Mis-named Links golf course at Grand National can be a hellcat

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

OPELIKA, Ala. - We should all know by now not to take the word "links" too seriously when it is attached to an American golf course. Or at least we should know it means something different than when it's used in Scotland or Ireland.

There are very few true links courses in the U.S., but the allure of a wide-open, salt-spray seaside course - linking the ocean to the land - is apparently too much to ignore for the marketers. No matter, we Americans can purloin anything we want from Europe and use it to our advantage. We made that point in 1776.

The Links course at Grand National here in east Alabama isn't a links course in any traditional sense of the golf vocabulary.

"The front nine doesn't come back to the clubhouse - that's about the only 'links' thing about it," said Grand National Assistant Professional Daniel Blazich. "There's actually more water in play than (at the Lake course), which I think is kind of funny."

So, we've established it is not a true links course, but it is still one terrific golf course that, like its little brother, the Lake course, exploits Mother Nature, like the 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee and the hilly terrain that reveals views of the surrounding countryside - with nary a house or condo or backyard barbecue grill to spoil a good walk.

Robert Trent Jones, who designed all three of Grand National's courses, is reported to have said this was some of the best land he'd ever come across to build a golf course, and it's easy to see why. The Links is heavily wooded, like the Lake, though the thick stands of trees stifle what breeze there is in this part of Alabama. They use fans to air out most of the greens, which you will welcome in the stifling heat of August.

At 7,311 yards and with a slope rating of 141, it is more difficult than the Lake course, with fairways that dip, rise and coil, small greens that fall off to water and rough that is often virtually impenetrable.

Some of the holes out here will bring out the sissy in you, if there's any in there. Try the 260-yard 11th hole, if you don't believe me. It's a par-3! Over water! When's the last time you hit a driver or 3-wood at a par-3?

"It's a beast," said Blazich, which could be the understatement of the year.

The most difficult aspect of the Links is almost certainly the approach shots - not that the tee shots are pieces of cake. But, the greens are treacherous, many of them small, sloped and undulating and offering you only a small, narrow portion of themselves, unless you've positioned yourself perfectly.

Like No. 6, a 544-yard par-5, for instance. You'd better take advantage of the downhill slope off the tee because if you don't hit it long, you're facing a 200- to 270-yard carry over a lake finger if you want to reach in two. And who wants to lay up 70 or 80 yards?

The verdict

Like the Lake, this is a great play and an even better bargain with green fees in the $55 range.

My only gripe is the rough, which often comes to the edges of fairways and greens, in front and to the sides, and is virtually impenetrable. Most of the greens are elevated and sloped toward water, so you will definitely go through some sleeves of balls if you aren't extremely accurate.

"I couldn't tell you how many balls I've lost out there," said Atlanta golfer Raymond McAfee. "Doesn't really seem fair."

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 Links was named the second best, new public course in America by Golf Digest in 1993.

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.

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