairways. With little water in play, the course seemed to blend into the countryside perfectly playing among soft elevation changes. Driving into the open side of the fairways provides good shots into the large contoured greens, and with a little study, you can master this one. The scenic finishing 18th is one of those Kodak moments. This uphill par 4 has a grand view of Lake Wilson with the beautiful clubhouse next to it. Fighting Joe was named after a Confederate General, who after the Civil War, became a General in the United States Army named Joe Wheeler. The golf course is one of the longest in the world at 8,092 yards, virtually timeless with water on 14 holes bordered by 3 feet long prairie grass rough. Play the right tee to make your experience an enjoyable round and if you play for safety rather than length, you can score well. The par 3,18th is probably the most scenic on the Trail. The downhill green overlooks the Tennessee River with the stately plantation-style clubhouse set high on a bluff above- another Kodak moment.
I stayed at the Marriott Muscle Shoals Resort & Spa, overlooking the Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River. The 200 room resort features Alabama’s tallest attraction, the Renaissance Tower connected to the hotel with a rotating restaurant, the Four Diamond 360 American Grill. The surrounding views and fine dining experience were a real treat. The lively Swampers Bar & Grill in the hotel celebrates the region’s rich musical heritage with live entertainment from great musicians.
The Spa at the Marriott Muscle Shoals is a 6,000 square foot complete pampering facility with makeup, hair and nail services along with numerous personal treatments. I took full advantage of their services with a soothing pedicure and foot rub and finished off with a deep tissue massage. What a perfect delight after fighting with Joe. After the service, guests can use the steam room and whirlpool and enjoy some serenity in the quiet room.
The next day I traveled to Opelika/Auburn to play at Grand National, another 54 hole complex and my personal favorite. With 12 holes hugging the shores of 600 acre Lake Saugahatchee, the 7,149 yards Lake Course has got to be the most scenic with a quartet of par threes as good as any in the country. The 230 yards, 15th is considered the prettiest par 3 on the Trail. The cornerstone is the Links Course at 7,311 yards, which is the toughest of the duo without a single weakness. The par four finishing hole is considered the strongest where your drive must carry a corner of the Lake and your approach is played to a shallow pedestal green shored up by boulders. The 18 hole short course is a hybrid of its big brothers, beautiful and demanding, and one of the best par 3 courses in the country.
I chose the adjacent Auburn Marriott Opelika Resort & Spa with 221 guest rooms including 19 luxury suites(perfect for those Auburn football games) and named the #1 location for public golf in the U.S. by GolfWorld readers. I needed further pampering, so I chose a heavenly message in the 3 story, 20,000 square foot Spa and Fitness Center. What a treat. Guests have use of a steam room, sauna and huge whirlpool while relaxing in the quiet lounge. The Trail currently has 6 locations with full-service spas.
All the Trail clubhouses I visited were alike. They are spacious brick plantation-style buildings with a leisure sitting area, comfortable bar and grill with very good service and well-stocked pro shop. They all had outdoor seating usually overlooking the closing holes. The impeccable service from the player staff made me feel “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Five days and eight courses made for a busy week. My next trip I will allow for a little more down time to make my RTJ Trail play less exhausting.
If what I played is an example of the other 8 locations and 18 courses, you have got to check out the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.