Honours Golf – Come On Down
By E. Nolan
In the Golf Gulf Shores feature (also in this issue) I mentioned the memorable Southern Hospitality I experienced on each of my visits to the Alabama Gulf Coast. That perennial, day in day out consistency in excellent service is no coincidence. Honours Golf operates five of the eight Golf Gulf Shores courses – a classy Alabama (and Atlanta) based Management Company that stresses, “the smallest details make the biggest difference.” Their already star-studded lineup continues to expand across the southeast as clubs trying to make it on their own realize how valuable a partnership with a nationally respected management powerhouse can be.
The history of the people who manage these courses is as significant as the history of the facilities they manage. Honours Golf CEO Robert Barrett’s extensive record of successful operations includes serving as Vice President of Sun Belt Golf (which created the famed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail) and manager and director of golf at the prestigious Shoal Creek in Birmingham, where he was honored as PGA Merchandiser of the Year. He even began his golf career at Augusta National as an assistant pro. He is a Master in the golf industry. I mention all of these things to establish that Honours Golf is no “flash in the pan” or accidental success story. Mr. Barrett and his exceptional team know how to turn “less” into “the best.” That’s the basis for why so many top-rate clubs continue to place their financial futures in the secure hands of Honours Golf.
Eleven of their represented courses are in Alabama – five in the central part of the state, one in the northeast, and five in the Gulf Shores zone. For the purposes of this article we’ll cover them north to south.
Cherokee Ridge is the northernmost property, located in Union Grove. The semi-private Sammy Dean design incorporates the rolling Appalachian foothills smoothly into its routing, benefitting as well from the existence of a stunning 17-acre lake and an incredible 80-foot waterfall that cascades into Lynn Creek on the back. With good reason Cherokee Ridge uses the natural beauty and a handful of awesome Par 3’s as its claim to fame. The views from the clubhouse are enticing, but it’s the experience along the many rock and wooden wall-lined water features that leaves the lasting impression.
Highland Park is the oldest golf course in Alabama, originally opened as the Country Club of Birmingham in 1903. With views throughout the course of the Birmingham skyline and a history that includes one of Bobby Jones’ first victories – at age 14 – the traditional parkland layout is a popular draw for metro golfers. In 1955 the club honored Birmingham native Charley Boswell, a 17 time National Blind Golf Champion, by naming the course after him. Today “his” 5,800 yard, Par 70, course is a quick round with water and elevation changes on every hole.
Cider Ridge Golf Club in Oxford is considered an extension of Birmingham, cut into similar dynamic terrain as the nearby highly acclaimed FarmLinks Golf Club. Alabama based Bill Bergin Design turned a former apple orchard at the base of Mt. Cheaha – Alabama’s tallest mountain – into a nearly 7,000 yard, Par 72, romp along the Talladega National Forest. Tree-lined fairways, rolling hills and two creeks with fantastic names – Choccolocco and Little Hillabee – were cleverly wrapped into the design. In the four years since Cider Ridge’s drainage and playability renovations the course has dramatically grown in popularity, and new visitors learn what the regulars have long known… The twin, water-infused, Par 3’s at 7 and 12 alone are well worth the trip.
NorthRiver Yacht Club in Tuscaloosa is the only Alabama piece in the Honours portfolio that is private. The social, golf, tennis and health club sits on the banks of Lake Tuscaloosa, and for all those reasons is a great source of Crimson Pride. PGA legend Gary Player designed the original course in 1978 and two decades later Bob Cupp – another architectural legend touched it up. It features a handful of “signature” holes, specifically the Par 3 6th hole with its peninsula green, and the epic three-hole (4-4-3) stretch on the back from 15 to 17.
The capital city of Montgomery hosts two Honours courses, the 9-hole Gateway Golf Course and the highly acclaimed Lagoon Park – earning its merits on GolfDigest’s Top 100 list for years. Both are public access, high value rounds for every age and skill level of player. Gateway Golf Course also has a Learning Center focused on growing the game and allowing newly acquired or tuned skills to be applied on the property’s 3,000-yard layout, before taking on the big dogs.
And then we return to the Gulf Shore area (which has its own feature in this magazine). For all the rolling punches provided by the courses from Montgomery on the north, it’s the beauties near the beach that deliver the knockout blow for Honours Golf. Kiva Dunes is a Stay & Play mecca for the golf traveler looking for a coastal golf experience (the only beachside resort in Alabama) at a great value, designed by a name brand architect – U.S. Open Champion, Jerry Pate. Kiva Dunes annually is in the conversation for Alabama’s best golf course, with the RTJ Golf Trail’s Ross Bridge in Birmingham and FarmLinks in Sylacauga. The on-site rental condos not only have golf and gulf views, but also are so spacious and luxurious, nothing else nearby can beat it buck for buck.
Another Major winner and talented golf designer, Arnold Palmer, has two phenomenal routings near the Gulf at Craft Farms – his only two signature courses in Alabama. GolfDigest has regularly rated both Cotton Creek and Cypress Bend 4.5 stars, and each caters to opposing sets of strengths. I consider Cypress Bend to be a Top 8 course in Alabama, which given the quantity of quality golf in this state is no less than a great testament. It is beautiful, with water realistically in play on fifteen holes.
Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club in Gulf Shores is another Honours thrill-ride, with 27 holes of Earl Stone golf. I’d never heard of him before my first Gulf Shores venture, but he made so much of this Bon Secour Wildlife Preserve property that I immediately sought out his other designs and was thrilled to find that the last Honours Golf Club I’m featuring in Alabama, Rock Creek, is also one of his designs.
Rock Creek is a stellar experience from first tee to 19th table. It has to be Mr. Stone’s greatest architectural achievement. What he did with the relatively flat land in the Gulf Shores area to create so much movement and elevation change on his course is beyond remarkable. There are so many picturesque views and golf holes scattered throughout this property, if I could play only one of the Honours courses again, I think it would be this one.
It should be plain to see that there’s nothing plain about this stacked portfolio of golf and golf properties. Under Mr. Barrett’s strong leadership, management of these properties has assured and provided an emphasis on Southern Hospitality, fantastic playability and course conditioning… and thrilling golf experiences that follow you home – wherever in the country or world home might be. Everyone has his or her favorites. I’ve certainly mentioned mine. But the true greatness of the Honours arsenal lies in the plethora of options at the golf traveler’s disposal. The price is most certainly right. So come on down.