Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail “A to Z”
By E. Nolan
If ever a subject were perfectly suited for an “A to Z” feature, it is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama. Twenty-Six Letters. Twenty-Six Courses. Coincidence? No way.
A: Sweet Home Alabama. What exactly is that supposed to mean, when it’s not home to most of us? First it’s about hospitality – Southern Hospitality to be exact. Secondly, Alabama is at the foot of the Appalachian Trail, inherently suggesting it’s both a little mountainous and beautiful. It also shares a stunning Gulf of Mexico shoreline with Pensacola and Panama City, Florida. It’s the Heart of Dixie and was the heart of the Civil Rights Movement – truly a special and historic place. Oh, and it’s home to the first golf trail ever created – the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
B: Most of us Midwesterners learn of the Trail via the gorgeous golf photography plastered across Billboards all around us. The Trail is golf at its core, but it’s also the doorway to amazing BBQ at the Brick Pit in Mobile, and fabulous Coca-Cola BBQ Burgers at the epic Ross Bridge in Birmingham. The Trail is associated with award-winning and historic hotels like Mobile’s Battle House, with its incredible rooftop pools and panoramic views, a few blocks down from a Blind Mule.
C: Alabama’s highest point is in the lovely Cheaha State Park, surrounded by the Talladega National Forest. The views from the rocky outcroppings and beautiful boardwalks up there will light up the “Likes” on your Instagram account. A “high” value overnight if you have time. And speaking of high values, one of the RTJ Golf Trails eleven sites, with similarly dramatic topography, just south of Montgomery, is Cambrian Ridge. Considered one of GolfDigest’s “40 Best Value Rounds in America”, they have 36 holes on property, including a “Short 9.”
D: Trail Creator and CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, Dr. David Bronner’s vision has not only transformed the state of Alabama, but every other state that has coordinated golf trails since then. The concept is genius – “share the wealth” – and its mere existence is every visiting golfer’s good fortune.
E: With Eleven golf sites feeding Eight spectacular Marriott and Renaissance host resorts across the state, Sunbelt Golf Corporation has its management hands and portfolio quite full.
F: Eleven properties. Twenty-six courses. Four-Hundred-Sixty-Eight golf holes. That’s a lot of golf. I’ve played 306 of those holes and enthusiastically attest that the diversity is astounding, and the quality of playing conditions at every site makes you suspect they have a “Greenskeeper Santa Claus” managing them all. It’s amazing, considering over Five Hundred Thousand golfers play these courses each year.
G: One of the most popular Trail sites is Grand National, a 54-hole resort with a Marriott host, that many golf publications rank as one of the best “Buddy Golf” destinations in America. An easy 100-mile access to Birmingham airport.
H: Many a Grand National visitor will dip south to Dothan, host of the Trail’s Highland Oaks, and it’s three championship nines and one “Short 9.” Others head to the northern gateway of the Trail, in Huntsville – Hampton Cove. Hampton Cove has 54 more holes of golf, with two topographically diverse championship 18’s and “Short 18.”
I: It only takes a couple Trail stops (if that) to marvel at the Innovative nature of the beast. Imagine building eighteen courses on eight different sites across an entire state… AT THE EXACT SAME TIME. Insane. Good way to collect frequent flier miles though.
J: Capitol Hill in Montgomery hosts another Marriott and three championship courses; the Senator, the Legislator and the Judge, just around the corner from a great Jim & Nicks BBQ. The Judge is worth playing just for the opening tee shot.
K: Nowhere in life is the expression “Keeping Up With the Joneses” more impossible than in the world of golf trails – thanks to Mr. RT Jones.
L: A favorite hotel on the Trail is the Grand Hotel Marriott in Point Clear, Alabama, on Mobile Bay. The tremendous Trail amenity sits directly across the street from the 36 holes at Lakewood Golf Club, and their “backscratching” partnership has garnered many nominations for “Best Golf Resort in America.”
M: There are four Marriott hosts on the Trail and four Renaissance hosts. Mobile has the aforementioned Battle House Renaissance, but it also has Renaissance Riverview, and both of those resorts partner to house all the golfers playing the stunning 54 holes of golf at nearby Magnolia Grove – with two championship 18’s and a “Short 18.”
N: The Short Course was a relatively New Concept, something Dr. Bronner intended to serve the entire family – catering to every age and skill level equally. The Trail’s Short 9’s and Short 18’s are inversely quite “Tall” in architectural talent.
O: Birmingham has 72 holes of championship Trail golf, divided onto two sites: Ross Bridge and Oxmoor Valley. Oxmoor Valley has two of the most challenging championship courses Mr. Jones created in Alabama. On the other hand, many claim Oxmoor Valley’s “Short 18” as the easiest Short course on the Trail.
P: Dr. Bronner wanted this Trail to be all inclusive of age, skill and gender. To illustrate that Philosophical Point, the championship courses range from 4,700 yards to 8,200 yards with as many as 12 tee boxes to choose from in between.
Q: A decade ago, one of my “10 Life Quests” was to play every hole on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail with my son – a ridiculous notion to be sure. But a couple summers ago we got in 306 of the 468 holes on a 10-day trip – 70% of the original radical goal. Not such an absurd quest anymore.
R: Of the 308 courses I’ve played in the U.S., Birmingham’s Ross Bridge is #7 on my list. The unofficial “King of the Trail” appropriately shares a magnificent property with a castle – the Renaissance Ross Bridge. Home of the Coca-Cola BBQ Burgers, and amazing wings.
S: The Silver Lakes Trail stop is more famous for the EF-4 tornado that destroyed it in 2011 than the golf, and that should NOT be the case. The reincarnation rocks! There are three behemoth nines here called Mindbreaker, Backbreaker and Heartbreaker, and a “Short 9” I rank with Bandon’s Preserve, Michigan’s Dunes Club, Missouri’s Top of the Rock and Minnesota’s Pine Creek as the “Top 5 Short Courses in America.”
T: The Marriott at The Shoals is situated on the Tennessee River, between the Wheeler and Wilson dams, and impresses with a towering 360 Grille, a fabulous water park and the best kids meals in the state at Swampers Bar & Grill. Add in the twin giant courses, Fighting Joe and The Schoolmaster, and the pairing makes quite a first impression for Trail visitors coming in from the northwest.
U: If you’re Under 18 you can play any of the championship courses on the Trail (except Ross Bridge) for only $27.
V: The best way to get around the Trail is by car, and Dr. Bronner’s high-powered Vehicle was manufactured to assure that no two links would be too far apart… or too far from one of the luxurious resort “garages”. All told, the Trail is 172,398 fairway and green yards by golf cart and 1,078 highway miles – full circle – by car.
W: A southern “staple”, Waffle Houses, out number Starbucks in some cities and make for a perfect early morning fuel stop before a full day on the Trail.
X: I’ve had two aces in golf. My first came at Grand National Trail on the Trail. “X” marks buried treasure on a pirate map. Essentially it marks the same on my life’s golf map.
Y: If you’re a bird-watcher you’ll see plenty of Yellow Shafted Flickers down here. Then again, if you’re a bird-watcher you probably know they’re called Yellowhammers. I didn’t.
Z: Catch those “Zs” while you can down here. The golf buffet is rich and filling, but packing it in wipes you out. On the flip side… it also leads to the fulfillment of some pretty sweet dreams.