Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail started with a man’s vision 20 years ago, but is seen today as one of the country’s best golf destinations.
by Patrick Martin
The sports term, “going long,” often is associated with a backyard football game, as in, “Go long and I’ll hit you with a pass by the bird feeder.” The phrase holds up well also when describing some of the picturesque courses on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Above: The 18th hole at The Shoals’ Fighting Joe course is scenic and challenging. The course, at 8,092 yards, is one of the longest in the world. Michael Clemmer/Golf Landscape Photography
Below: A day playing 18 holes at Ross Bridge golf course will test the best golfers. Ted Tucker/Birmingham CVB photo
Does it ever.
The trail is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2012, its existence now assured after a “longshot” beginning in 1992. That was the year Dr. David G. Bronner, chief executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, saw his outlandish goal of a statewide trail of golf courses begin to take shape. Bronner was willing to invest $150 million of the fund’s resources to get the project rolling. He sought the input of five noted golf course architects, but only Robert Trent Jones, Sr. returned his call.
Jones began designing some of the monstrous, breathtaking, and knee-buckling courses that today run from Florence/Muscle Shoals in the northwest corner of the state down through Mobile on the Gulf Coast. Twenty years later, golfers from all across America have affirmed Bronner’s idea. In 2011, the trail’s 10 millionth round was played.
Play a round
For a golfer, the trail is 26 courses and 468 holes of agony and ecstasy at 11 different locations, most of them with two or three courses in a cluster. Numerous golf lifers have made the pilgrimage to play every hole on the trail, an undertaking that can take a month or more. To them, the RTJ Trail is the Mount Everest of golf. Why play the whole thing? Because it’s there.
Like that fabled mountain, the trail offers a variety of challenges. The forward tees are the gentle foothills, offering a leisurely stroll that any beginner or high handicap player can still enjoy. The longest tees–the black ones– represent the summit. Few go there (or should).
A defining moment for our group came at the Fighting Joe, the Florence/Muscle Shoals course that is the second-longest course on the trail and one of the longest in the world at 8,092 yards from the blacks.
Playing from the middle of the six sets of tees, we thought that the black tees were a rumor. It was a disconcerting sensation the first few times we arrived at our tee box, looked behind us for the black tees and nearly couldn’t see them. When we finally spotted them, there was a universal reaction in our foursome: “Who in the world could hit from back there?”
“Not many,” chuckled Scott Neal, director of golf at the two courses. “At least, not many in their right mind.”
Neal said staffers at The Shoals, as the two courses are collectively called, do their best to assess which set of tees would be appropriate for a given foursome. Course starters, stationed on the first tee, try to make tactful suggestions.
“Of course, males being males, sometimes they want to play a distance that may not be right for them,” Neal said. “We try to help them find a set of tees that will make for a challenging but enjoyable round.”
The other course at The Shoals, the Schoolmaster, is only a smidge shorter at 7,971 yards, but features the boss hole of the two courses: the uphill, 681-yard ninth. Pack a lunch for that one.
Length is certainly not the trail’s only quality, though it is the defining one in northwest Alabama. Beauty is a close second. Located along the Tennessee River, The Shoals consists of 36 classic holes that mingle more than one style of course design.
The Schoolmaster, named for President Woodrow Wilson who pushed construction of the nearby Wilson Dam and who was known as the The Schoolmaster of Politics, has yawning elevation changes that run through oak and hickory forests. Fighting Joe, named for Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler, is a classic bump-and-run links golf course with more mounds and moguls than trees.
Well-kept and carved beautifully into their natural surroundings, the quality of these courses is beyond argument and the price of playing them shockingly low.
A quote from a Boston Globe reviewer sums it up: “A genius in course design created 18 jewels for everyone to enjoy at one-third the rate of comparable facilities.”
Bronner’s concept was to design the trail as a tourism lure, not to empty visitors’ pockets before they had a chance to explore the rest of Alabama. Greens fees today average $50 per round with cart, about what a high-level municipal course might charge.
“It’s a tremendous bargain,” Neal said. “It became known for and has earned its reputation as being one of the greatest values in golf.”
The 20th anniversary of the trail will be celebrated throughout 2012. One of the first promotions unveiled is the $20 greens fee on the 20th of each month at all trail courses. Even with a $16 cart fee added, the $36 total is less than half of the weekend high season rate.
As luck and the calendar would have it, those super discount days included two Fridays, one Saturday and a Sunday. Tee times at the special rate may be made up to seven days in advance.
The RTJ Golf Trail also has expanded its Trail Card discount and loyalty program in 2012. Alabama residents and others living within 100 miles of the Alabama line are eligible to purchase the cards.
Beyond the fairway
Golf is not the only attraction along the trail. As the courses were built over the last 20 years, other development followed. Fine restaurants and hotels popped up. Supporting businesses already were in place in the university towns and large cities along the trail.
There are 54 holes in Huntsville in the other northern Alabama outpost for the trail. Heading south, the Birmingham/ Hoover area has 72 holes, then on to Prattville/Montgomery for another 54 holes. The east side of Alabama is well represented, too, with complexes at Anniston/ Gadsden, Auburn/Opelika, and in Dothan.
The southern-most cluster includes the 54 holes in Mobile and 36 more at Point Clear on the coast, a full week’s worth of golf within a 40-mile drive. Point Clear’s Lakewood Golf Club consists of the Azalea and Dogwood courses, tracts dating to 1947. Now renovated and a part of the trail, these once-private courses can be played and enjoyed by all.
It’s a long way from Point Clear to Muscle Shoals, especially for golfers who want to take in the entire Robert Trent Jones Trail as they go. For those lucky linksers, going long will never be more fun.
Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.