Grand National may be RTJ Trail's No. 1 stop

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

OPELIKA, Ala. - When the late Robert Trent Jones saw the Grand National property in Opelika, Alabama, one of eight stops on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, he stated it was the best natural site for golf he had ever seen.

That's quite something to say for a man as prolific in the profession of golf course design as Jones. Of all the places in the world the legendary architect worked, could a property comprised basically of a single 600-acre lake really be the best?

Hyperbole is nothing new to the business of promoting golf courses, and it's even a good bet that Jones himself - probably the profession's greatest salesman - made superlative-jumping a de rigueur practice. Given the architect's track record of travel and promotion his statement easily could be taken as over-complimentary; that's no insult to Grand National, which is a very good golf site, possibly even a great one, but probably not the best.

Then again, who are we to say - it's Jones' name that's on the Trail of 378 holes spread north to south through the state, not ours.

At least his comment wasn't coming out of left field, or a cornfield. Grand National is attractive in the way that golfers love: it's full of water holes bordered by pine and hardwood forests with good elevation changes and no housing. If it's not actually the best site Jones had ever seen anywhere it's not exaggerating to believe it's the best natural site on the Trail.

Roger Rulewich, Jones' longtime associate and lead architect for the Trail courses, thinks so too.

"Opelika was [a] site where we went out and saw that lake - that was mouthwatering really to think that we could utilize all the frontage on that lake," he says. "That was certainly a spectacular site and still maybe the prettiest site in a way, of all the trail sites, primarily because of the visual impact of the water."

The Pavlovian stimulus Rulewich refers to is Lake Saugahatchee, the centerpiece, leitmotif, and ringing bell to just about every hole at Grand National. It makes golfers salivate a combined 19 times on the regulation Links and Lake courses and several more times on the 18-hole Short course.

The irregularities of the lake's, shoreline with its countless wanderings into bays and coves, provided the architectural team innumerous possibilities. For the most part Rulewich avoided mandatory carries, opting instead to route the holes along the water's edge, finding crooks and bends in the water's shape for select dogleg holes.

"We realized we had to build several bridges to span it to get to all the parts of the property," Rulewich says, "but I don't remember doing a course where we had as much water frontage to deal with.

"We had to be careful we didn't overdo it - we could have made too many difficult water holes. We have holes that certainly have water on them, but in some cases we left it more as a visual and aesthetic element and not so much as a playing challenge. I think we still had close to 30 of those 54 holes that were on the water's edge."

Rulewich speaking of not overdoing it would almost be laughable if it weren't true. Grand National is plenty tough - tough enough to challenge elite players at tournaments such as the 1998 LPGA Tournament of Champions, the 1997 Nike Tour Championship, the 1994 NCAA Women's Championship, and the 2000 NCAA Men's championship - but it could have been made deadly if the same sadistic touches found at other Trail stops were copied.

The championship markers remain within the realm of contemporary tournament playability, moreso than most Trail courses that tip out at atrocious maximum yardages and are still too far for even the PGA Tour. The greens, while heavily contoured, are more in line with what the tournament forged player is accustomed, and the driver is tested rather than demanded by countless doglegs and tempting corners.

Oddly it's the 7,311-yard Links course - resembling a links course as much as any tree-lined, lakeside course does, but what's in a name anyway? - that's most flirtatious with the water. It playfully trollops for nine holes between the shore and higher ground before turning surly with five big, obvious, no-nonsense lakeside holes to start the inward half (the pinnacle of which is the 260-yard par-3 11th with a no-miss table-top green).

Links culminates in an awkward, or if not awkward then strangely complicated, 471-yard 18th, a hole that requires the player to first circumnavigate a semi-blind and cruelly placed fairway bunker at the crest of a rise, then attempt an approach to a wide, shallow green set dangerously behind a rock wall bank and marshy finger of lake with no place to bail out.

The Lake course plays yin to Links' yang, or the docile role in a masculine/feminine equation. At 7,149 yards it rarely confronts Saugahatchee as directly as does Links, at least until late in the round when a trio of holes is unleashed upon the player like the pent-up fury of a woman taken for granted. The 230-yard par-3 island green 15th, the short par-4 16th with water right and short of the green, and the 205-yard 17th on a small bluff overlooking the lake are Grand National's most immediate interactions with the ever-present hazard.

Prior to these highly emotional holes the routing keeps primarily to higher ground, with several notable exceptions such as the lovely par-5 12th with the lake down the left. Its resistance comes principally from the robust green contour and strategically placed fairway and cross bunkers.

Grand National is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail's most highly decorated stop and often pulls top honors for the best public courses in Alabama. Players throughout the South frequently list it as among their favorite places to play and are not unaccustomed to driving several hours to visit. Is it possible Jones wasn't just exaggerating after all?

Where To Stay

Grand National is one of the few stops on the Trail, along with the Capitol Hill complex in Prattville, with on-site accommodations. The Lodge and Conference Center with its 129 guest rooms and views of Lake Saugahatchee is the logical choice for traveling players or for business meetings and small conventions. Go to for more information.


The Robert Trent Jones Trail is one of the country's great public golf destinations, not just for the tremendous quality of golf but also for cost. Grand National rates range from $35 to a high of $57 for 18 holes in March and April, with discounts for repeat play and the Short Course.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail - Grand National
3000 SunBelt Parkway
Opelika, AL 36801
(334) 749-9042

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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