Things you thought you knew, need to know and wish you never found out

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ATLANTA - The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, a unified system of golf courses spanning eight cities comprised of 378 holes (with more on the way), is even more daunting to summarize concisely than it is to play.

The following are random notes, facts, and figures that may lead to abetter, and possibly more confused, understanding of this remarkable golfdestination.

In case you hadn't heard, the Trail courses are difficult. They're alsolong. Lead architect Roger Rulewich, an associate of the late RobertTrent Jones for 34 years, worked alongside project manager BobbyVaughan for three years to bring the courses to life. Difficulty andlength were mandates from the beginning.

"The length of these courses is something Bobby pushed right from the beginning," Rulewich says. "Our target was like 7,500 (yards) from the back of some of these courses initially. Now we've jumped it up to 8,000. I thought these things were overly long, but when [they] brought the tour(s) in - setting up those courses at about 7,600 yards didn't seem to bother anybody.

• Four sites have hosted professional tour events (Capitol Hill, Grand National, Highland Oaks, and Magnolia Grove) including NIKE TOUR and BUY.COM TOUR Championships and the LPGA Tournament of Champions. The Judge at Capitol Hill will host the Nationwide Tour Championship in late October 2003.

• The longest course on the Trail is The Judge at Capitol Hill measuring 7,779 yards, followed by The Senator at the same site (7,726), the Highlands/Marshwood combination at Highland Oaks (7,704), and the Heartbreaker/Backbreaker course at Silver Lakes (7,674).

• The shortest championship yardage is The Ridge Course at Oxmoor Valley at 7,055 yards. It's also the most vertical course on the Trail.

• An informal ranking of the Trail's most difficult venues would begin with Silver Lakes. Why? It's not length (each course has four sets of flexible tees so there's always a comfortable set-up to chose from) but rather that so many approach shots play uphill to blind putting surfaces. Often all that can be seen is the top of the flagstick waving over a field of rough and bunkers.

As a collection the Silver Lakes greens are the most highly contoured in asystem of courses renowned for exaggerated putting surfaces. Some of thebest (most severe): Mindbreaker's double plateau first, Heartbreaker'ss wavyfirst and second, and Backbreaker's stair-cased third and melted cheesefourth.

• Other unforgettable greens throughout the Trail: the steppedseventh at Links (Grand National); the double green ninths at CambrianRidge; Loblolly's tilted fourth at Cambrian Ridge; The Fall's 10th atMagnolia Grove; the roller-coaster sixth at The Judge; two, three, 10, 11,and 14 at the Ridge, and the Valley's humped ninth and 11th at OxmoorValley; Highland's fifth, sixth, and four-tiered 12th, and the River'sslippery eighth and ninth.

• After Silver Lakes, the most severe tests are, in no particular order, The Judge, Lake at Grand National, and the Sherling/Canyon course at Cambrian Ridge.

• The Judge boasts both the highest rating (77.8) and slope(144) of any course on the Trail.

• These are wildly entertaining courses from an architecturalstandpoint. In addition to the massive, frequently nausea-inducinggreens that offer a sinister assortment of tucked pin possibilities, thereare several other themes consistent throughout much of the trail.

The bunkers are large and irregularly cut, coming straight from the GeorgeThomas school of shaping (or would that be the old Robert Trent Jonesschool?). Their edges are often left rough giving them a splendid raw andintimidating look.

There are very few level lies anywhere on the Trail. will give you a dollar for every level stance you find at Oxmoor Valley or Cambrian Ridge.

Bunker placement also is worthy of study. Many of the Trail's uphill holes feature smallish bunkers in excessively wide fairways, as well as bunker complexes set short of and well below the greens. These arrangements distort scale and create the illusion of length - standing on the tee the player swears a 375-yard par-4 is really 450 yards, or that a par four must be a long par-5.

Other notable architectural features include the repetition of grassy knobsset just in front of the greens to obscure the putting surface, slopes andramps in the fairway to give turbo boosts to well-struck drives, greens withlower hidden rear sections, greens that are deep and narrow or wide andshallow, and the use of four-tiered "stair step" putting surfaces.

Strategically the Trail courses are some of the most thoughtprovoking in the South. Rulewich is not averse to placing bunkers directlyin the line of charm or protruding into play at angles or at the corners ofdoglegs, forcing the decision to go over or around them.

Silver Lakes, Grand National, and the Highlands Course at Hampton Cove offer the best opportunities for strategic, option rich driving.

Green orientations are also strategically clinical. Almost always the longand deep greens are cocked to the line of play making angle of attack andpin position both crucial and variable day-to-day.

The design also tips its hat to the classics. Mindbreaker's seventh at Silver Lakes is a variation of C.B. MacDonald's "Bottle" hole, and the fifth hole at the Sherling nine at Cambrian Ridge is a very good "Cape" hole. The tee shot at the par-3 16th at The Judge (256 yards, elevated over water) is as close as most of us will get to Cypress Point's 16th.

Fun features on the Trail: a Mule Barn at Hampton Cove; a greenand subsequent tee atop shale outcroppings at Oxmoor Valley; hunting blindssurrounding Cambrian Ridge; an old Civil War dam at Oxmoor Valley; a tee boxbuilt on a dock in a swamp at The Judge.

Missing greens on the Robert Trent Jones Trail is bad news. Countless greens are placed hard against hazards or feature steep drop-offs on one or more sides. To complicate matters most greens throughout the Trail can be accessed only with an aerial approach (with notable exceptions at Hampton Cove's River Course, The Senator, and the Valley Course at Oxmoor Valley).

The secret killer at each site is the deep bermuda rough surrounding the greens. Balls routinely settle at the bottom of the grass rendering chip and pitch shots unpredictable at best.

• Though general connections can be made there is no straight line between the Trail designs and what might be considered a Robert Trent Jones style. So do they typify a Rulewich style - instead?

"I don't think you can separate [the two] because I worked with Jones for 34 years," he says. "What I did here (on the Trail) probably was an outgrowth of all the things I'd been doing for Jones for so long. So the style, if it's Jones' style it was my style, it was the one I had learned and worked with and modified and changed with Jones over the years.

"I don't think you can say his style stayed the same. I think there weremany changes to things as we continued to work together."

• As grandiose a project as building the Trail courses was, the process was far from a highly planned technical march. Much of the design work was donein the field, on the fly. "We had layouts and routings for [thecourses] and really in some cases we were into construction merely by takingthat plan and having the center-line staked out and then Bobby and I wouldgo down and start walking out the clearing," Rulewich says.

"It was a great way to build golf courses."

• Two new complexes, one in Hoover and one near Muscle Shoals, aretentatively slated to open in late 2004. Early word is one site is beingdesigned with a PGA TOUR event in mind and the other is located on bluffsoverlooking Lake Wilson on the Tennessee River.

For more information and reservation information on the Robert Trent JonesGolf Trail, dial 1-800-949-4444, or visit

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, 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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