By Tom Peters
Sweet Home Alabama.
Maybe there should be another twist to that marketing slogan borrowed from the song penned by southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd and used by the state to promote Alabama.
Might I suggest Sweet Golf Alabama?
It is fairly common knowledge that Alabama is famous for its cuisine like the mouthwatering barbecue ribs at the iconic and original Dreamland Café in Tuscaloosa or being revved on NASCAR or being home of such sports greats as Hank Aaron, the Joe Louis and Willie Mays.
It’s a hotbed for college football with the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama and Auburn’s Tigers, but let’s not forget golf and the state’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
The trail is composed of 26 public courses at 11 sites throughout the state. It was the idea of Dr. David Bonner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which funded the trail to help expand tourism, recruit industry, attract retirees and ultimately boost the state’s economy.
Since opening over 20 years ago, the trail has been more than a hit with over 10-million rounds of golf played on these courses that have helped increase in the state’s tourism dollars from $2.5-billion to over $9-billion annually.
It would be a chore to play all 26 courses on one visit, so a good place to start would be in the central part of the state.
Oxmoor Valley on RTJ Trail in Birmingham, has two 18 hole courses, the Ridge and Valley, plus an 18-hole short course.
The Ridge is considered one of the more difficult courses on the trail. It’s a hilly beast that plays 7,055 yards from the tips, with plenty of elevation changes, narrow fairways bordered by tall pines, some water, forced carries and, of course, one of Jones’ familiar design traits, elevated greens usually guarded by steep, front bunkers.
To the southeast of Oxmoor, in Opelika, the home of Auburn University and its Tigers, is the 54-hole golf offering at Grand National. Jones remarked that this was “the single greatest site for a golf complex ever.”
Both the Links and the Lake courses have a lot of contact with Lake Saugahatchee. The Lake course is demanding and will certainly offer the pros a test when Grand National hosts a PGA Tour event in 2015.
The Lake course, which we played, had a parkland feel with its tree-lined fairways. The greens were large and undulating. One of the many treats of the course was the par three 15th a 160-yard poke from the white tees to a near island green.
At Prattville, not far from the state capitol of Montgomery, the Capitol Hill golf complex offers three more, 18-hole championship designs named Senator, Judge and Legislator. Our choice in the morning at this sprawling complex was the Senator.
Unlike any course we had already played, this was a Scottish links-style course – treeless, with lots of large mounding, deep grasses and plenty of pot bunkers.
We played it the week before the course was to host the just-concluded LPGA Tour Yokohama Tire Classic. The layout was in immaculate condition and the large, undulating, and in several cases, tiered greens were firm and fast for a great experience.
In the afternoon we tackled the Judge, said to be the toughest test on the trail with lots of water and challenge. It boasts what Golf Digest has deemed the third toughest starting hole in the world.
At 415 yards from the back tees, there is an elevation drop of approximately 200 feet to a fairway bordered on the right by a small lake and to the left by a swamp.
If you play the course from the back tees, where the course measures 7,813 yards, you get slapped with a dandy hole on No. 10, a whopping 711-yard par five. There is a forced carry off the tee of well over 200 yards.
We finished up the week with another monster at the exquisite Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa in Hoover.
The course, which has hosted the Regions Charity Classic, a PGA Champions Tour event, comes in at 8,191 yards from the back tees, which makes it fourth longest course in the world. The course is over a mile longer from the back tees than the front tees.
From the tips there are three par fours of over 500 yards and seven par fours that range between 454 yards and 487 yards, but on this design, cut through the rolling terrain of the Shannon Valley, it really makes sense to pick the length that suits your game.
It is truly and enjoyable golf course with wide open fairways, lots of elevation changes, large greens and plenty of water.
Certainly a plus for these RTJ Trail courses is the affordability. Depending on the time of the year, green fee rates range between $40 to a high of $74 and in some cases less.
There are approximately 140 golf courses accessible to the public in the state and we had a chance to play two non-RTJ Trail courses, including Ol’ Colony, a Jerry Pate design, and NorthRiver, both in Tuscaloosa.
Ol’ Colony, a parkland style course, requires a lot of positional play off the tee. The greens are large, fast and have plenty of undulation.
The NorthRiver course, is part of a private social, golf, tennis and health club on Lake Tuscaloosa , but is accessible to the public if you stay at the nearby Yellowhammer Inn.
NorthRiver was originally designed by Gary Player, but was later renovated by architect Bob Cupp.
A very enjoyable course, NorthRiver boasts four strong finishing holes. There are plenty of elevation changes throughout the course which makes club selection important with several uphill approach shots into the greens.
A third public course that grabs your attention is FarmLinks Golf Club at Pursell Farms in Sylacauga.
This is an interesting story. This golf course, designed by Hurdzan/Fry, was built not for public play, but as the world’s first research and development facility for the golf industry.
Dubbed a living laboratory, it’s used to grow and test various golf course grasses, fertilizers, be a classroom for superintendents and turf professionals, and a place to test maintenance equipment by manufacturers, etc.
However, there was a demand to play the course so it was opened to the public, but it still works with the various aspects of the golf industry.
The course is routed through the rolling hills and stands of native timber. A highlight of this very scenic design is the par three fifth hole. It’s 210 yards from the back tees with a drop of 170 feet to the green.
Regardless what tees you are playing, you’ve got to go to the back.
Grip it, rip it and enjoy the hang time.