Inexplicably, it took me 25 years to visit Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
25 years. That’s longer than I’ve been a golf-travel writer, the better part of my journalism career and exactly the amount of time the RTJ Trail has existed.
25 years. That’s a Silver Anniversary worth of golf. And more. Championship courses and short courses, resort hotels both urban and rural, Southern food and hospitality. And value, accentuated even more by the $25 green-fee specials at each course throughout 2017 in celebration of a quarter-century of providing golfers with the original golf trail — and one unlike any other.
Back in the latter part of the 20th century, the idea of a “golf trail” probably seemed crazy — almost as crazy as using the state’s pension fund to pay for construction. But Dr. David Bronner, chief executive officer of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, had the vision to help both the fund and the state grow together using golf to attract swinging travelers from across the country, and the world, to a what would become a water-laced wonderland of rolling hills and forests — the perfect foundation onto which a master golf architect would carve his legacy.
Robert Trent Jones Sr. came out of “semi-retirement” to lend his talents to what initially began as 378 golf holes stretching over 100 miles. Today, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail features 468 holes of golf on 26 courses across 11 different sites.
Along the way, the Trail partnered with luxury lodging brands Renaissance and Marriott to turn its courses into true stay-and-play experiences — all tailored to meet individual vacation needs. Golfers can stay near the golf courses at resorts such as the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa or the Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel & Conference Center at Grand National, or explore the downtown Southern history and culture of cities such as Mobile and Montgomery by staying at The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa or Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center.
With eight lodging sites (including the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel; the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa; the Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel & Conference Center at Capitol Hill; and the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa), travelers can plot their own golfing map throughout the state for everything from weekend getaways to two-week golf extravaganzas.
My inaugural “anniversary” visit started in Atlanta and ended in Birmingham, hitting key spots along the central portion of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail during a week-long journey without too much time travel between sites.
Grand National in Auburn-Opelika features 54 holes of golf on land that Trent Jones Sr. reportedly called the single greatest site he’d ever seen, built along the shore of 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee. The Lake (which hosted the PGA Tour’s 2017 Barbasol Championship) and the Links courses are both beautiful, but the Short Course is pure magic — perhaps the best 3-par track you’ll find anywhere in the country. Meanwhile, the Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel & Conference Center just a quick drive away is a perfect stay-play option with everything a golfer needs — comfortable rooms, an expansive pool area with children’s area and the adult poolside Splash Bar among the food-and-beverage options.
Capitol Hill in Prattville is another 54-hole facility, but this time with three full-size courses. The Judge gets most of the accolades with its spectacular views of the Alabama River (the elevated opening tee shot is one of the coolest in golf), but the Legislator and Senator hold their own on another diverse, picturesque piece of property totaling more than 1,500 acres. From Capitol Hill, golfers have two premium lodging options — stay in the golf villas at Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel & Conference Center at Capitol Hill or head downtown to the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa (we stayed in one on our play-in day and the other on our way to the next destination).
Heading a bit south, Cambrian Ridge in Greenville is a 36-hole facility with a twist — it offers four nine-hole tracks, three of which are full size (Canyon, Loblolly and Sherling), the other another picturesque Short Course built along the water. It’s classic Southern golf and pure Robert Trent Jones with Sherling Lake coming into play often.
Up near Birmingham, Oxmoor Valley’s 54 holes are worth a visit. The Ridge Course plays through some stunning rugged terrain, while the Valley takes you on a journey miles from the clubhouse before returning, and the Short Course is a tree-lined track with more of a parkland atmosphere than many of the others on the Trail.
And, finally, with only 18 holes, Ross Bridge might seem at first glance like the overlooked property on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. But, honestly, 18 holes is all it needs — and those 18 holes might just make it the crown jewel of Alabama golf. Meanwhile, the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa is pure class — perfectly appointed with the architecture of an historic hotel and the special touches (from the room designs to the exquisite dining at Brock’s to the bagpiper playing at sunset) that make a golf resort truly memorable. The big, bold parkland course is highlighted by classic touches, including the waterfall between the No. 9 and No. 18 greens and a waterwheel stone building that doubles as a rest stop near the clubhouse (and after the stunning par-3 No. 4). Interesting (big) greens and thrilling elevation changes create a Ross Bridge round of golf you won’t soon forget — and will want to tackle again as soon as possible.
And that’s how I feel about the entire Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. I can’t wait to tackle parts of it again and explore new stops I’ve yet to experience. And I certainly won’t wait until the Golden Anniversary to return.