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Alabama Destinations

Even though Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is one of the nation’s most desired golf venues, in the minds of many it isn’t quite family-friendly. After all, if dad wants to get out and play a few rounds in Orlando, Myrtle Beach or Scottsdale, to name just three examples, there are scads of other activities to keep the rest of the family, IE—the non-golfers, happy and entertained. But what of the non-golf opportunities along the Trail? It stretches through much of the length and breadth of Alabama, which isn’t quite at the forefront of many would-be vacationers when they think ‘tourist destination.’

It just so happens that there is plenty to do along the Trail, activities that will appeal to all members of the family, whether they’re interested in smacking the dimpled ball or not.

For example, a prior column extolled the virtues of playing The Shoals, in Muscle Shoals, with their Fighting Joe and Schoolmaster courses. But music lovers might be inclined to visit the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, located in nearby Tuscumbia. The state has a rich history of musicians who went on to worldwide acclaim, and the hall includes tributes to Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, Lionel Richie, the Temptations, the Commodores, and of course, Alabama, among other luminaries.

Highland Oaks

Highland Oaks is in Dothan, in the southeast corner of the state. They offer a trio of nine-hole courses, with a par-3 (also nine holes) thrown in for good measure.  The Highlands is relatively open, with several lakes in play. The Marshwood is known for its notorious sixth hole, a mere 700 yards, and the 422-yard, par-4 ninth which includes a left-to-right dogleg and a tilted green elevated above a ribbon of wetlands. The Magnolia is well named, graced as it is by magnolia trees on high ground that is reached via a 1,000-foot wooden bridge spanning a marsh filled with lichen-dappled trees. Because the majority of the nation’s peanuts are grown within a hundred-or-so miles of Dothan, those so inclined might want to check out the National Peanut Festival, which is held each autumn. It’s a full ten days of agricultural displays, rides, games, amusements, concerts, and livestock showings.

Hampton Cove in Huntsville offers three championship courses. The Highlands is as close to a Scottish-style course as you’ll find on any Trail course, and features thousands of Japanese black pines, oaks, dogwoods and crepe myrtles. The River is the only Trail course without a single bunker. Laid out on former soybean fields in the flood plain of the Flint River basin, The River is a throwback to the simplistic way courses were built early in the previous century, with dirt pushed up to create the greens and tees. The course features massive oak trees, including an enormous, 250-year-old black oak behind the eighteenth green, reputed to be one of the oldest in the state. Meanwhile, the par-3 course on site is no pushover. Eleven of eighteen holes on the Short Course have water in play.

Hampton Cove

While big hitters can seemingly launch golf balls into orbit, the real deal is found nearby at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. Famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team helped transform Huntsville from ‘the Watercress Capital of the World,’ as it was known in the 1950’s, to a leading edge technology center and research park. The U.S. Army donated land for this fascinating museum, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center opened its doors in 1970. Since then, nearly seventeen million people have toured the Center. Many of the more than 650,000 annual visitors are school students on field trips, perhaps contemplating their future. Dozens of interactive exhibits encourage guest participation, prompting the oft-repeated motto: Here, everyone can be an astronaut for the day!

Grand National, close to Auburn, is one of the best-known Trail stops, and offers a trio of eighteen hole courses. The Links is the cornerstone of the Grand National complex, and the finishing hole is billed as the strongest concluding hole on the Trail. The drive must carry a corner of the lake while the approach is played to a shallow pedestal green shored up by boulders. The Lake course includes a dozen holes that hug the shoreline, and its 230-yard island green on the fifteenth is among the prettiest holes in the state. Keeping with the theme, more than half of the par-3 holes on their eighteen hole Short Course abut the lake. Be sure to check out the magnificent campus and famed Toomer’s Corner at nearby Auburn University, the ‘other’ major University in the state. (Alabama’s Crimson Tide attracts the lion’s share of the rooting interest, but the Auburn Tigers have no shortage of devotees themselves.)

From Prattville to Birmingham, Anniston to Auburn, Huntsville to Greenville to Dothan, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has resulted in huge swaths of underutilized acreage repurposed into these marvelous playing fields. And every stop on the Trail offers something intriguing, to see, to do, to experience, for golfers and non-golfers alike.

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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.

The Shoals

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.

Magnolia Grove

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.”

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Now celebrating its twenty fifth year of existence, Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has been a staggering success since its 1992 inception. The Trail has welcomed more than twelve million visitors in total, an awe-inspiring number, especially considering it came into being just as golf’s popularity was reaching its peak, and shortly before the game began its slow, inexorable decline that continues today.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

Golf has lost millions of players, many millions of annual rounds, and more than a thousand courses nationwide since the Trail began operation. But the Trail continues to be a resounding success, adding literally billions of tourist dollars to a state that desperately needed the influx of funds.

Bill Lang is the PR Director of the RTJ Golf Trail, a position he has held for more than a dozen years. “All of our successes, this amazing Golf Trail, with 468 holes at eleven different sites around the state, stems from a visionary named Dr. David G. Bronner, who moved to Alabama from Minnesota years ago,” explains Lang.

Dr. Bronner was a law professor and PhD, who eventually took the reins at the RSA, or Retirement Systems of Alabama, the pension fund for employees of the state. He was struck by the fact that golfers were continuously driving through Alabama to get to Florida, even though the climate was similar and ‘Bama’s terrain offered far more topographical interest. He earmarked a chunk of the five hundred million dollars then under management to fund the largest single golf course construction every undertaken, building courses throughout the state simultaneously. No Trail stop is more than two hours from the next closest destination, and all are within fifteen minutes of an interstate highway.

“He approached a number of well-known golf course architects,” continues Lang. “And it was Robert Trent Jones Sr. who decided to come out of semi-retirement and take on the project.”

Alabama’s tourism business was less than two billion dollars annually prior to the Trail’s creation, and now it is in excess of twelve billion dollars. (Look at it this way: If each of the twelve million visitors paid an average of just $500 for green fees, lodging, food, transportation, etc, the influx of money has been about six billion dollars. All but the most budget-conscious Trail visitors are probably spending closer to $1,000 per person with everything factored in, which means the revenues are closer to twelve billion dollars.)

Why all the success? In a nutshell, these eleven sites, comprising twenty six different golf courses spread throughout the state, are of excellent quality, and very affordable. How affordable? Green fees generally top out around $65. To paraphrase from the movie Field of Dreams, “Build it, and they will come.”

Ross Bridge

All the original sites have been renovated since their construction in the late 1980s, though the same cannot be said for the newest entry. There’s no need to burnish Ross Bridge, near Birmingham, because it maintains much of its original luster. Stretching nearly 8,200 yards in length, this is one of the longest courses in the world. The scale of the course comes into immediate focus as a player meanders down the first fairway. Greens are measured in quarter acres, and bunkers are the size of building foundations, often just as deep. It is this capaciousness that provides much of the challenge for course superintendent Josh Dyer, and his staff of nearly two dozen. “We have 170 acres of Bermuda grass here,” begins Dyer, who hails from the small town of Mccalla, Alabama, just a short distance from Ross Bridge. “I used to work at Silver Lakes, another stop on the Trail, and we have nearly as much turf on our single course here as they do on their 36 holes!”

This steady stream of golfers that converge up and down the Trail, at Ross Bridge, nearby Oxmoor Valley, Magnolia Grove, Grand National, and all the other stops, have had something of a domino effect on Alabama’s business landscape.  It’s no coincidence that since the Trail’s inception, blue-chip companies like Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, Honda, Airbus, Navistar and ThyssenKrupp have all built major manufacturing plants in Alabama.

Oxmoor Valley

The lodging component along the Trail has taken some giant steps forward in recent years, and few properties on the Trail are as impressive as Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa outside Birmingham. Its impact on the community is a microcosm for what’s occurred statewide. Modeled loosely after the famed Banff Springs Resort west of Calgary, Canada, Ross Bridge is an imposing edifice, 259 guest rooms, a 12,000 square foot spa, and considered by Travel + Leisure Magazine to be among the Top 500 Hotels in the World. The on-site eateries, both fine dining (Brock’s) and casual (Clubhouse Restaurant) are superb, with first-class service. A bagpiper strolls the grounds each evening, adding even more ambience to this handsome hotel, snuggled close to the expansive golf facility just steps from the patio and pool area.

The hotel is located in a formerly-wide-spot-in-the-road called Hoover, which a generation ago was fairly remote. While the rural sensibility still exists, the fact is that an entire upscale subdivision has sprung from the earth, in part due to Ross Bridge, and its close-at-hand Trail neighbor, Oxmoor Valley, fifty four more holes of compelling golf just five minutes down the road.

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Peninsula Golf Club

Only one notion will generally come to mind when traveling golfers hear the word “Alabama.” Their thoughts are immediately drawn to the world famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the most ambitious public golf course project in history.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

Now some thirty years old, the Trail has been a staggering success since its 1988 inception. The Trail will welcome its twelve-millionth visitor in 2017, an awe-inspiring number, especially considering the course came into being just as golf’s popularity was reaching its peak and shortly before the game began its slow, inexorable decline that continues today.

The original construction was mind-boggling in scope. The project consisted of 324 holes at seven different sites throughout the state, the land being shaped by some seven hundred pieces of earth-moving equipment simultaneously. The end result, including an additional fifty-four holes later added at Prattville, moved Alabama from an afterthought towards the forefront of golf tourism.

However, there’s more great golf in Alabama that’s found beyond the pale of the Trail. Check out tiny Gulf Shores, for example. This formerly sleepy beach community, about an hour south of Mobile, has little more than ten thousand residents, but there are several courses here that are well worth a visit.

Kiva Dunes

First and foremost would be Kiva Dunes, a Jerry Pate design that has received a number of well-deserved accolades since it debuted in 1994. The course is tucked into a beautiful piece of land on Fort Morgan Peninsula, a narrow sliver of earth separating Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Jerry Pate doesn’t spring to mind on the short list of successful players turned architects like Nicklaus, Crenshaw and Weiskopf do, but he should.

Pate won the U.S. Open, U.S Amateur, Players Championship, and was both a Walker Cup and Ryder Cup participant. But to some, he’s anonymous as both a player and course designer. It’s too late to do anything about the former, but the latter reputation is destined to change.

Kiva Dunes offers a scenic nature walk through the sand dunes, scrub oak, pine, and natural wetlands that are endemic to this beach area. As can be expected on such an exposed piece of property, the buffeting wind can be as difficult as any other hazard on the 7,100 yard course. Mere mortals would best attempt to get around starting at the middle markers some six hundred yards closer, while less skilled players should likely opt for the white tees at a shade under 5,900 yards. The immaculate conditioning of the Tifway Bermuda fairways will doubtlessly impress those who can keep the ball in play. Those who have to scramble to find the putting surface will be equally pleased at the Tifdwarf Bermuda greens, which are large and undulating, but not prohibitively slick.

The designer kept the rolling nature of the dunes evident on the fairways, made liberal use of fairway bunkering filled with native sand, and dug cavernous sand pits green side. The end result is a facility that’s both daunting and stunning, and one of the must-play courses in the L.A. (Lower Alabama) area.

Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club

Not ten minutes away on the peninsula is the aptly named Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club, a 27-hole Earl Stone design. This is a much larger property than the 250-acre Kiva Dunes. The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge touches the 820-acre parcel on two sides, and part of the property abuts Mobile Bay.

Thirty lakes, abundant vegetation and numerous waste areas that line the fairways are the most notable difficulties on yet another finely conditioned track. The original eighteen holes are the Marsh and Lake nines constructed in 1995, the Cypress nine was added in 1999. The Lake nine is the most scenic, with views of the nearby bay, and also contains the majority of housing in the development. Marsh is considered the most difficult, and Cypress, with its subtly bending fairways and abundance of bunkering, offers the most shot making challenge.

Rock Creek

Another nearby course worth a visit is Rock Creek in the town of Fairhope. This championship golf course is both forgiving and visually spectacular. Numerous doglegs are prominently featured throughout the layout along with natural rolling terrain and impressive elevation changes unique to the southern Alabama region. Tall pines and hardwood forests line each fairway and freshwater wetlands ripple throughout the course, adding to the impressive visual effects of the course.

The second hole at Rock Creek will linger long in the memory. This 434 yard par-4 drops seventy feet from tee to fairway with a forced carry approach shot over wetlands to a green featuring a bulkhead wall thirty feet high. Suffice it to say that any player in position to line up a birdie putt on this gauntlet knows how to golf their ball.

Finally, no mention of golf in Alabama can be complete without at least passing mention of the infamous Trail. The southernmost outpost in Mobile known as Magnolia Grove is certainly one of the best of the eight separate locations. The Falls course is nothing short of harrowing; a roller-coaster ride through hills and valleys, with epic approach shots required to find the surface on massive, well bunkered greens. The Crossings course occupies even hillier terrain, although the shot-making requirements aren’t quite as demanding. Their par-3 course is a beauty as well, considered one of the finest in the country.

 

 

Courtesy of Koasati Pines

The Southern PGA and Dixie Pro-Am Series events tee off on March 2 at two fantastic courses, Koasati Pines GC (Louisiana) and Wynlakes G&C (Alabama) respectively. Hundreds of professional and amateur golfers will compete to take home the title and prize money. The two events are part of the National Car Rental PGA Pro-Am Series that will host more than 90 tournaments throughout the country in 2015. You can view the entire schedule here.

About Koasati Pines – One of Louisiana’s Best
Courtesy of Koasati Pines
Courtesy of Koasati Pines

Kosati Pines at Coushatta offers a true Louisiana golfing experience. Nestled in the wetlands of Southwest Louisiana with a rolling landscape and 65-acres of looking-glass lakes, it is one of the longest courses in the state. The course features a dynamic 18-hole, par 72-championship layout with six sets of tees, multiple approaches on three holes and a “Gambling Hole” to create an experience unlike any other. The natural backdrop provides a peaceful yet challenging experience for both the novice and skilled golfer.

 

 

Golf at Wynlakes Golf & Country Club offers an experience that is exciting and challenging.
Courtesy of Wynlakes G&C
Courtesy of Wynlakes G&C

World-renowned architect Jon Lee designed this golf course, making it a spectacular visual experience for any golfer. The 200-acre championship course is home to rolling hills, 14 lakes, large oaks, vibrant landscaping and beautiful fountains. The course has many diverse design features to enrich the challenge, including sculptured fairways, plentiful bunkers and plateau greens. There are also multiple sets of tees, making this an enjoyable round for any golfer.