Meet Roger Rulewich, chief Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail architect

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Chief architect behind popular Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail doesn't mind living in the shadows of a legend

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - You know the story behind the immensely popular Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail by now. In the late 1980's, Dr. David Bronner - CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama- devised a plan to diversify the assets of the state pension fund by bringing more tourist dollars into the state economy.

Golf, Bronner figured, was the vehicle to carry the pension fund to the promised land.

Three years and 324 golf holes later, Bronner's proverbial wild hare led to the largest golf construction project in U.S. history, and one of the most ambitious state-funded recreational endeavors of the past fifty years.

When the dust from the earthmovers had settled in 1992, Alabama was home to seven new multi-course golf facilities (now eight with the opening of the 54-hole Prattville facility), 100 miles of tees, fairways and greens, and one world-class golf destination.

"I don't do windows and I don't do 18 (holes)," Bronner once said.

Like we said, this much you may already know.

What you may not know, however, is that one Roger Rulewich poured his blood, sweat, and tears into the Trail, working 16 hours days, relocating to Alabama, and tactfully overseeing the design of a mind boggling project that other prominent golf course architects said could not be done.

"Crazy, that is what most other firms said about us, and the project," says Rulewich, laughing.

Rulewich was Robert Trent Jones Sr.'s senior design associate for nearly 34 years and for all intensive purposes, the true architectural force behind the RTJ Golf Trail. But you'd never hear about this "notable" career accomplishment from Rulewich, not unless you ask him point blank.

Heck, you wouldn't even know he existed after reading the Trail's 23-page downloadable golf guide or perusing a recent six-page spread on the Trail in a major national golf and travel magazine.

Rulewich, for the record, could care less.

"The people that need to know that I was heavily involved with the Trail know, and that is what is important," Rulewich says. "Those people are potential clients and my peers."

But the way the Trail is spun leads the average golfer to believe that Jones Sr. took on this great big ole project all by his lonesome. Jones Sr., with all due respect to one of the greatest golf course designers of all-time, was 83-years-old at the onset of the project, 86 when it was completed, and essentially served as a sounding board for Rulewich's work.

Out there on the frontlines, from the deep pine forests of Huntsville to the coastal plains of Mobile were Rulewich (at right) and project manager Bobby Vaughn. The duo would spend the mornings bushwhacking and marking clearings and the afternoons developing routing and drainage plans.

In between cups of black coffee, they'd make site visits to the various courses to check on shaping, grassing, and overall project progression. Neither man actually had time to step back and ponder the magnitude of the project they had dedicated their lives to, and Rulewich says that a lack of introspection was probably for the best.

"When Bronner hired us, he wanted this to be the only thing that we worked on," Rulewich says. "It became our lives, almost 24 hours a day. If we thought about how many golf courses we were designing, building, and opening within a three-year period, our heads would have exploded. The courses ... sometimes I can't believe the way they came out. So much of this was flying by the seat of our pants."

Rulewich, still heavily involved with the Trail but almost a decade removed from the chaos of its initial construction, has gone on to do other award-winning projects. Golf Magazine recently named his Grande Dunes Country Club in North Myrtle Beach, S.C. one of the "Top Ten Courses You Can Play" for 2001. His new firm, the Roger Rulewich Design Group, is busy with droves of remodeling projects and new course designs.

"After Mr. Jones died, we looked around at all the talent in the firm and decided we wanted to stick together," Rulewich says. "Not only that, but we'd become family. We'd spent so much time together in Alabama, we couldn't part ways."

Jones Sr. passed away on June 16th, 2000 at the age of 93. The Trail, buoyed by Bronner, Vaughn, and Rulewich's boundless enthusiasm, will thrive for decades to come.

Vaughn and Bronner are exploring additional sites for expansion, one in the northwest corner of the state near Florence and another in Birmingham near the Oxmoor Valley facility. Both men covet a location around Gulf Shores, an up-and-coming, southern fried destination that is putting Alabama on the resort golf map.

The latest addition to the Trail, the 54-hole Capital Hill complex in Prattville, houses one of the state's best new public access golf courses - the Senator Course. The Senator Course has been pegged as the most playable track in the RTJ lineup, a far cry from its diabolical sibling, the Judge. The Senator sports a Scottish links meets grits design, and a finishing stretch of holes that would make the old man proud.

To a hole, the designs on the RTJ Golf Trail are clever, challenging, and surprisingly breathtaking for state that motorists once viewed as a necessary evil on the way to New Orleans, Texas, or Florida. Rulewich held firm to his mentor's demand that par be protected at all costs. Every layout on the Trail is chalked full of doglegs, uphill approach shots, penal bunkers, and severely undulating greens.

More importantly, the Trail has always made itself available to local taxpayers with its ridiculously low green fees. Residents can get on the majority of courses for $35, and even "outsiders" can expect to pay no more than $60 a round.

"Initially, over 50 percent of the play was from out of state," says Rulewich. "But now there are more locals playing. Mr. Bronner kept the costs down by having the land for the courses donated by major corporations like U.S. Steel."

Even Rulewich, as close as he is to the project, can't seem to believe that the Trail marches on.

"I thought this thing would end with seven, but now there are eight facilities and we are looking at nine and ten, so I don't know when this thing will end," he says.

One thing that everyone involved with the Trail does know is this: its Rulewich's car to drive until the race is over.

"There is some talk about expanding it out of the state, but that is years up the road and could get complicated," he says.

For a man that once oversaw the design of 324 golf holes over a three-year period, "complicated" shouldn't be a problem.

RTJ Trail - Where to Stay

Auburn University Hotel (Auburn), 800.228.2876 $$
Legends at Capitol Hill (Prattville), 888.250.3767 $$$
Marriott Grand Hotel (Mobile), 800.544.9933 $$$$

Chip Shots

Seven of the eight Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail facilities offer a Par 3 Short Course - an solid array of championship par threes that are far beyond the stereotyped pitch 'n putt layout. Don't believe us? The Short Course at Magnolia Grove was recently named by Golf Digest as the best Par 3 course in the nation.

At most sites, the average hole is 200 yards long with some holes playing as deep as 260 from the back tees. As on all Trail courses, there are as many as 12 tee boxes between the front and back tees, so players of every skill level can enjoy these one-shotters.

For more information on the RTJ Golf Trail, call 800.949.4444

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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