ROBERT TRENT JONES GOLF TRAIL – Heaven Eleven
By E. Nolan
“Globally there is no other golf trail or designated collection of public courses that can match the quality, diversity, affordability, accessibility, and ease of travel of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.” – James Achenbach (GolfWeek)
As opening statements go, that’s a powerful one; and, as compliments go, it’s an even greater one. Why? Because (speaking from personal experience) that bold rave is absolutely true. Consider this: 26 years ago there was no Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (RTJ). 26 years ago, not a single one of the nearly 12 Million Trail rounds played (since) had been recorded. At that point, 26 years ago, The RTJ Golf Trail was merely a project in development under the watchful eye of the visionary mind behind it… Dr. David Bronner.
The RTJ Golf Trail was officially “born” in 1992. It began as four golf sites, twelve courses in all, with 216 total golf holes. Twelve golf courses opening in the same year, in the same state… that’s unheard of anymore, and as ambitious as a “Grand Opening” will ever get in the golf world. And yet, today (25 years later) The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail dwarfs its original self in a massive web of 26 courses, 468 golf holes, all clustered at 11 sites across the entire state of Alabama. People like to say that The Trail was Dr. Bronner’s version of the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” and the “build it and they will come mantra” was admittedly something he borrowed; but, that blockbuster movie was based on a single solitary field in tiny Dyersville, Iowa (that is covered in snow half the year). The Dr. Bronner/Robert Trent Jones blockbuster is 26 times that – 26 spectacular, highway-united fields, that we all are most blessed to be able to play on every single day of the year! (I’ll take this “heaven” over that one any day!)
2017 marks the 25 Year Anniversary of the planet’s “Original Golf Trail,” and… no knock on any other trail, but nothing developed since even remotely compares to The RTJ Golf Trails’s collaborative excellence. (“RTJGTAL” would make a great custom license plate.) Robert Trent Jones, Sr. died in 2000, but his legacy continues to impact millions of golfers each year through the work of his sons Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and Rees “The Open Doctor” Jones, as well as RTJ Sr.’s own worldwide projects – none greater than “his” Alabama golf trail.
If you’ve never been to Alabama, you are missing out on way more than just great golf. Alabama’s Gulf Shores shares the same warmth and white sand luxury of Florida’s panhandle beacons: Destin, Pensacola and Panama City, (with great lodging options at a fraction of America’s other coasts) and if “Southern Hospitality” wasn’t coined in Alabama it was definitely perfected here. Having spent three weeks on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail over three separate visits in the past five years, I can easily attest to being blown away by each Trail experience. My son and I have played golf at all eleven sites – 324 of the 468 holes, so far. The consistency in the excellence of the course-to-course maintenance was impressive – actually… pretty hard to believe. It’s as if all 26 courses had the same superintendent – one guy doing everything, everywhere, at once. (“Super Santa” is my moniker for the magic maintenance man.)
I know what many of you are thinking, because I pondered the exact same question myself back in 2010… “Can the RTJ Golf Trail REALLY be that great?” All those billboards lining the highways promoting the Trail… are the courses really that beautiful? Trust me, I did my research… extensively. I read every online review on each property (that I could find) and spent dozens of hours going through the course tours on www.RTJGolf.com. I discovered that The RTJ Golf Trail had a number of 9 and 18-hole Short Courses (at 7 of the 11 sites) that seemed like they would perfectly complement a championship round. Everything looked amazing, and most of the rack rates were so unbelievably low (even at their peaks)… it screamed of “too good to be true.”
But, it wasn’t. All the awesomeness was very much true. I might not have had the luxury of Mr. Achenbach’s opening statement to propel me. (James has been covering golf and golf travel for Golfweek for 40 years.) I didn’t know The Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella considers The RTJ Golf Trail “Easily one of America’s Best Buddy Trip destinations” but, after my own experience, I would have said the exact same things they did. We celebrate the “truth” of the general affordability of golf, lodging and great barbeque on The RTJ Golf Trail. The Stay & Play values provided by The RTJ Golf Trail’s idyllic association with Marriott and Renaissance Hotels have helped me organize (literally) 19 one-to-two-week “buddy groups” to The RTJ Golf Trail since my own first visit, and every single group has gone back (or planned to go back soon) again. They know the “truth” now, too. But, the greatest truth, is that you need to experience The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail for yourself, and that there’s never been a better time to do so.
Unless you can afford to take a full month away from all of life’s other responsibilities, you (probably) shouldn’t aim for playing all 26 courses in one trip. While I personally prefer to drive everywhere, golf groups tend to fly in from all over, and (accordingly) I recommend breaking “The Trail Experience” into 23 days over Three Separate Visits.
Trip I – (9 Days) “Birmingham” – Fly into Birmingham for three nights at the Renaissance Ross Bridge, with their 18-hole “Best In State” contender and the 54 holes up the street at Oxmoor Valley (36 championship and 18 short). Take in the 27 championship (and 9 short) holes at Silver Lakes on the 4th day, then stay in Huntsville somewhere on nights 4 and 5 while you experience the two championship 18-hole courses and one 18-hole short course at Hampton Cove. Drive to the Marriott Shoals for two nights and 36 championship golf holes. Return to the Renaissance Ross Bridge for one more night (and maybe one more round) then fly home on Day 9.
Trip II – (7 Days) “Montgomery” – Fly into Montgomery for three nights at the Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel & Conference Center with 54 championship holes of golf at Capitol Hill. Drive to Dothan for 27 championship holes and 9 short holes at Highland Oaks then up to the Auburn Marriott Opelika at Grand National for three nights with their 36 championship holes and 18-hole short course. Fly out of Montgomery on Day 7.
Trip III – (7 Days) “Mobile” – Fly into Mobile for four nights at either the historic Battle House hotel or the Renaissance River View. Play 36 holes of championship golf and the 18-hole short course at Magnolia Grove, and the 27 championship (plus 9 short) holes at Cambrian Ridge. Spend your last two nights at the sensational Grand Hotel Marriott Resort (right on Mobile Bay) in Point Clear, with the 36 championship holes at Lakewood Club (and their new state-of-the-art practice facility) right across the street. Fly out of Mobile on the 7th day.
Some golf groups return to the same places year-after-year and others insist on always going somewhere new. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail combines the two mentalities (with the 3-Trip plan above), capitalizing on the year round golf climate to give individual golfers and groups an anything but risky and entirely rewarding experience. They’re throwing a “25 Year Party” on The RTJ Golf Trail this year, and you’re invited. RSVP today!