Say what? Auburn-Opelika in Alabama ranked as the best golf city in the United States?

When non-golfing Americans think of Auburn, Ala., many of them almost certainly think of the Southeastern Conference football school with all those nicknames: the Auburn War Eagles, Plainsmen and Tigers - the last being the school's official nickname.

To serious golfers, Auburn is mainly thought of as one of the stops along the state's renowned Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. But, all of them may be shocked into disbelief to discover Auburn-Opelika is the U.S. epicenter for urban golf.

That's what Golf Digest believes, in any case. The magazine just named Auburn-Opelika as the best golf city in America, defined as metropolitan areas with populations more than 50,000.

Auburn-Opelika? In Alabama?

Yes, that semi-isolated spot in eastern Alabama, four hours from the Gulf of Mexico and a world away from the more famous golf hot spots like Myrtle Beach, Florida and California.

Here's the funny part: folks in Auburn-Opelika weren't surprised.

"I don't think it surprised me or some of the local golf courses here that much, simply based on the quality of golf and the amount of golf we have in this town," said Scott Gomberg, director of golf at Grand National, the main golfing attraction in the area.

Golf Digest used a fairly complicated formula in its rankings and the results were revealed in the magazine's August issue. It considered access to golf, weather, quality of golf and value.

The magazine, which has published the rankings in the past, put more emphasis on weather this year, which helped the overall winners. Average daily high temperatures in Auburn dip below 60 only in December in January, for example.

That isn't to say balmy weather alone launched Auburn-Opelika into the top spot. You can start with its average green fees of $38 and end with Grand National and its three highly rated courses on a site Bobby Jones practically fainted over.

The Links course is considered the star by many, partly because its finishing hole is regarded as the toughest on the RTJ Trail. The Lakes course has 12 holes hugging the lakeshore - and its 230-yard, par 3 with the island green is thought by many to be the trail's most scenic hole. The Short course is also been tabbed as one of the best 18-hole, one-shotters anywhere.

"We've got 54 holes of championship golf here that we'll put up against anything they have available in California or Myrtle Beach," Gomberg said. "And they've built some other great golf courses here in town. It's a beautiful place to live and a very safe community - and it's got some great golf on top of that."

Grand National has hosted the Nike Tour Championships, the LPGA Tournament of Champions and the NCAA championships.

Another course, Auburn Links, is Auburn football Coach Tommy Tuberville's favorite course, as the magazine points out. Links Magazine has ranked the course as the third-best public track in the Southeast, with its rolling fairways along Parkerson's Creek.

There's also Indian Pines, the municipal course shared by both cities, whose clubhouse recently burned to the ground. Add to that Saugahatchee Country Club and the public Pin Oaks Golf Club.

The rankings were bottom-heavy with northern cities, as well as many of the large, glamorous cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

"I think the problem with those areas and your Palm Springs (not ranked) and others is that they're very large," Gomberg said. "When you look at per capita, it just doesn't equal out - that's not to say they don't have some great golf courses and they're not great golfing communities, but I think a lot of their people are also from out of state versus people who are actually living in that community."

This may come as another surprise to many, but the Auburn-Opelika area is fast developing a resort image.

"The area only has about 6,000 people and that's when school's in session at the university, so it's not a very large area," Gomberg said. "We've seen a lot of people moving to this area in the last few years to retire, based on the cost of living, ease of getting around and the fact we're located in the center of the state near the interstate.

"As far as travelers, we do close to 70,000 rounds at this facility and of that 70,000, about 60 percent are people traveling to this area to play golf. This is a resort destination versus just a great golf course in Alabama."

Gomberg and others don't deny they have benefited from the marketing prowess of the RTJ Trail, the preeminent golf trail in the U.S.

"I think we'll start getting a lot of phone calls and people asking questions," he said. "All that advertising has been done through the RTJ Golf Trail and our entities to get that word across. The Trail has done a phenomenal job of advertising over the last few years."

Another relatively unknown area, the Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol triumvirate in Tennessee and Virginia finished second in the rankings, while Punta Gorda in Florida finished third. Gadsden, Ala., made the top 10, and Sumter, S.C., (12th) beat out Myrtle Beach (14th).

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