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.
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.”
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.
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.