Now celebrating twenty-five years of wonderful golf throughout the length and breadth of Alabama, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail remains one of the ‘must play’ golf experiences in the nation. The twenty-six courses, comprising 468 holes, spread across eleven locations across the state, ensure that there is compelling, affordable golf in virtually every corner of Alabama.
Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, early on the focus was just on the golf experience itself, with little forethought in regards to the lodging component. Early visitors made due with chain hotels and motels, nothing too fancy, occasionally on the shabbier side. But Dr. David Bronner, the visionary and single greatest impetus behind the formation of the Trail, eventually realized that to attract the international business community to Alabama they needed to up the ante. To showcase the beauty of the landscape, friendliness and work ethic of the people, attractive tax rates and large swaths of inexpensive land for potential factories, upper-level executives wouldn’t be thrilled with the EconoLodge and Comfort Inns at their disposal.
“Frankly speaking, we needed to drastically upgrade our lodging component,” explains Bill Lang, the PR director of the Trail. “Now we have eight luxury properties from one end of the Trail to the other, including two of Golf Digest’s top golf resorts in North America. Several were historical properties that have been comprehensively refurbished, and others were built from scratch. But the bottom line is we now have lodging that is commensurate with our golf experience, and that is really saying something!”
For example, in the northwest corner of the state, the very modern Marriott Shoals in Florence, with two hundred luxurious rooms overlooking the Tennessee River, was rated the chain’s top hotel for customer satisfaction. The Fighting Joe course located there opened in August 2004 and was the first Trail course to break 8,000 yards, measuring some 8,072 yards from the purple tees. Several golf publications named Fighting Joe as one of the top new courses in 2004. However The Schoolmaster, another course on site, is considered a tougher course than Fighting Joe, with narrower fairways, difficult greens and topping out at a shade below 8,000 yards.
By contrast, down in the southwest corner in Mobile, close to the Gulf, a refurbished hotel from 1852 called the Battle House sufficiently charmed executives visiting from Airbus to the point that in 2015 they opened a manufacturing plant nearby. (Of course, 158 million dollars in financial incentives and logistical support also helped sway them.) The executives were enamored of the hotel, and the nearby golf amenity. Magnolia Grove, which has hosted several LPGA tournaments in the past, features fifty-four holes of memorable golf. The Falls is laced with large, liberally contoured greens and massive cloverleaf bunkers. The 570-yard, par-5 tenth hole has a waterfall that cascades across steps immediately below a green that falls eight feet from front to back. The Crossing is a shot-maker’s heaven, with several pulpit greens elevated well above fairway levels. Most of the holes on their Short Course call for forced carries over marsh to liberally sloped, bulk-headed greens. (Many of the Trail stops feature epic par-3 courses, miniature versions of the wild-and-wooly nature of their ‘larger siblings.’ Suffice it to say these are never pitch-and-putts.)
There’s no way of accurately quantifying the enormous economic and social impact of the Trail throughout the state, well above the number of golfers that have visited, and projections of dollars spent. But here’s an illustrative story.
Prior to Capitol Hill opening up in central Alabama near Montgomery, the town of Prattville, according to Lang, was just another wide spot in the road, with a couple of cow pastures. But the Trail provided three 18-hole courses. The Senator is a traditional, Scottish-style layout, with more than 150 pot bunkers and mounds twenty to forty feet in height located so that the cart path or any other hole cannot be seen from a given fairway. The Legislator features huge pine trees and has been compared to some of the more famous courses in North Carolina. The Judge plays alongside the Alabama River, with a dozen water-bordering holes that provide some of the most spectacular scenery on the Trail, along with elevation drops of more than two hundred feet.
“First it was 54 holes of great golf, then a Hyundai plant opened close to town,” continues Lang. “Now there are hotels, shopping centers, restaurants, the town played host to LPGA events for nearly a decade, and it has become a much more vibrant and thriving community. It’s safe to say that without the advent of the Trail, Prattville would look much different today.”