Grand National's Lake course bedevils RTJ Trail golfers

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

OPELIKA, Ala. - The Lake course at Grand National is a bit confusing at first, at least as far as the name goes. Almost every time you tee it up, you're hitting over a lake, around a lake, sometimes in the lake - you always seem to be trying to avoid one of the many lakes on the course, one of the Robert Trent Jones Trail's marquee facilities.

Shouldn't it be named the Lakes course?

Eventually, you learn that it is, of course, one big lake giving you all those pristine views and gulping all your golf balls, not a series of lakes. It's all connected you see, like the vast oceans of the world.

The lake in question is Lake Saugahatchee, a 600-acre body of water that winds through the rolling, dipping and winding course, little brother to the Linkscourse which hogs most of the publicity here at this 54-hole facility on the outskirts of hilly Opelika,itself the little brother of nearby Auburn,Ala.

It is a beautiful course, as far as the scenery - no homes, condos orcommercial development squashing in on you, no roads with traffic whizzing by - just the east Alabamahills, woods and water. No less than 12 holes hug the lake, and the result is golf with no distractions. As soon as you turn on to Sunbelt Parkway, you leave the real world and enter a natural - as natural as golf can be - kingdom of golf.

It's as quiet back here as a church, which is where most Alabamans are on Sundays. There's just the whisper of wind in the pines, the criesof water birds and the cursing of your playing partners as they reach into their bag for another Titleist.

Nor will you be inundated with the blast of titanium drivers as much here as at some other macho courses. The Lake isn't short at 7,149 yards long, though it frequently asks you to mind your southern manners and back off with a long iron or fairway wood off the tee.

"It's not a 'get up there and bash it' course," assistant professional Daniel Blazich said. "You have to think your way around. It's not a hard course, unless you want to make it hard."

True, you can make it easier by looking at the lake instead of tryingto play golf out of it. With a slope rating of 138, it's certainly no pushover, and there are several interesting holes that do indeed give your noggin a workout instead of your driver.

The 334-yard 16th hole is a teaser, for example. It's driveable for the big hitters, especially from the shorter tees, but anything short will be impounded by a weed-choked creek that cuts across the fairway. You can play it safe and lay up, either to the left, where the creek doesn't come into play as much, or to the right, which offers a shorter route to the green. But - and this is a big but - if you're really feeling your oats, you can try and play a power fade around the 150-yardmarker, but beware - there's precious little fairway to work with.

The verdict

For $55 green fees - you get a discount with an RTJTrail pass - this is a terrific bargain. It's little wonder GolfDigest named this course in the Top-10 of its Top-50 affordable courses in "Places to Play."

And lest you think it isn't big enough for you, try out the quartet of par-3s, including the 230-yard island green 15th, which some say is the prettiest hole on the RTJ Trail.

The only drawback at the time of this writing was the conditioning ofthe greens, which were spotty.

"I think it's a good course, but the greens are never in really good shape," said Atlantaresident Trafton Elsea. "They pretty much bounce all the way home. Maybeit's because of all the rains they've had this summer."

Stay and play

The Marriott at Grand National is only a few minutes from the Grand National golf shop; you know it's a "golf hotel" with its winding, undulating putting green right out front.

The Marriott is away from what passes for the hustle and bustle of Opelika, back in the woods. It's a moderate-sized hotel with 114 rooms and 15 suites and caters to the business types with high-speed Internet access, business centers and 15,000 square feet of meeting space, including 13 meeting rooms.

It also has concierge services, hot tubs and jacuzzis, a fitness center, swimming pool and sauna, hiking and jogging trails, miniature golf and tennis.

Dining out

The Marriott has the Fairways Lounge, which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner

and serving casual food like sandwiches, hamburgers and salads. For more formal dining, the Lakeview Room - also open for breakfast, lunch and dinner - has steaks, seafood and game dishes.

If you want to venture further afield, try the Cracker Barrel, Cottage Café, Cock of the Walk for seafood, Made from Scratch Café or that Southern favorite, Chuck's B Que Incorporated for barbecue.

Fast fact

The Lake course was named the fourth best new public course in America in 1993 by Golf Digest.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • rtj grand national lakes course

    jaa wrote on: Jun 28, 2012

    They resodded greens in 2011. I played may 28 2012. Now the greens have a big swale(hogback) between the different tiers, which makes it impossible to get an approach close. It also makes for a lot of 3-putts. Some sand traps have been enlarged and their number increased. It is too difficult and no longer fun to play. I am a 12 handicap and shot 98 that day. I live close to here and play this course every year, but I will never play here again.