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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Birmingham Ross Bridge Resort & Spa.
Oxmoor Valley is just five minutes from Ross Bridge, but has
a completely different atmosphere. With dramatic 150ft elevation changes on the
Ridge course and an 18th hole named “the Assassin” on the Valley course below,
Oxmoor gets you high and low. There is an 18-hole short course — just 3,360
yards versus 6,527 on the Ridge — too. When you are done, drive two-and-a-half
hours southeast for some real pit barbecue (tip: if it ain’t pit smoked, it
ain’t barbecue) at Byron’s Smoke House
in Auburn. The classic chipped pork
sandwich with fried potato slices, a side of Brunswick stew and a big, cold
glass of sweet tea will set you back about $10. Check into the nearby Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel at Grand
National and get some rest — you have earned it.
reportedly called the 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee at Grand National the
greatest site for golf he had ever seen. The Lake course has 12 holes on the
lake while the Links course forces players to drive over the lake to reach the
green on 18. Both courses are on Golf Digest magazine’s venerated list of the
top 50 public courses in the country. When you are done, pack it up and drive 60
miles to the state capital, Montgomery. Check into the Montgomery
Marriott Prattville Hotel and Conference Center at Capitol Hill,
13 miles outside of town and dine at Martin’s
Restaurant for their authentic,
artery-clogging Southern fried chicken.
Capitol Hill, on
the Marriott Prattville grounds, is nearly three square miles of golf courses ,
including the Judge, one of a handful of public courses Golf Magazine deemed
worthy of the opportunity of hosting the US Open. The first tee soars 200 feet
above the fairway and there is an island hole on 16. Jones built a big green
here as a target, but the wind can make it tricky to land your ball safely
aboard. If you have the time and the fortitude, the Senator will give you one
last kick in the teeth with 160 of the small, treacherous pot-hole sand trap bunkers
Jones used to punish inaccurate shot placement.
have had all the fun you can stand, it is only a 90 minute drive up I-65 back
to the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport for your flight home.