Alabama's RTJ Golf Trail churning along at age 15

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ATLANTA - How does something as completely non-scintillating as the state of Alabama's retirement pension fund become something as thrilling as a network of 378 holes of probably the most dramatic public golf in the South?

You'd have to ask Dr. David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, who's idea it was in the late 1980s to make one thing become the other. By parlaying the assets of the retirement fund into the construction and operation of a series of golf complexes, Bronner attempted to diversify the fund's burgeoning portfolio and give boost to Alabama's sagging tourism in one fell swoop.

It could not have been a more smashing success, at least from the golf perspective.

Nearly 15 years later the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is a high-flying whirligig of extreme golf spanning eight cities (originally there were seven sites; 54 holes at Prattville have since been added) and twice as many landscapes.

Credit for building the Trail goes to the firm of late architectural legend Robert Trent Jones, fronted by 34-year partner Roger Rulewich, and project manager Bobby Vaughan. Their assembled team began working on all sites virtually simultaneously in 1990 with the goal of opening all the courses at once, making the Trail the largest single public golf construction endeavor ever orchestrated.

Taken as a whole the Trail also represents some of the most difficult golf ever unleashed upon the public. Many of the 18-hole combinations boast championship yardages in the 7,300 to 7,800 (!) range. Vaughan toured the state to select sites that were both unique and accommodating to such distances.

It might seem counterproductive to build public courses that dress down the average player, but that was the plan from the beginning.

"The directive really came from Dr. Bronner," Rulewich says, laughing. "It was his intention to not only build a lot of these courses but to make them extremely challenging. He had the idea that this was a thing that would interest people, building difficult courses. In fact he told us initially that every one of these courses had to be suitable to play the U.S. Open on."

All sites are located near an interstate or major highway and can be traveled in a continuous circuit from almost any starting point. The following is Travelgolf.com's handy guide to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, including course profiles and notable championship yardage.

Hampton Cove

(256) 551-1818
A good place to ease into the Trail is Hampton Cove, just south of Huntsville, a complex that includes two regulation 18-hole courses and an 18-hole Short Course. The Highlands (7,262 yards) is the more popular of the two full courses, a classy balance of holes routed through sloping pine- and dogwood-lined foothills and flat holes playing around several small lakes. This is a fine if unspectacular layout, though the person writing the marketing literature needs to be placed on the first plane to Scotland for describing it as a links-style course.

Resembling more northeast Florida than northeast Alabama, the River Course (7,667) is intriguing for it's complete absence of bunkering. Routed through the dead level land and humid woods of the Flint River flood plain the course is defended simply by contour, length, and several wetland areas.

Best Hole: The Mule Barn hole (Highlands' fifth) is probably the prettiest, but the best is the 435-yard 12th featuring a iagonal tee shot over water, a bunker rising on the ideal line, and a deep stair-stepped green.

Oxmoor Valley

(205) 942-1177
A 90-minute drive south on I-65 brings you to Birmingham and Oxmoor Valley, the author's favorite stop on the Trail. The same configuration as Hampton Cove (36 regulation, 18 Short), the golf here ranges from the sublime to scenic fireworks and 150-foot elevation changes. The Ridge Course (7,055) is a breathtaking, tumultuous hike through an extreme and eerie landscape of exposed slate (U.S. Steel donated the land), gullies, drastic inclines and declines, and impenetrable forest.

On the other side of the ridge is the Valley Course (7,292), an elongated 18 that drops steeply from the clubhouse into a sylvan river basin stretching over two miles out and back again, culminating in a colossal uphill 441-yard 18th.

Best Hole: Some would argue for Ridge's par-5 12th with its green perched coolly atop a 15-foot high shale shelf, but the short par-5 third with a secret optional fairway sunk in a lower tree-lined valley to the left and stately crowned green is much more fun.

Capitol Hill

(334) 285-1114
Another 90 minutes south is the Trail's newest stop in Prattville, just minutes north of Montgomery. Capitol Hill is the Trail's ultimate golf site with three regulation 18's, a jumbo driving range, and a 90-room resort and conference center.

The Judge (7,779) is the complex's coup de grĂ¢ce. The unforgettable first hole drops over 60 feet to a slender fairway bordered by water right; from there the course meanders out, about, and around the waters and woods surrounding the Alabama River. The man-sized par-3's, tipping out at 187, 229, 231, and 256 yards, are the Trail's toughest.

The Legislator (7,323) is similar in breed to The Judge, playing from high to low with tours through pine- and cypress-laden regions, and The Senator (7,726) is the Scottish-style course that Hampton Cove claimed to have, this one more accurate with "fescue"-covered mounding, bubbling fairways, and a singular mode of bunker-pot.

Best Hole: It's a damned tough hole-a 231-yard all-carry shot over a secluded cypress swamp-but the par-3 12th is undoubtedly one of the most memorable holes on the Trail.

Cambrian Ridge

(334) 382-9787
Cambrian Ridge in the woods near Greenville is only 50 miles south of Prattville. Here the three nine-hole courses and a nine-hole Short course glean their character from the flamboyantly diverse terrain. The strongest 18 is the Sherling (3,681 yards)/Canyon (3,746) combination, two courses as different as their names but equally evocative.

Sherling begins on a ridge before descending abruptly to initiate a close relationship with Sherling Lake. Canyon tees off on the opposite side of the same ridge and traverses the higher, dryer bluffs and hills. Both come together at their respective ninths, two mirrored par-4s playing on opposite sides of a cavernous ravine conjoined by a savagely contoured double green.

The third nine, Loblolly (3,551), is no slouch either. Lacking such distinctive topography and features of the other two nines it exudes a more traditional air using its long slopes and pinpoint bunkering to classic effect.

Best Hole: Some would argue for Sherling's fifth, a long Cape-like par-4 across the lake, but the ninth, with its diagonal tee ball over the arroyo to a blind fairway followed by the uphill approach and vicious green, wins by a nose.

Magnolia Grove

(251) 645-0075
The last stop on I-65 is Magnolia Grove in Mobile where the Falls Course (7,239), Crossings Course (7,151) and an 18-hole Short Course weave through distinct pockets of hardwoods, pines, marshes, lakes, and even railroad tracks.

These are probably the narrowest courses on the Trail, with the Falls Course being the more demanding and interesting of the two and the Crossings Course playing both sides of the tracks. The collection of greens are supremely contoured and demanding.

Best Hole: The Falls par-5 10th, with its severe, waterfall-fronted green is the highlight here.

Highland Oaks

(334) 712-2820
The best way to get to Dothan and Highland Oaks from Mobile is on I-10 east through Florida, then north on Highway 231. Once there you'll find a 36-hole facility-three nine-hole loops and a nine-hole Short Course set amid a quiet and wooded site with several lakes serving as buffers to the holes.

The Highlands Course is open but muscular (3,892), Marshwood (3,812) plays among water and oaks, and the Magnolia nine (3,699) is dotted by, you guessed it, lovely magnolia trees.

Best Hole: It may not be the best, but Marshwood's 6th deserves recognition if for no other reason than that it's 701 yards long.

Grand National

(334) 749-9042
Highway 431 North heads first toward Columbus, Georgia then back through Opelika (a few miles east of Auburn) and Grand National, arguably the most well known and highly regarded stop on the Trail. Here you'll find two sumptuous 18-hole courses, Links (7,311) and Lake (7,149), and 18 short holes. The regulation courses might as well be called Lake 1 and Lake 2 as 23 of their 36 holes border Lake Saugahatchee.

The Links (there's scant links character to it; brutish would be a better descriptor) can be exhausting with dogleg after dogleg, many around and over hazards, and numerous uphill approach shots. Lake is slightly more feminine and tempered, or at least seems so in comparison to Links. Many believe this is the most alluring and lovely of all the Trail courses.

Best Hole: Lake's par-5 12th, a gentle 522-yard dogleg left with the lake down the left and snuggled up to the bi-level green, could be Grand National 's spokeshole.

Silver Lakes

(256) 892-3268
Highway 431 North will carry you past Anniston to Silver Lakes, another 36-hole complex with three nines known as Mindbreaker (3,579), Heartbreaker (3,828), and, oh great, Backbreaker (3,846).

Compared to titanic Heartbreaker and Backbreaker, the Mindbreaker nine seems simple. The common denominators between all three are the prodigious fairways, crazy train green contours, and never-ending uphill approach shots. Obviously driving the ball solidly is crucial on these behemoth courses but pinpoint iron play and flawless putting are even more important. Like saving the best for last, Silver Lakes is relentless but rewarding golf and certainly the most challenging day the player will encounter on the Trail.

Best Hole: Heartbreaker's watery ninth is tough to beat, but its 479-yard par-4 second (ouch) is both a monstrous and strategic gem, with pin placement on the huge precipice green dictating which fairway bunkers are carried or challenged.

For more information and reservation information on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, dial 1-800-949-4444, or visit rtjgolf.com.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


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