Friday, February 16, 2007

Golf in Alabama was once just a punch line on late-night talk shows. That was back in 1990, when the PGA Championship at Birmingham's Shoal Creek Country Club sparked a furor over alleged racial discrimination at the club. But since the first course on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail opened in 1992, the circuit has transformed Alabama into one of the nation's top golf destinations. It's a place where quality courses and value prices intersect.

The RTJ Trail begins at Hampton Cove in Huntsville, near the Alabama-Tennessee border, and winds 342 miles south to Magnolia Grove on the gulf shore in Mobile -- eight venues and 378 holes later. All but one of the trail facilities boast a short course of nine or 18 holes, ideal for squeezing in some end-of-the-day play. The RTJ Trail encompasses too much territory for one trip, so I played its central and northern sections, starting in Prattville and looping east and north before finishing in Birmingham.

Who designed the courses? Some locals give more credit to Jones's longtime associate Roger Rulewich than to the old master himself, who was well into his 80s when the work began (things were simpler when architects just credited the Almighty). It hardly matters though, since the project might as easily be called the David G. Bronner Trail.

Bronner is the CEO of Retirement Systems of Alabama, a man whose contentious 30-year career has included suing the state legislature over a law that would have let legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant keep coaching past age 70, then the mandatory retirement age. Bronner got the idea for a golf trail from his own vacations. "I'd go to a place like PGA West," he says, "and all I saw was people standing in line with $100 bills, waiting to persecute themselves. I told Mr. Jones, 'That's what we want here!'"

The 54-hole Capitol Hill complex in Prattville is just 15 miles from the state capital of Montgomery. You can see Montgomery's skyline beyond the Alabama River from the 1st tee on Capitol Hill's hulking, 7,794-yard Judge course. The layout zigzags through a backwater floodplain with island fairways and greens that challenge you without beating you silly -- as long as you select your tees wisely. The 229-yard 6th hole features a contoured green that's hard to hold since the prevailing wind quarters against you from the right.

Only a shade less imposing, the 7,697-yard Senator course at Capitol Hill, site of the Nationwide Tour's season-ending championship, is a links served up Southern style. Its fairways are defined by hillocks that obscure bunkers; its elevated greens, guarded by pot bunkers, are perched atop mounds like upturned breakfast bowls. The Senator's toughest hole is the 559-yard 17th, where a banked fairway is trisected by a gully that makes it hard to decide where best to lay up before attacking the raised green. The Legislator course, at 7,417 yards, is the most accommodating of the three, blending the Judge's links style with parkland holes that skirt the tree-lined river.

After your round, head to Montgomery and visit the Hank Williams Museum & Memorial. The 29-year-old country music star was found in his Cadillac on New Year's Day 1953, dead of a coronary said to have been caused by high living. Days earlier a man named Cecil Jackson had rotated the tires on Williams's Cadillac; the car is now the centerpiece of the museum, which Jackson founded in 1999.

Ready for some more golf? Drive 80 minutes from Prattville to the Grand National complex in Opelika. There are two layouts here: the Links and the Lake (and an 18-hole short course). The Links is a stress test of 7,311 yards. Its fiendish, 260-yard 11th hole is all carry over wetlands to a sloping, oval green. The 7,149-yard Lake course, host to the 2004 NCAA Women's Championship, is tighter but prettier. Its most demanding hole is the 557-yard 7th, which slides left around a lake that also lurks behind the green.

From Opelika, it's 101 miles to the strip-mall sprawl of Anniston and the trail stop at Silver Lakes, where the names of the three nine-hole loops suggest how rugged the golf is: Heartbreaker, Mindbreaker and Backbreaker. The course combinations play from 7,407 to 7,674 yards over cascading fairways with greens that'll give you vertigo. Any long putt is a test of nerves and geometric aptitude. Typical of the long, taxing par 4s at Silver Lakes is the 455-yard 3rd hole on Backbreaker, which plays uphill to a green protected by a daunting series of bunkers. The shortest of Heartbreaker's par 4s is 431 yards; the par-4 2nd hole stretches 479 yards from the tips. Mindbreaker is the shortest loop, but its baffling greens suit the course to a tee.

Hampton Cove in Huntsville, 100 miles northwest of Silver Lakes on Route 431, resembles your local muni more than any other stop on this part of the trail. The course hosts 65,000 rounds a year -- mostly by local residents. Both of its 18-hole layouts are user friendly, with generous fairways and manageable greens. The 7,667-yard River course occupies former soybean fields along the Flint River. The Highlands course rises through stands of Japanese black pines, oaks and dogwood trees. Beware of the 534-yard 17th: A pond pinches the landing area on both the tee shot and the lay-up and even threatens the approach.

Legend has it that Bronner once showed up to play at Hampton Cove and found the area around the clubhouse littered with trash that had blown in from a nearby construction site. He bagged the stuff and disposed of it -- on the desk of the now-former director of golf.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
Capitol Hill
Greens fees $35-$67;334-285-1114

Grand National
Greens fees $35-$57;334-749-9042
Hampton Cove
Greens fees $35-$50; 256-551-1818

Oxmoor Valley
Greens fees $35-$57; 205-942-1177

Silver Lakes
Greens fees $35-$45; 256-892-3268

Web site for all courses is rtjgolf.com.

The final leg of the trail's northern tier starts with a 100-mile trek down Interstate 65 to Oxmoor Valley, near Birmingham. The difficult, 7,292-yard Valley course here angles over hills and knolls and around a former slate mine. Typical of the challenges is the 475-yard 10th, which demands a carry of about 200 yards across a shale quarry, followed by a careful approach to a shallow, elevated green. The 7,055-yard Ridge course is a pleasant stroll, while Oxmoor's par-3 layout, with views of the lush hills around Birmingham, proves how much fun a well-designed executive course can be.

For another sort of driving pleasure, try Barber Motorsports Park, just east of Birmingham off Interstate 20. The museum and its racetrack opened last year; locals hope to attract world-class motorcycle races as companion events for NASCAR's Talladega 500.

Several new RTJ Trail courses will debut soon. Two are being built in Muscle Shoals, in the state's northwest corner. One of those tracks, Wheeler, will open this summer on the banks of the Tennessee River. It's a Rulewich design. (In case you're wondering, Retirement Systems of Alabama has a contract with the family of Robert Trent Jones that permits new courses to be associated with the late designer.) The centerpiece of the trail's expansion is Ross Bridge in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, which will open next spring, bringing to 72 the number of trail holes around the city. The RTJ Trail folks sought input on the Ross Bridge layout from the PGA Tour -- hence the spectator-friendly amphitheater design. Also to accommodate the crowds, a huge Canadian-railroad-style hotel is going up smack in the middle of the course.

The RTJ Trail is proof that if you build it, they will come. In the past 12 years, the state has gone from bottom-feeder status to being among the country's most popular golf destinations. When people mention Alabama golf these days, it's no laughing matter.

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