An epic Southern fried golf road trip
Oxmoor Valley is one of 32 golf courses designed by Robert Trent Jones in Alabama. (Michael Clemmer)
Golf: it is not just a pastime, it is a disease. Why do we crave this thing that bedevils, frustrates and humiliates us so? Leave the analysis to sports shrinks — the only springtime cure is to grab your bag and hit a course you have not played before. But instead of one new course, how about 32?
That is 468 holes, back to back, in 11 different clubs, pitting your game against golf’s most prolific and arguably greatest architect. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, with no more than a couple of hours of open road between courses, is the ultimate golf road trip. It would take several weeks to play all 32 courses, but the seven courses below are clustered within a short drive of Birmingham, and fit perfectly into a long weekend.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Trail, one of Trent’s masterworks and still the single largest course-building project ever undertaken.
The Trail’s history
In the 1980s, the director of Alabama’s public employee pension fund came up with a preposterous idea. He thought the fund should build public golf courses at 11 sites across Alabama and a single renowned architect — Robert Trent Jones, Sr — would design them. These golf courses would create jobs, boost the state’s tourism and help attract industry. There were a lot of doubters. But a funny thing happened on the way to the 19th hole: the idea actually worked. Since the Trail opened, the state’s tourism receipts have more than doubled and the Trail’s half a million visitors from around the world is tried for first place among tourism destinations in the state. Accolades have continued to flow for two decades — The New York Times called the Trail “some of the best public golf on earth” — while an almost Hajj-like mystique has grown up around it.
Designed near the end of Jones’s career, the Trail courses are a “greatest hits” collection of varied landscapes and challenges. At the sites in the northern part of the state, players walk along high bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River or on courses that look like the Scottish Highlands. Near Mobile Bay in the south, they play among towering oaks and magnolias on a course that looks like Augusta National. Some are parkland style with plenty of trees and broad, rolling greens while others have tight greens peppered with treacherous pot-hole bunkers. Whatever your strength as a golfer, Jones tests it repeatedly on these courses. And whatever your weakness, he will find them.
During his 60-year career, Robert Trent Jones, Sr designed or redesigned more than 500 golf courses in the US, Europe and Asia. The US Open has been held on Robert Trent Jones courses nearly two dozen times, including in 2011 and 2012. Born in England in 1906, Jones came to America as a child. He became a talented amateur golfer and a club professional, but health problems prevented him from competing as a pro. He enrolled at Cornell University, creating his own course of study, and began designing golf courses while still a student. His big break came when golf legend Bobby Jones (no relation) asked him to help design the Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta. He is famous for challenging golfers to make smart, precise shots which earned him a devilish reputation among Professional Golfers Association (PGA) pros.
The Trail’s courses have many of Jones’s signature traps and tricks, but he thoughtfully provided as many as 12 tee box options on some holes, set at a variety of distances and angles from the fairway to let players can choose their level of difficulty.
A quick four-day road trip will give you a taste of Jones’ genius, and the Trail is one of the best values in golf, with greens fees averaging about $50 and discount packages available at the Trail’s official website.
After a late flight into Birmingham the night before, tee it up early. The site of an annual PGA tour stop, Ross Bridge has only one course, but it is the third-longest course in the world at 8,191 yards. The layout meanders through the scenic Shannon Valley alongside two lakes and features a 90ft waterfall. For dinner, head to Highlands where chef Frank Stitt helped create the new Southern cuisine and then rest your head at the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Resort & Spa.