Getting on track with the golf trails of the Southeast

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It's a beautiful day for golf in Louisiana, says Stuart Johnson, Ph.D., even if it's not a beautiful day. Come hell or high water, golfing in the Bayou state is exponentially better than it was just seven years ago, he explains. In large part, this marked improvement is due to the Audubon Golf Trail, Louisiana's answer to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama.

"Millions of people came here but they didn't golf," says Johnson, deputy assistant secretary with the Louisiana Office of State Parks. "So we tried to do two things: get the people who were already coming to stay a couple extra days to play, and get groups to come on extended golf junkets. The way to do that, we decided, was to create a golf trail."

Seven years later, the Audubon Golf Trail is now seven courses strong. It spans almost the entire state, north to south, and has made Louisiana one of the South's up-and-coming golf destinations. A quick glance at the tourism brochures from other southern-fried states reveals a pleasant surprise: Louisiana is not alone.

In addition to the elder statesman of the golf trail circuit (the aforementioned RTJ Golf Trail) and the Audubon Golf Trail, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia have all gotten into the golf trail business. Tennessee's Bear Trace surfaced shortly after the completion of the RTJ Golf Trail, and Mississippi's Magnolia Golf Trail is becoming increasingly popular with golfers.

One can only conclude that in addition to college football and BBQ Southerners have a thing going for golf and travel.

"There are some elements of the Southeast that lend themselves to the development of this type of golf theme," Johnson says. "The weather is the obvious one. You can play year round here and we get a lot of visitors from Canada and the Midwest. The other is that the region is primarily rural and driving through the countryside to get from one course to another is actually a pleasant experience."

Especially in the Magnolia state, in all its late spring and early summer glory. The Magnolia Golf Trail - the rookie of the bunch - kicked off in December 2002. The trail ambitiously includes 14 courses ranging from hair-pulling hard to predominantly playable.

"We went out and found the best available courses we could get," says Scott Kelly, the trail's general manger. "They all maintain a certain level of quality that we want in a golf course. In Mississippi there are 160 courses and they are all trying to get golfers to come to their course. We think there are two ways to get people interested in what you have and that is information and variety. This is a state initiative and we've really gotten the word out, and the variety of courses on the trail is amazing."

Similar to the Audubon Golf Trail, the Magnolia Golf Trail was created from a consortium of existing courses. Bear Trace, on the other hand, was made to order with four Jack Nicklaus designed courses. A fifth Nicklaus designed course -- Ross Creek Landing - was added to the lineup in 2002. Bear Trace follows the Interstate-64 corridor along the southern edge of the state, with the exception of the Cumberland Mountain course to the north off Hwy. 127.

"They have a wonderful thing going on over there (Tennessee), too," says Johnson. "It is conceivable you could spend an entire summer playing through the various golf trails."

Further east, The Maverick Golf Trail is a collection of Mike Strantz designed courses spanning Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Strantz is known for his controversial designs, as evidenced by the Maverick Trail's moniker, "You've worked too hard to save for your annual golf trip just to play the same boring courses you'd play at home."

A handful of other loosely organized golf trails beckon golfers to the Southeast. The I-95 Golf Trail and the South Carolina Golf Trail present golfers with a couple of Palmetto State options. The former is primarily made of up courses from around the Sante e-Cooper region and the later consists of a montage of courses from Myrtle Beach, the Low Country, the Midlands and the Upstate.

"I don't know how many more (golf trials) you will see, but they stand to benefit the golfer," says Kelly.

Indeed, if there is one common denominator among the various golf trails, it is value. The majority of courses on the RTJ, Audubon, Bear Trace and Magnolia circuits range from $35 to $55 for a round of golf with cart. For the true stay and play experience, about $100 per person is the going rate for teeing it up on a designer course and bedding down in comfy accommodations.

"Any serious golfer has to try it once," says John Marsh, a retired building supply store owner from Indianapolis who recently played the RTJ Golf Trail. "The only problem is, if you try it once you will want to try it again."

Marsh says that for the money, the courses he played on the RTJ Golf Trail were the best he's sampled in his 30-plus years of playing the game. And the sampling isn't limited to the links on most golf trails. The RTJ, Magnolia and Audubon Golf Trails bombard golfers with local culture.

"We are trying to bring in the entire flavor of Mississippi to the golfer and that includes the food and things to see and do off the course," says Kelly. "There is so much history to be found along these trails and we encourage golfers to explore it."

Exploration is the only way to truly make one's way around the behemoth RTJ Golf Trail. This golfing pantheon consists of an eye-popping, soft-spike slaughtering five, 54-hole facilities and three 36-holers. The majority of the Jones/Roger Rulewich designed tracks are recognized among the best in the state and region.

"That is the one we modeled ourselves after and that is the one we all look up to," says Johnson.

Trail Hopping

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail -
Audubon Golf Trail -
Magnolia Golf Trail -
Bear Trace -
Maverick Golf Trail -
South Carolina Golf Trail -

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of from 1997 to 2003.

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