Thursday, February 15, 2007

Many of Dr. David G. Bronner's best anecdotes about the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail concern visitors from far and wide who would otherwise never have visited Alabama. His current favorite concerns an encounter in Canada with a couple of Torontonians who remain suspicious of the Trail's attractions and have yet to take the plunge.

Yes, they had heard that the 378-hole Trail was both great golf and very reasonably priced, they told Bronner -- the CEO of Retirement Systems of Alabama, which funded the project, and mastermind of the Trail. The problem was that they worried about liking the facilities too much, and that the initial allure of the Trail was just a come-on: Once the crafty Americans got them hooked, they surmised, the prices would climb sky-high, just as had been the case with other popular multi-course destinations south of the border.

Well, hosers, you're half right. Part of the marketing strategy of the Alabama Golf Trail -- a name used interchangeably with Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail -- is obviously to encourage repeat patronage; but thanks to the variety and sheer number of the Trail's available choices, not to mention the surpassing difficulty of many of the layouts, it's unlikely that you will ever feel that you "beat" the Trail.

It's even less likely that the green fees, which top out at $65 per round, (but average more like $50) will become prohibitive, for reasons both principled and pragmatic: Not only is affordability part of the Trail's ethos, it has proved to be a sound policy since the first seven sites, comprising 324 holes, opened in 1992 and 1993 (another 54-hole complex was added two years ago in Prattville).

"When you ask people to spend $150 or $200 for a round of golf," observes Bronner, "you're suddenly talking to a very small percentage of the population." Little wonder than that the Trail's widespread appeal has led to the sudden prominence of the term in other golf-destinations. The original however, remains the standard against which others are measured, for a number of reasons.

The uniform signage and clubhouse design at the eight Trail sites evince comfort and convenience from stop to stop. Routes to the courses are the best marked of any you will find anywhere, using identical whited-out typography against a green background. The global-positioning systems on golf carts look and function the same, and even the menus in the clubhouse lounges, while adequately eclectic, are the same.

Still, the same cannot be said of the golf itself, nor of the environments in which the courses are located. For instance, Magnolia Grove is near Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico; Capitol Hill is just outside the state capital, Montgomery; Cambrian Ridge is in the middle of rural woods; Oxmoor Valley is 20 minutes from the Birmingham airport; and so forth.

Most of the commuting between sites can be done on virtual autopilot via Interstate highways with 65-mile-per-hour speed limits. Distances between sites can nonetheless be sizeable, with the drive covering the diagonal from Huntsville to Mobile spanning almost 350 miles.

Sound like the ideal road trip for your favorite foursome? It is. At the same time, while the Trail exudes hardcore golf appeal, it does so without any hint of the stuffiness that so often accompanies it.

Non-playing companions are welcomed to ride along during a round. In addition, there are fun and challenging par-three courses (most of which are 18 holes) at seven of the eight sites, as well as vast practice areas and golf academies.

Although walking is allowed on many of the courses, they are for all intents and purposes unwalkable. (A new course to be built at Oxmoor Valley may break the mold and is said to have been conceived with walking in mind.)

Trent Jones and Roger Rulewich -- one of his principal designers and the ongoing presence on subsequent tracks -- included few blind shots or other "tricks" to the hole configurations, which are generally easy to comprehend, if not to conquer.

But the bunkering sometimes seems placed to catch the well-struck tee shots of average players, rather than to swallow errant ones or to provide direction.

The greens, while large, tend to be either long and narrow or wide and shallow, leaving the non-scratch player hitting the middle of the green and still squarely in three-putt territory.

Of course, these are quibbles. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has, in every sense of the phrase, altered the landscape of golf for the better.

The two full-sized par-72 courses at Magnolia Grove in Mobile traverse marshland, creeks, lakes, and dense forest of pine and hardwoods, with surprising changes of elevation for land so close to the tidal plains of Mobile.

The Crossings Course name actually refers to the railroad tracks bisecting the layout, but that's hardly the most difficult crossing here. Facing the 17th hole's 220-yard carry over a marshy ravine, you may prefer to take your chances with a train. The up-and-down topography is perfectly suited to the pulpit greens so beloved of its architect, and the greens themselves are severely contoured.

The Falls Course is a bit longer, slightly craggier, and has more water. Design features include sprawling cloverleaf bunkers, the odd waterfall for which it is named, and multi-tiered greens.

Anchoring the southeastern quadrant of the state, Highland Oaks , in Dothan, exemplifies the other "typical" clustering of holes on the Trail -- three sides plus a nine-hole short course -- and is also home to its longest holes. All three full-sized nines are par 36s.

The Highlands Course is comparatively wide open, but with some striking water hazards. Remember gasping the first time you came across a 600-yard par five? The sixth hole at Marshwood is a 701-yard par five. The Magnolia Course is named for the profusion of these trees on the facility's higher elevations, which are accessible by crossing over a marsh via a 1,000-foot-long wooden bridge. The Short course, like the rest of the complex, is known especially for its Bermuda greens, part of the rationale for having hosted Nike and Buy.com Tour Championships.

Alabama's diverse, often nearly mountainous topography is on display at Cambrian Ridge in Greenville. The Sherling Course has the most precipitous elevation differentials of the three. The Canyon Course is somewhat longer and shares Sherling Lake with the Sherling nine. The two are also linked by the double green at each nine's final hole, two par fours that entail steep forced carries over a ravine followed by steep climbs to a putting surface fronting the clubhouse. The Loblolly Course is relatively flat compared to its neighbors, but still offers plenty of challenge.

Quick Facts

  Magnolia Grove
(251) 645-0075
$35-$57

  Highland Oaks
(334) 712-2820
$35-$45

  Cambrian Ridge
(334) 382-9787
$35-$57

  Capitol Hill
(334) 285-1114
$35-$65

  Grand National
(334) 749-9042
$35-$57

  Oxmoor Valley
(205) 942-1177
$35-$57

  Silver Lakes
(256) 892-3268
$35-$45

  Hampton Cove
(256) 551-1818
$35-$45

NOTE: For Trail package information, you can call (800) 949-4444, e-mail reservations@rtjgolf.com, or visit the Trail's website at www.rtjgolf.com.

The newest of the Trail sites is Capitol Hill in Prattville. This complex has three full-sized -- some would say larger than life -- 18-hole, par-72 layouts. The Judge Course features captivating views of the exotic backwaters of the Alabama River, with the Montgomery skyline as a backdrop on the elevated first tee. Best to enjoy the view while you can, since the layout is phenomenally difficult, with water in play on 14 holes. The mounding circumscribing most of the fairways on the Senator Course creates some confusing perspectives while separating the holes on this predominantly flat parcel of land. The Legislator, a more traditional layout, weaves in and out of pine forest and along a bluff, the highlight of which is a descent into a native cypress swamp that frames six of the closing holes.

Whether the Links Course at Grand National in Opelika fits all the technical specifications of its name or not, it is a great track and the cornerstone of what Trent Jones pronounced one of the best sites he had ever encountered. In fact, some of the bunkering, mounding, and even the blasts of wind may remind you of classic designs across the Atlantic, but 600-acre Lake Saughahatche, which is incorporated into 32 of the complex's 54 holes, will not. You will come to know it from all angles when playing the Lake Course -- the aesthetic highlight of which is the 15th, a 230-yard par three with an island green. Nearby Auburn, with its sports-crazed university, is as charming a college town as you will find anywhere in the country.

Though close to a bustling metropolis and its network of interstates, the 54-hole facility at Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham, built on reclaimed mining land, seems remarkably secluded. The more dramatic of the two par 72s is the Ridge Course , which includes elevation changes cut from the Shades Mountain segment of the Appalachian range. The Valley Course is only slightly less daunting; though the variations in altitude are more gradual here, you still finish your round with "The Assassin," a 414-yard uphill par four.

Having played all three full-length sides -- Mindbreaker, Heartbreaker, and Backbreaker -- at Silver Lakes in Anniston/Gadsden, the feeling was admittedly one of brokenness. Almost laughably difficult, this site is widely considered to have the toughest golf on the Trail, with steeply uphill approach shots on seemingly every hole. Nevertheless, Silver Lakes' appeal is not restricted to masochists. Situated at the northwest edge of massive Talladega National Forest, the setting is beautiful. And the commute, which includes a stint on sometimes-bucolic Highway 431 between Anniston and Gadsden, is a welcome change from the Interstate driving usually needed to connect Trail sites. This is also the Trail facility closest to Atlanta, about two hours to the east.

The northernmost outpost of the Trail is the 54-hole complex at Hampton Cove in Huntsville. The Highlands Course is, as hinted by the name, another layout incorporating links design flourishes, particularly the bunkers. These are in turn complemented by such distinctly non-Scottish features as Japanese black pines, crepe myrtles, oaks, dogwoods, and an old mule barn next to the fifth hole. By contrast, the River Course occupies a reclaimed soybean field in the flood plain of the Flint River. It capitalizes on existing natural elements, most notably some gargantuan black oaks; and, in marked contrast to other Trail tracks, it involved very little earth-moving. It is also the only Trent Jones course with no bunkers.

Two new Trail courses are now in the pipeline. One is under construction on a site overlooking the Tennessee River, near Florence, in the northwest corner of the state. The other, currently in the conceptual stage, will buttress the Oxmoor Valley complex, already 54 holes, in Birmingham.

Clearly, there's plenty of potential new territory to be covered. This is still a Trail well worth taking.

Tom Harack is a freelance writer based in New York.


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