When you give, you get.
As part of an innovative new partnership designed to reward those who give the gift of life, Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is donating a free round of golf at any participating Trail course (Ross Bridge and Lakewood excluded) for all volunteer blood donors at American Red Cross blood drives.
Given the exceptional quality of golf on the Trail, a donor’s gift is amply rewarded. The offer is good through the end of the year.
With 26 courses at 11 facilities stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Appalachian foothills, the Trail, now in its 16th year, remains the best public golf story in the nation. This mother lode of affordable golf was born when Dixie bureaucrats realized the main reason people visit Alabama is to drive through it. (Alabama has always lived in the shadow of its neighbors to the south and east, Florida and Georgia). Originally intended to expand tourism, recruit industry and attract retirees, the RTJ Golf Trail has succeeded beyond all expectations.
I first toured the fledgling Trail in 1994, racking up nearly 1,000 miles between Mobile and Huntsville. At that time, there were four 54-hole facilities and three 36-hole complexes, all served by handsome brick clubhouses with wrap-around verandahs. Each course was designed by living legend Robert Trent Jones on prime land donated by municipalities, corporations and developers.
For me, the Trail signaled a defining moment in the evolution of public golf in America. Never before had a state undertaken a golf project of this magnitude for the public good. For the unattached player accustomed to the short end of the stick, the Trail was and is an answered prayer.
Beyond the well-groomed fairways and undulating greens, the RTJ Golf Trail was timely for social reasons. Ever since the civil rights skirmishes at Selma and Montgomery in the 1960s, and more recently at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, where the club’s segregated membership policy made national headlines at the 1990 PGA Championship, Alabama has struggled with its image. The Trail, open to all, was a big step in the right direction.
I came away with a few indelible impressions of the Trail. Clearly, the courses were not “manufactured.” All partake of the natural topography, much of it surprisingly hilly, even mountainous. (The Cumberland Plateau, an extension of the Appalachian highlands, dead-ends in Alabama).
Uniformity stood out, from the green-and-white Trail signs on the highways to guide golfers to each facility to the ‘Suggested Rules of Play’ posted on each and every first tee: “Play the ball as it lies. Play the course as you find it. Play fair. A four hour round is expected.” Each course had multiple sets of tees designed to “torture the men and pamper the ladies,” according to one of Trail’s visionaries. (The purple tees at each course are guaranteed to scare the daylights out of anyone with a number in his handicap).
All this plus a fair price, a walkers welcome policy and genuine Southern hospitality. And for those willing to explore, some of the best barbecue in the nation, too.
With a tip of the hat to the newer Fighting Joe and Schoolmaster behemoths at The Shoals, each set on wooded bluffs above the Tennessee River near the legendary recording studio where seminal R&B tracks were laid down in the 1960’s, there are three must-play facilities on the Trail: Cambrian Ridge and Grand National; two of the original venues; and Capitol Hill, which debuted in 1999.
Cambrian Ridge, located 40 miles south of Montgomery in sleepy Greenville, is the most rural and maybe the prettiest of the Trail stops. Hank Williams grew up nearby Georgiana. Heart of Dixie? This is it.
A 36-hole complex with the most pronounced elevation changes on the Trail, Cambrian Ridge is best experienced by degrees. The first swats should be taken on the Loblolly nine, where gently rolling fairways, cathedral-like pines and water-fronted greens conjure a serene, Augusta National-like ambience. Loblolly is the facility’s most walkable nine, which makes it a favorite of locals.
Newcomers often experience vertigo on the Canyon nine, the opening stanza of the core 18 at Cambrian Ridge. For starters, the drop from tee to fairway at the first hole, a 501-yard par four from the tips, is over 200 feet from the purple tees. (Imagine driving the ball from atop a 20-story building). This hole kicks off a thrilling stretch of target-style, roller-coaster golf carved from former hunting grounds (deer blinds remain nailed to the larger hardwoods) where accuracy is essential. Hog-backed fairways bisected by meandering creeks call for precision drives in order to set up pinpoint approach shots to severely contoured greens. With its steep drops, crowned fairways and topsy-turvy greens, the Canyon offers a style of golf unavailable elsewhere in the Deep South.
The Canyon is prelude to the Sherling nine, which may offer the best and most beautiful stretch of golf on the entire Trail. The first hole runs along the top of Cambrian Ridge, an ancient geologic feature that partitions the course and from which elevated tees have been carved. Dramatic risk-reward scenarios confront players at every turn. At the par-four fifth, a classic Cape hole, players must decide how much of the lake to bite off with their drives. The eighth, a titanic 636-yard par five with a heavily bunkered fairway and a semi-island green, will remain a three-shotter for decades to come. Sherling’s brawny par-four ninth marches straight uphill past a deep ravine strewn with ochre-colored boulders to the lolling tongue of a double green shared with the ninth on the Canyon nine.
Above this green is a tidy clubhouse set atop the highest point in Butler County, its verandah serving up expansive 35-mile views of Dixie forestland. Settle into a rocking chair with a refreshing beverage on this porch sited above the treetops, and you’ll understand the prevailing local sentiment that there can be few finer places in the South to rehash the day’s events than Cambrian Ridge.
There’s more. Cambrian Ridge also has a lovely nine-hole Short Course, its fine collection of par-three holes laid out between the ridge and Sherling Lake. It’s a perfect place to settle a bet at day’s end.
A few miles from Auburn University and only 90 minutes by car from Atlanta is Grand National, the Trail’s reigning bombshell. Nestled in pine forests along the shores of 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee (32 of the 54 holes are draped along its capes and bays), this exceptional facility lives up its exalted name. Robert Trent Jones, who gazed upon some promising terrain over his long career, pronounced the setting for Grand National the “best natural location for a golf course” he had ever seen.
They’re usually loath to admit it, but golfers appreciate aesthetics. Enthusiasts will admit to liking elevated tees for the views and the hang time. They like to see water, so long as there are no splashes. Beautiful trees are a bonus. Grand National has all three elements in spades. It also presents a fair but rigorous test from each set of tees. However, first-timers planning to take the full measure of the Links or Lake courses would be well-advised to regrip their ball retriever prior to arrival.
Roger Rulewich, Jones’ chief design associate and a man known as “Roger Trent Rulewich” among the Trail’s executives, said, “With a large natural lake at our disposal, the challenge was to use water as a hazard in different and non-repetitive ways.” Needless to say, there are lots of different ways to drown a golf ball at Grand National.
The cornerstone of the complex is the Links Course, which sizes up as a collection of finishing holes. It is without a single weakness and, from the tips at 7,311 yards, can hold its own with the most rigorous public golf courses in the nation. Were it stuck for a site at the eleventh hour, the USGA could host any of its top events here, including the U.S. Open. It would simply be a question of persuading the contestants to pull up their socks and play it.
Relentless from start to finish, the backbone of the Links is its collection of prodigious par fours, several of which cartwheel around the lake’s weedy coves. The game is on at the fourth, a sturdy par four that bends from right to left around the shore of the lake. As is true throughout the course, the green here is backed into a marshy area, further reducing the margin for error. Each of the holes thereafter is somehow stronger and more terrifying than the one preceding it.
Even if you’ve somehow managed to survive the first 17 holes on the Links, the par-four 18th, 471 yards from the tips, is designed to undo all the good that might have gone before. The hole demands a flawless drive over water followed by a laser-like approach over a corner of the lake to reach a pedestal green shored up by rough-cut boulders. This fortress-like finale demands two absolutely perfect shots–and a steady hand with the putter. Bogey is a respectable score for most.
The Lake Course, with 12 holes hugging the shore, is every bit as scenic as the Links but is at least two or three shots friendlier. Less grueling and more manageable than the Links–fairways more open, approaches less demanding—the Lake is generally preferred by a broader range of golfers. It is, however, no walk in the park. When players in a forerunner of the Nationwide Tour took on the full measure of the Lake in the late 1990s, the average 18-hole score for the field over four days was 73.75 (par is 72). One disgruntled pro said extracting the ball from the thick Bermuda rough was like “hitting out of a Brillo pad.” The slick, multi-tiered greens were also a factor in the high scores.
The layout, hillier in places than the Links, gives players a chance to warm up before kicking into gear at the rugged par-five seventh, where the grayish-blue lake comes into play around the green. Wind dictates the shot at the beautiful par-three eighth, where the lake yokes two-thirds of the green. The 12th, a risk-reward par five with water in play down the entire left side a la Pebble Beach, would be the signature hole on the Lake if it weren’t for the exquisite par-three 15th hole, which may be the single prettiest hole on the Trail. It’s certainly the most photographed. Players must carry their tee shots over a watery expanse and land their ball on a slender natural isthmus that juts into the lake. Ranging from 230 yards from the purple markers to 93 yards from the teal tees, the Lake’s 15th is one of the finest natural one-shotters anywhere.
The full-sized layouts at Grand National command most of the attention, but the facility’s 18-hole Short Course is a thing of beauty. Half of the holes are flanked or fronted by water. Bring extra balls and a healthy sense of humor if you decide to play it from the tips.
The rear verandah of Grand National’s clubhouse, with its full wet bar and outdoor grill overlooking Lake Saugahatchee, is a fine place to tally up your score at the day’s end.
In 1998, ground was broken on a new facility in Prattville a few miles north of Montgomery, the state capital. The 91-year-old Jones was brought out of retirement and reunited with Rulewich to develop a 54-hole facility on a conical-shaped site near Interstate-65. Tracts of privately-held and city-owned land were combined with a parcel of federal property and made available to the design team, which sketched three full-sized 18-hole layouts. These venues, stacked from top to bottom, proceed from a long escarpment to a river basin.
For many, the multi-themed 54-hole complex at Capitol Hill is the jewel in the Trail’s crown. There are sharp elevation changes (like Cambrian Ridge) and a large, beautiful lake (like Grand National). The enormous multi-columned clubhouse, inspired by antebellum mansions and the state capital building, looks across a lake to the Montgomery skyline from its ridge-top perch. There’s also a giant circular range with grass tees and a dedicated short-game practice area at the site’s highest point.
Because the original Trail sites had a reputation for difficulty, the Prattville courses–Senator, Legislator and Judge–were designed to be a little more “user-friendly.” Each is tough as nails from the tips, but greens overall have milder undulations than those at the other sites, while forested borderlines were cleared so golfers can find stray shots and attempt a recovery.
The Senator, the facility’s upper course, transports golfers to a place they might not expect to find in Dixie: Scotland. The design committee dug deep into old cotton fields atop a 200-foot-high ridge to fashion a nearly treeless links with long flowing slopes, 160 kettle bunkers, and large, subtly contoured greens up to 50 yards deep. The firm, fast fairways, parted between tall shaggy “dunes,” promote the ground game on a prodigious layout (7,697 yards from the tips) intended for shotmakers. Elevated tees give players quite an eyeful of the manufactured moonscape.
Feature holes? The whole is greater than the sum of the parts on the Senator, though the well-strategized par fives—two of them (five and 10) unreachable by mortals, two of them (eight and 17) in range for better players willing to take a risk—are exceptional. With rates ranging from $45 to $52 for walkers through Dec. 31, there’s no pork barrel in the Senator’s green fee. The golf course hosted the Navistar LPGA Classic in October, 2010.
The middle course, called the Legislator, tumbles down the side of the ridge from the first tee and darts in and out of a pine forest, circulating golfers around the shores of 250-acre Cooters Lake and a native cypress swamp. Traditional in appearance, the Legislator offers a pleasant, well-balanced test of golf.
The lower course, known as the Judge, is the top-rated public-access course in the state and commands a $10 premium. Along with sharp elevation changes, starting at the opening hole’s dizzying 200-foot drop to a slender fairway, the Judge, stretching to 7,794 yards, skirts the backwaters of the Alabama River and has several island greens. If the site appears jumbled and gouged, it’s because construction crews removed fill during the building of the state’s highway system 50 years ago. Jones and Rulewich built a wild, wooly test on the degraded site. The Judge will drain the plaid from your knickers if you select the wrong set of tees for your ability level.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t pass along the suggested preparations for the blood donation process. Double your fluid intake in the 48 hours leading up to the drive. Eat a nutritious meal the night before, as well as the day of, the blood drive. Consume iron-rich foods such as lean beef, broccoli, eggs, greens, shrimp or dried beans. Also eat foods rich in Vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, cabbage, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. Make sure to get a good night’s sleep before your blood donation.
The American Red Cross, Blood Services, Alabama and Central Gulf Coast Region, which supplies blood to approximately 100 hospitals, needs 600 blood donors each day in order to meet the needs of patients in the region. Blood donors must be at least 17 years old and weigh at least 110 pounds. Call 800-RED-CROSS or visit www.redcrossblood.org to donate blood or platelets.
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail – www.rtjgolf.com; 800-949-4444.