Well I finally got to check off one of my golf bucket list’s top ten. I recently played the amazing Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama. Although it was just a few of the more than 468 holes at eleven different golf clubs distributed throughout the state, the diversity of holes and layouts I did play tells me the rest of the Trail must be an experience like no other.
We arrived at Huntsville Airport on a Monday morning and were transported to Hampton Cove Golf Club, a 54 hole facility with two drastically different championship caliber courses and an 18 hole par 3 short course. The Highlands Course is a Scottish links design complete with flowing fescue bordering the fairways with two dynamic finishing holes. Highlands stretches out to 7,428 yards and has four sets of tees to make your links experience both enjoyable and memorable. There is a photo op on the 5th hole- an old mule-barn saved from destruction during the build out of the course. In complete contrast, The River Course, laid out on a former soybean farm in the flood plain of the Flint River, enjoys 16 holes with water that comes into play at the most inopportune times. It’s saving grace, zero bunkers. That’s right. Not a single spec of sand. The River is a throwback to the bygone days when very little dirt was moved to construct a golf course. I wish I could have scored a bit better but what a treat to play them both. The short course is 18 par 3s with just as much thought and design from the RTJ team as its big brothers. Short is not the right word. Captivating is better. This astounding work of art will give you as much golf pleasure as any 7,000 yarder.
My next stop was the Shoals Golf Club in Florence, about 80 miles from Huntsville with two monster 8,000 yard golf courses, Fighting Joe and the Schoolmaster. I thought ‘Joe’ might have been named after Joe Frazier, Heavyweight Champion, but it was actually named after a Confederate General, who after the Civil War, became a General in the United States Army named Joe Wheeler. The golf was spectacular. Fighting Joe is just plain tough. First the length, then 12 holes with water in play, and if that isn’t enough, the rough is 3 feet tall fescue. If you play safe and stay in the short grass, you can score ok. My playing partner was a single-digit handicap trying to beat up on Joe playing from the stones, but he found the jungle 10 times. He lost. The par 3s were my favorite holes, while challenging and aesthetically fantastic, I could reach them in regulation. The Kodak moment here was the par 3, 18th green overlooking the Tennessee River with the clubhouse sitting on a bluff to the left.
We took a pampering respite from playing while staying at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. Along with a soothing pedicure and foot rub, my deep tissue massage was an almost sinful delight. My therapist used her magic hands to work on the various muscle groups until I was totally relaxed. The Spa at the Shoals is a 6,000 square foot complete facility with makeup, hair and nail services along with numerous personal treatments. After your service you can use the steam room, whirlpool and enjoy some serenity in the quiet room. What a perfect afternoon after fighting with Joe.
The Schoolmaster, named for President Woodrow Wilson, is almost as long with narrower tree lined fairways but plays easier. With less water in play and normal rough, the course seemed to blend into the countryside. Playing to the open side of the fairway provides good shots into large greens, and with a little study you can master this one. Once again, the 18th hole, an uphill par 4 with a grand view of Lake Wilson is a scenic finish.
Dining at the Marriott was a real treat. The tallest attraction in Alabama is the Renaissance Tower connected to the Marriott with their Four Diamond rotating restaurant, 360 Grille, 26 stories high. This fine dining experience was complemented by the views of the Wilson Dam( part of the TVA) over the Tennessee River and the surrounding countryside. What a perfect evening for this gourmand!
The next day we traveled down to Opelika / Auburn to play at Grand National, another 54 hole complex and my personal favorite. With 12 holes hugging the shore of 600 acre Lake Saugahatchee, the Lake Course is the most scenic with a quartet of par threes as good as any in the country. The 230 yard, 15th is considered the prettiest hole on the Trail. The cornerstone is the Links Course which is without a single weakness. The par four finishing hole is considered the strongest on the Trail where your drive must carry a corner of the lake and your approach is played to a shallow pedestal green shored up by boulders. Although we did not get to play the Short Course, my host Pam Shaheen from LetsGolf.com took me on a tour of it, and what a beauty, with more than half the holes touching the lake and believe me, one of the best par 3 courses in the country.
All the Trail clubhouses are alike. They are spacious brick buildings with a leisure sitting area, comfortable bar and grill with very good service and food and well stocked pro shop. They all have outdoor seating usually overlooking the closing holes. The impeccable service from the player staff makes the golfers feel that “Sweet Home Alabama” hospitality.
Our lodging was at the Auburn Marriott Opelika Resort & Spa with 221 guest rooms including 19 luxury suites and named the #1 location for public golf in the country by GolfWorld readers. Once again we were treated to heavenly massages in the 3 story, 20,000 square foot Spa and Fitness facility. What a treat. After a soothing total body massage we had the use of a steam room, sauna and huge whirlpool while relaxing in the quiet lounge. The Trail currently has 6 locations with full service spas.
My whirlwind tour was over much too quickly. I can’t wait to go back and play the other Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses. It is truly amazing what Alabama offers in golf. It was all made possible by a visionary by the name of Dr. David Bronner the CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama. He came up with the idea,’ if you build it they will come,’ but the Trail had to encompass the entire state so there had to be courses throughout. He started out with eight then grew to the current 11 locations with 26 courses on the Trail, nearly 300 miles long from the Gulf of Mexico to close to the Tennessee border. You gotta go play the Trail!
Check it out at RTJGolf.com.