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Breezy Point

Local Golf
August 22, 2017

A Pool Hall Owner's Lessons Are The Building Blocks For The RTJ Golf Trail
Dr. David Bronner
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Dr. David Bronner
Magnolia Grove Crossings Course
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Magnolia Grove Crossings Course
RJ Smiley

This segment of Minnesota Golf History will look at the son of a small town Minnesota pool hall owner who has become one of the biggest movers and shakers in the world of golf course development and ownership.

Dr. David Bronner was born in Cresco, IA, a border town on the Minnesota/Iowa border. His father owned and operated a pool hall, just across the border, in Harmony, Minnesota. When Dr. Bronner was very young his father moved his family to Austin, MN where he opened a, modern day, pool hall; a pool hall with no spittoons and no alcohol. Little did young David Bronner know that the lessons he learned from his father, while cleaning the toilets or scrubbing the pool hall floors every Saturday night, would give him the basic business foundation to develop and oversee one of the worlds biggest and best golf operations.

Dr. Bronner was taught two "TIMELESS BUSINESS PRINCIPLES" that have directed him like a beacon for the past 40 years as he has directed the Retirement System of Alabama to one of the highest rated retirement systems in the world.


After high school Dr. Bronner earned his Bachelors and Masters Degree in Finance at Mankato State University. He later taught Finance at his alma mater for a few years before earning his PhD and law degree at the University of Alabama where he taught in the Graduate Schools of Business and Education and served as Assistant Dean and Lecturer in the School of Law. In 1973 Dr. Bronner moved to the Retirement Systems of Alabama where he became the Chief Executive Officer. The RSA is ranked 117 of all private/public pension funds in the world, and 45th in the top 1,000 U.S. funds.

Guided by those two basic Business Principles, Dr. Bronner has guided RSA into a number of high profile investments including office buildings, luxurious hotels and conference centers, TV stations, and community newspapers. (Over 160 newspapers provide free advertising for the state of Alabama.) Dr. Bronner who served as Chairman of the US Airways Board of Directors has been featured in Time, Governing Magazine, The Institutional Investor, The Money Manager, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Forbes Magazine, and Pension & Investment Age for his investment strategies and financial market decisions. In 2003, PlanSponsor magazine named the RSA "Plan Sponsor of the Year."

As Dr. Bronner reflects on RSA's numerous successful investments, his Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail - AN IDEA BACKED BY MONEY - brings the biggest smile of satisfaction to his face. Alabama's, Jones Trail is a unique covey of 26 sibling championship golf courses, located throughout the state at 11 beautiful sites that were hand selected by Dr. Bronner. These wonderfully designed and meticulously manicured courses have put Alabama at the top of golf destinations worldwide. But more importantly, by SETTING EXPECTATIONS VERY HIGH these golf courses are a major reason that Alabama tourism has grown from a $1.8 billion industry to a $10.7 billion industry.

How Did It All Happen
In the late 1980's the "trained brain" of Dr. Bronner was searching for ways to effectively diversify the assets of the state's pension fund and how to grow Alabama's economy. He believed that the stronger the Retirement Systems of Alabama can make Alabama, the stronger the Retirement Systems of Alabama will become. Bronner brainstormed for ways to increase tourism to the state of Alabama and finding the missing ingredients necessary to bring much needed industry to his beloved state. The Alabama Golf Trail idea was formed when US Steel Corporation, a major landowner in Birmingham, approached Dr. Bronner with the idea of giving the RSA land to build an 18-hole golf course.

When Dr. Bronner wrapped his arms around the vision, he remembered what his father had taught him, "THINKING LOW IS A CRIME." Dr. Bronner wasn't looking to build just an 18 hole public golf course; his vision was to build 378 holes of wonderful championship golf at 8 locations throughout the state. ALL AT ONE TIME!

Dr. Bronner contacted his friend, Bobby Vaughan, director of golf at Tanglewood in Clemmons, NC and explained his vision. Vaughan drank the Kool-Aid and immediately formed SunBelt Golf Corporation and began putting together a team that would develop, construct, operate and manage all 18 golf courses.

"When you're looking for someone to design 378 golf holes, you start at the top," stated Bronner. So Dr. Bronner sent RFPs to 6 well-known golf course designers. Robert Trent Jones, Sr., arguably the premier golf course architect in the world, like Vaughn, caught the vision, and also drank the Kool-Aid. Jones, Sr., designer of over 500 courses worldwide many among "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses", came out of semi-retirement to digest the huge project and agreed to add his renown name to the project.

With the ink still wet on the final approvals, Vaughan and SunBelt Golf pushed the starter button on 700 pieces of equipment to begin construction of the largest golf course project in the world. The red clay of Alabama shook statewide as the invasion of earth moving equipment was compared to a D-Day of bulldozers. If the holes on the original Jones Trail were laid end to end they would form a golf course stretching to over 100 miles. Imagine that!

Robert Trent Jones understood from the beginning that, with UNLIMITED FUNDS AND GRANDIOSE IDEAS, he had the opportunity to create his own version of Michelangelo's masterful artwork in the Sistine Chapel. Today the 26 courses that make up Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail total 468 holes at 11 locations across the state. Jones designed the courses to provide a golf course for golfers of all ability and ages. Many of the holes have up to 12 sets of tees. The Trail's long list of accolades includes recognition as the best value in the country as a golf destination, according to a recent GolfDigest survey. GolfWorld readers named the sites in Opelika (Grand National) and Prattville (Capitol Hill) as the top two public golf sites in the country. The course at Mobile (Magnolia Grove) ranked number 32.

In May of 2012, Dr. Bronner and Roger Rulewich, lead designer for Robert Trent Jones, Sr., attended the 20th anniversary of the Trail at Oxmoore Valley. Rulewich, who worked with Jones for 34 years, has been selected to work on a series of renovations on the original courses.

In the view of this golf writer, the most unique assets among the Trail's 468 holes are the great par-3 courses. Having played two of the original par-3 courses, I will state that playing a golf course with 9 or 18 par-3 holes that could be placed on any golf course in America is truly a challenge. The attention to detail and maintenance of these par-3s is exactly the equal to all Jones Trail courses. Visit the Jones Trail and play the par-3 courses. They are no joke or afterthought!

Dr. Bronner learned to play golf playing with his mother and two older sisters at Austin Country Club. His older sister, age 80, living in California regularly plays three times a week. Who would believe that the son of a pool hall owner in Austin, MN would become the innovative businessman who oversees one of the most successful golf course operations in history? Thanks to the Senior Bronner's wisdom, the idea has been copied but never duplicated!

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