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Alabama Golf Trail
By Jack Saylor
Contributing Editor

Alabama conjures up visions of Bear Bryant, a smash country music group, Hank Aaron's birthplace and the Talladega Speedway - but little or nothing about golf.

That image is changing, however, with the advent, in the last 10 years, of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a string of outstanding facilities featuring 23 courses at eight separate sites.

None of these sites are more than 15 minutes off a major interstate primarily I-65, which bisects the state north to south from Huntsville to Mobile. Considering the quality and affordability of these courses and the fact that play is available almost year-round, the game of golf is becoming as big a deal in this part of Dixie as an Alabama-Auburn football game.

The Trail is the brainchild of Dr. David Bronner, the CEO of the Alabama Retirement System, who decided to diversify the state pension fund in the late 1980s and provide something positive for his state in the process.

Thus, the Trail was born. The now late and legendary R.T. Jones was brought in to oversee the development and construction of the $145 million project at seven sites - Huntsville, Anniston, Birmingham, Auburn, Greenville, Dothan and Mobile. It was the largest golf project ever undertaken.

Another 54 holes were opened later in Prattville, near Montgomery. The Trail offers more than 100 miles of golf, starting at the foothills of the Appalachians in the north, to Mobile on the Gulf of Mexico. Since its inception, the Trail's reputation has flourished. March and April are peak seasons for out-of-state tourists, but players come in all seasons, providing an estimated $45 million annual boost to the state's economy.

"Tourism has more than doubled and is now the No. 1 industry in our state," Bronner said. The Trail is slowly, but surely, invading the more established golf destinations among northern travelers, spots such as Pinehurst, N.C., Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, S.C., or even Florida. The Trail is easily accessible for groups of Michigan golfers, either by air to Huntsville, Birmingham or Mobile, or by driving. Travel either I-75 through Cincinnati to I-71 to I-65 in Louisville or I-69 to I-65 in Indianapolis.

The Trail, marked by abundant directional signs on I-65 in Alabama, stretches 374 miles from north to south. The courses are surprisingly varied. A choice of tees gives players a wide range of play, from 4,100 at the front marker, to 7,600 yards, if you feel that husky.

Best of all, however, is the price range. Fees at each site range from $35-$45 in the offseason, to $57-$59 in the peak seasons. Carts are an additional $15, which makes the overall tally more affordable than most resort courses in the country.

Seven of the eight facilities also offer par-3 courses with as many as 12 tee boxes. Several of the Trail's short courses have been honored among the best par-3 layouts in the U.S.

North to south, here is a capsule of the Jones Alabama Golf Trail:

Hampton Cove, Huntsville -- Two distinct 18-hole courses, the Highlands and the River, mark this property. The latter is the only Jones course without even a single bunker. The Cove's short course presents water on 11 holes, as well as a double green.

Silver Lakes, between Anniston and Gadsdem -- Here are three nine-hole courses, plus a short course, all on the edge of the Talladega National Forest. Many greens are elevated and the courses' three names tell the whole story: Mindbreaker, Heartbreaker (arguably the Trail's toughest nine) and Backbreaker, a photographic delight with elevated tees lending great views.

Oxmoor Valley, Birmingham -- Two courses, the Ridge and Valley, plus a short course, have been built on rolling land, owned by U.S. Steel, which features plenty of water, forests and elevation changes, plus the big city of Birmingham is nearby for non-golfing activity.

Grand National, near Auburn-Opelika -- This facility has two 18-hole courses, the Lake and the Links, plus a short course, all located only a tad off the I-65 corridor near the home of Auburn University. The Links has hosted Nike and NCAA events from its awesome purple back tees, which stretch 7,311 yards. The Lake has 12 holes along the banks of 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee. It's a tough stretch, but the 230-yard 15th hole on the Lake could be the prettiest hole on the entire Trail.

Capitol Hill, Prattville, near Montgomery -- Three stunning 18-hole courses await you - the Legislator, Senator and Judge - with another already on the drawing board. The Senator is links-style golf with 160 pot bunkers; the Legislator features a sky bridge, riding six holes over a cypress swamp; and the Judge, with its first tee 200 feet above the fairway, overlooks the Montgomery skyline and the Alabama River.

Cambrian Ridge, Greenville -- Three extremely different nine are here, plus a short course. The Sherling is a scenic nine around a lake, the Canyon is a rolling nine and the Loblolly is a trifle shorter with statuesque pines reminiscent of Augusta National. It's all laid out below a magnificent clubhouse set atop the highest point in the county, and offers views up to 30 miles from the traditional rocking chairs on the huge verandah.

Highland Oaks, Dothan -- A little off the I-65 mainstream in the southeast corner of the state, the Oaks displays three nines: Highlands, Magnolia and Marshwood, plus yet another short course. One of the highlights is a 1,000-foot wooden bridge spanning a marsh on the Magnolia nine.

Magnolia Grove, Mobile -- Two outstanding courses, The Falls and The Crossings, are joined by another superb par-3 course, whose forced carries over a marsh are as tough as any holes on the regular courses. Creeks and cloverleaf bunkers also abound on these two layouts. The Falls is a little tougher, while The Crossings, which criss-crosses railroad tracks, features more hills and elevated greens.

Lakewood Club, Point Clear, Mobile -- These 36 holes, the Azalea and Dogwood, overlook the eastern shore of Mobile Bay where 300-year-old oaks, magnolia and dogwood trees, dripping with Spanish moss, give a traditional look. The course pre-dates the Golf Trail, designed in 1948 by Perry Maxwell, with alterations by Joe Lee and Ron Garl. Dogleg holes are frequent so ball placement is critical. Water intrudes on only one hole on the Azalea and twice on the Dogwood, although bunkers are well placed. A delightful clubhouse adds to the mix so Lakewood makes a nice adjunct for Trail golfers.

Those who like to walk will love the Trail. Those toting their own bags are welcome. One minor drawback, however, is that except for Lakewood at Point Clear and Capitol Hill, there are no on-site accommodations. The Marriott Grand Hotel, which is completing a $30 million renovation, is lush and available at Point Clear, while Prattville offers The Legends resort and conference center with four-diamond amenities.

Arrangements can be made at these spots by phoning the Marriott at (800) 544-9933, or The Legends at (888) 250-3767. Golfers will find inn and motel chains offering accommodations near every site, at a variety of rates. One toll-free call to the Corporate Reservation Center at (800) 949-4444, also can book tee times and lodging. Inquire, also, about packages of three days or longer at a sampling of Trail sites and a mailed copy of the Alabama Trail Guide.

Give 'Bama a look. Despite the proximity of the courses along I-65, there are so many holes and so little time. Chances are you'll want to book another tour along the Trail.

May 2002 Issue Table of Content
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