HOOVER, Ala. - It's not often that I get excited about a golf course being closed.
When I pulled up to the driving range during a spring trip to Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail's Oxmoor Valley site outside of Birmingham, Ala., there was a freshly-shaped expanse of fill dirt where the beginning of the par-3 course used to be...and will be once again this fall.
From big-time resorts to typically cash-strapped municipalities, short courses are all the rage in recent years. Golf facilities across the country are realizing how much fun and attraction they can wring from just a few acres of turf.
On that score, the Trail was decades ahead of its time. When the Retirement Systems of Alabama built its initial slate of seven multi-course sites across the state in the 1990s, architects Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and Roger Rulewich included par-3 courses at each one: five 18-holers and two 9-holers.
In contrast to their more modern counterparts, these short layouts were built to feel more like the "big" courses they accompanied. That meant spread-out routings that typically required golf carts, with holes that would be at home - both in length and difficulty - on the championship layouts. Oxmoor Valley's par-3 course originally had five holes longer than 200 yards and had three miles of concrete paths, making it maintenance-intensive beyond its revenue capabilities, a very tough test and ultimately less popular than anticipated when it opened.
"Even if you had a 90-yard tee for the kids, they were looking up [at the greens on the Oxmoor Valley par-3 course] all day long," said John Cannon, chairman of SunBelt Golf Corporation, which operates the Trail courses.
Its greatest fans were area college coaches, who would bring their teams out to test their long-iron play into the severely contoured and elevated greens. Not exactly a recipe for popularity among more casual players.
The Back Yard at Oxmoor Valley: a new par 3 opening Fall 2022
Wisely, the Trail pivoted, closing Oxmoor Valley's short course several months ago and rethinking it.
To the left of the complex's driving range, where the first couple of par-3 course holes used to be, architect Clyde Johnston has designed a new, much more compact routing called The Back Yard, whose nine holes will range from 70 to 123 yards.
In a big departure from the Trail's previous short-course model, The Back Yard will be walkable, bringing it more into line with contemporary short courses that are drawing rave reviews. What used to be a 140-acre meandering cart ride will now be a compact 14-acre tract meant to be a cousin of successful contemporary shorts like The Cradle at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina and The Sandbox at Sand Valley Golf Resort in Wisconsin. Design-wise, The Back Yard will emulate most of the best par-3 courses, prioritizing playability in the form of fun, boldly-contoured greens and just five total bunkers. Rounds are expected to take an hour.
"If you're just starting in the game, you can play this course with a putter," said Cannon. "You'll have a lot of rocking and rolling going on on the greens, but everything else is meant to turn it into a fun golf experience for whoever plays it."
The opportunity to reduce Oxmoor Valley's short course's footprint by 90% while also making it more fun and user-friendly is a big win for golfers and the Trail overall. Given the facility's proximity to Birmingham, The Back Yard figures to become a popular amenity not just for visiting golfers touring the Trail but for locals, too.
Green fees are still being determined but are expected to be less than the $50 rate for The Cradle at Pinehurst. Preview play begins in September, with an eye on a full opening of the course in mid-October.
"I just can't imagine a golfer playing this nine holes and not wanting to go back to the first tee and play it again," said Cannon.
The RTJ Golf Trail invests in other existing par-3 courses
The dramatic re-envisioning of Oxmoor Valley's short course is not the only work being done to keep the Trail's par-3 courses relevant and fun for visitors. At the Trail's Grand National site in Opelika, the 18-hole short course is in the midst of a more modest but still important project. In addition to new grass on its greens, hundreds of trees are being removed in order to maximize the course's views of Lake Saugahatchee, which comes into play 11 times throughout the routing. In addition, several green complexes and the bunkers are being rebuilt and slightly redesigned in order to enhance playability and drainage.
Expected little, to nothing, out of this "par 3" course but ended up loving it. A great collection of holes that utilized the lake for numerous holes. Do not skip when at the Grand National.
An even larger tree removal project is ongoing at the acclaimed 18-hole par-3 course at the Magnolia Grove site in Mobile. That course's greens were replaced with a modern ultradwarf Bermuda grass recently, so the current tree work is meant to help those surfaces receive enough sunlight to remain in the best possible shape.
The Robert Trent Jones Trail has par-3 courses at seven of its 11 sites throughout Alabama. Stay tuned for updates on future projects aimed at bringing the fun of contemporary short-course golf to more Trail sites.