Oxmoor Valley fully revealed
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Those who have never been to Birmingham, an industrial city nestled amid the foothills of the southern Appalachian Mountains, may find the rather mountainous territory surprising for Alabama, impressions of the South being what they are. Despite the hilly, forested surrounds nothing can compare the golfer for the terrain encountered at Oxmoor Valley, where the first shovel on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail hit dirt almost 15 years ago.
Consisting of complexes in eight different locations from Mobile to Huntsville, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is a network of 378 holes funded by the Retirement Systems of Alabama. Two more sites, one near Muscle Shoals and another near Birmingham, are currently under construction.
David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama hired Trent Jones' firm to construct the courses simultaneously in the early 1990s. Because they had no other ongoing projects at the time (Jones' was basically retired by that time), the firm was able to put its entire concentration and manpower into the vast project. Jones's 34-year associate Roger Rulewich, and project manager Bobby Vaughan, oversaw the majority of the construction.
Oxmoor Valley is a virtuoso blend of elevation changes and undulation, though there's little on the ride through southwest Birmingham that tips it off to the golfer. Only when the turn is made onto the property after passing shopping plazas and industrial parks is Oxmoor Valley fully revealed.
The uniform Trail clubhouse sits on a narrow ridge above the Appalachian forest, falling precipitously on either side into deep, wooded valleys. To the south is the Ridge Course, a fantastical ride up and down through quiet forests of pine and dogwood; to the north is the Valley Course that drops quickly down into a river basin stretching two miles out and back. There's also an 18-hole Short Course, common to all the sites.
"Birmingham was the first site I looked at with Bobby and I said, 'Wow,'" Rulewich recalls. "We rode up on that ridge and he said can we get two or three golf courses here and I said, 'Well I can see maybe getting off the ridge on this side but we're going to have a hell of a time getting down the other side down into the valley (the Valley Course).'"
"But we did manage to do it. It was very, very rugged terrain, at least getting up and down to the clubhouse area."
Rulewich saw that holes on the Ridge side of the fall could be made by strategically cutting into the forested hillside, creating platforms to play from while working the routing south and east to less severe terrain. The Valley side had a more extreme drop-off.
"The Ridge Course was rugged terrain but, I could see some way that we could step that one up and down and make it work," says Rulewich.
"The Valley Course spreads out rather nicely once you got down there (into the valley) but the challenge was to try to get holes that would get you down there and get you back up to some reasonable distance to the clubhouse."
Rulewich and Vaughan conquered the Valley-side difficulties by handling the bulk of the elevation with two startling holes, the first and the 18th. The first tee is perched some 100-feet above the fairway looking across the valley toward the foothills to the north. Big hitters can carry the bunker complex on the inside corner of the 414-yard dogleg leaving wedge to the open green but they'd better catch it all - the final hazard is a deep pot bunker from which there's no reaching in regulation.
Eighteen is more stringent, a 421-yard par-4 that traverses the incline back toward the club house along the line of the hill showcasing a tee shot across a gully to a bi-level fairway and a long uphill approach to a well guarded, semi-blind green.
As magisterial as the Valley Course is at its alpha and omega the better holes are in the valley, particularly once the player has crossed into the seemingly abandoned woods on the west side of Shannon Wenonah Road.
This is the flattest portion of the property and is where the layout hits its stride with pitch-perfect pacing and a wide variety of green configurations and hazard placements. The real fun begins at the ninth green, a vast wavy structure featuring a large, peculiar knob in its center. That's followed by two drastically different par-4s - a 475-yard dogleg right and a short 378-yard - before a par succession of five, three, five, four, three and ending with a pair of strong, uphill two-shotters (including the aforementioned 18th).
If the Valley Course drums a steady, percussive beat after its explosive opening note then the Ridge is wildly operatic from the beginning. The first seven holes - once the player has descended from the ridge - play up and down, across valleys to sloping landing areas, and uphill into benched hillside greens.
By the time the player makes the turn nothing topography-related comes anymore as a surprise. Yet after stepping through the steep 10th and par-5 11th with undulations that defy description, the routing arrives at an unexpectedly remote and almost forsaken sector of the site.
It's seems eerie and backwoods but the land is well-worn territory, once owned by U.S. Steel and later donated to the Trail. Remnants of the mining and mineral rich property are evidenced at the 12th and 13th holes, where a green and subsequent tee box are perched high atop shale outcroppings.
The ride back in is just as memorable, including a diagonal tee shot over an expansive gully formed by a rediscovered Civil War era dam, a drop-shot par-3 against a lake, and a 421-yard uphill par-4 finisher that will suck away any remaining energy the golfer might still have.
All in all there are more notable features at the Ridge, the Trail's shortest course (7,055 championship yards), than at several other stops combined. It may not be the most exacting golf, but it's certainly the most visceral.
Architect: Roger Rulewich
Par: Ridge - 36-36-72; River - 36-36-72
Yardage: Ridge - 4,974-7,055; Valley - 4,899-7,292
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail continues to be one of the great public golf values. Rates at Oxmoor Valley range from $35 to a high of $57, with discounts available for replays and the Short Course.
March 23, 2004