Critics sniff that the hilly, long courses of the Robert Trent Jones Trail are too similar in design and too challenging for the typical casual golfer, thanks to the multitude of forced-carry approaches over sand and water to greens that are invariably massive and heavily contoured.
\nNo other destination offers such a complete collection of country-club-for-a-day courses at such bargain-basement prices. The success of the RTJ Trail makes it clear that some destinations are just worth it, whether you're Joe Six-Pack, or Joe Six-Handicap.
\nThese are my picks as the best courses on the Trail's a-la-carte menu.
\nNorth to South, the RTJ Trail stretches 384 miles, but many say its finest course is right in the middle. Located 15 miles north of the state capital in Montgomery is Capitol Hill, which might just be the best three-course complex east of the Mississippi.
\nBut it is the Judge that rules, right from the first tee, which plummets 200 feet to the fairway. Toss in a brutish quartet of par-3s and beefy par-5s (like the 711-yard 10th) and you've got one strong package and an unbelievable value.
\nThe Grand Old Man of modern architecture Robert Trent Jones himself declared Grand National "the most spectacular golf site in the world."
\nSome would argue it's not even the best in Alabama, but its Lake course is undeniably tough, beautiful and memorable, especially its topsy-turvy greens, sprawling bunkers and the dozen holes that skirt 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee.
\nRegulars debate whether the best track here is the Lake or its sibling Links course. I vote for the Lake for one reason: with all those lakes, trees and wetlands, the Links resembles a links about as much as I resemble George Clooney.
\nLocated roughly 40 miles south of Montgomery, this 27-hole facility is the hidden gem of the RTJ Trail and one of the nation's best bargains.
\nThe Canyon nine is a beast, while the Sherling loop offers more drama via its many encounters with Sherling Lake. The cameras come out at the downhill approach to the 428-yard, par-4 3rd, which features a lovely lake backdrop, but you'll have to refocus by the 8th, a 636- yard par-5 with a three-tiered green flanked by water and bunkers. If there's a cardwrecker at Cambrian Ridge, this is it.
\nNo, that back tee yardage is not a misprint. Ross Bridge really is almost 8,200 yards. But it's not as fearsome as it sounds. Extra-wide fairways, soft green contouring and vast but shallow bunkers result in a manageable backtee slope of 135. But choose your tees wisely: par-3s from the back start at 207 yards, par-4s at 454 yards, and par-5s at 571 yards.
\nRoss Bridge also boasts the Trail's best lodging, the Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort & Spa (800-593-6419, rossbridgeresort.com), a 2008 GOLF Magazine Premier Resorts Silver Medalist.
At the RTJ Trail, packages can be golf-only or include lodging. While prices vary, package rates at pre-selected hotels average $52 per person, per night.
\nFor golf-only, the Summer Unlimited Special lets you play as much golf as you want on three consecutive days at most Trail stops for $48 per day.
\nCall 800-949-4444 or visit rtjgolf.com.\n