Dr. David Bronner, the CEO of Retirement Systems of Alabama had a dream to invest his organization’s pension funds and build 26 world-class golf courses that would challenge people enough that “they will want to come back and try again.”
Bronner had the creativity and courage to do what no one could imagine. Once he lured the legendary Robert Trent Jones Sr. out of semi-retirement, there was no looking back. With Jones on his team, the result is an extraordinary golf trail that meanders across Alabama, from the Appalachians in the north all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Golf Digest has declared the RJT Trail as “the number one value in the country for golf!”
“The very best courses are those where nature provides the canvas,” Jones has said ”My job is to discover her secrets and reveal them.” Bronner was also convinced that the trail would attract tourism and industry to Alabama. He was right.
A golfer gets a feeling for a course based on what makes it a great experience for them or her. Here is what left a memorable impression on me after visiting the RTJ Trail during its 25th anniversary.
The Judge at Capitol Hill has one of the most incredible opening holes in golf. As you stare down a 200- foot bluff to a sliver of a fairway with a well-protected peninsula green that juts out into the Alabama River, it will take your breath away.
The layout traverses 200 acres of river backwaters with 14 holes that feature water hazards, making accuracy more important than distance.
Here, you can also play the Legislator a more traditional parkland course framed by tall pines and built along a large bluff or the Senator, a Scottish links-style design with more than 150 sod-faced pot bunkers and mounds that stretch 40 feet towards the sky.
Ross Bridge in Hoover is the fourth longest golf course in the world. From the very back tees, it plays all of 8,191 yards. Surrounded by the foothills, it features lots of elevation changes and forced carries that provide drama and danger.
Ten holes play along the shoreline, and the waterfall that spills into the central lake is best viewed from the 9th and 18th tee blocks. Linger until dusk to hear the soulful sounds of a bagpiper as he makes his way to the putting green. You’ll be transported ‘across the pond’ at this challenging course that once played host to the Champions Tour’s Regions Charity Classic.
Grand National near Auburn/Opelika offers three 18-hole layouts. The Lakes Course is the home of the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship that runs the same week as the British Open. Built around 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee, 12 holes nudge the shoreline and will test your skills against the pros. The Links Course reportedly has the strongest finishing hole on the Trail, but the Short Course was my favorite. With a good combination of short and long holes, some uphill, some downhill and more than half touching the lake, every hole is unique and what I’d consider a signature hole anywhere else.
Personally, I’m a big fan of huge elevation changes, and in this category, I’m torn between two contenders.
Oxmoor Valley near Birmingham literally rocks. The Ridge, built on the site of a former mine once owned by U.S. Steel takes full advantage of the peaks and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range. It showcases towering shale formations, more than 150 feet in height and rich, dense forests.
Cambrian Ridge boasts three nine-hole layouts. The Canyon was carved out of a former hunting ground, and the first hole will both inspire and intimidate you, a par-5 that drops 200 feet from the tee to the fairway. And that’s only the beginning of the adventure.
With 11 sites, 26 courses and 468 holes of golf, the Robert Trent Jones Trail is varied, fun, challenging and affordable. Often imitated but never replicated, it’s no wonder the New York Times has declared the RJT Trail, “the best public golf on earth.”
Click for more information on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Dave Finn is our Canadian Correspondent. To read more about his golf travel adventures visit www.golftravelandleisure.com