Some golf destinations reward a sense of adventure. Staying put is easy and, for lack of a better term, "normal" when you're on a golf vacation. But avid visitors of Scotland and Ireland in particular cherish making a grand tour of their trips, changing locations every day or so in order to prioritize playing the best possible courses over staying put in one spot.
That approach is less popular in the United States, where many of the bucket-list courses are at self-contained resorts built to encourage the stay-put approach, or are located in destinations where between several to several dozen courses are close enough at hand to keep you in one hotel or rental house for the duration of your trip.
For Americans, the grand-tour-style golf trip is an under-appreciated option because it forces us to immerse ourselves in a state or region in the same way a Scotland or Ireland circuit gives us a whirlwind feel for the different scenery, towns and people of those great countries. Why not take in an unfamiliar American state in the same way?
How about Alabama? It's the home of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a statewide array of more than two dozen golf courses laid out by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and longtime associate Roger Rulewich. Established by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which oversees the pension programs of state employees and educators, it has brought millions of tourist dollars to Alabama over its three decades.
It seems an odd match, but the Trail gives traveling golfers a reason to visit the Yellowhammer State where very little previously existed, diversifying the state's portfolio of benefits not just to employees but residents as well. Visiting golfers bring dollars into the economy while Alabamians enjoy a roster of worthy public golf experiences that deliver considerable bang for the buck. No, it's not Scotland or Ireland, but it's a heck of a lot closer and less expensive. Especially for the budget-conscious golfer, that counts for a great deal.
My recent first-time visit focused on six of the Trail's 11 total sites, arranged down the center of the state. Here's what you need to know.
Birmingham: Oxmoor Valley and Ross Bridge
Birmingham is the perfect place to start a Trail trip. It's the biggest city in the state, with the busiest airport and a just-right-sized feel that gives access to some of the best restaurants and breweries in the region, and plenty of places to stay. It is also home to both the first and the newest Trail sites, Oxmoor Valley and Ross Bridge, which sit 10 minutes apart.
The main attraction at Oxmoor Valley is its two big courses, the Ridge and the Valley ($96). Their terrain is typical of the area: scenic, forested hillsides cut by ravines and streams. The abrupt elevation changes provide a sense of adventure and a little bit of struggle, especially at the Ridge, where a dozen approaches play uphill, often quite steeply. Flighting the ball high and carrying it onto the elevated greens is essential. The putting surface of the short par-5 3rd hole sits on a natural pedestal among limestone formations and is one of the coolest-looking greensites in the South.
Like the other six original Trail sites, Oxmoor Valley was built to include a par-3 course as well, putting it decades ahead of the current short course trend sweeping resorts and destinations worldwide. But its expansive 18-hole, par-54 routing was ultimately more feared than loved by golfers, so it has been rethought into a more compact, fun-oriented 9-holer that will open as The Back Yard this fall.
Just two miles south of Oxmoor Valley is Ross Bridge, which opened in 2005. Home to 18 holes and the impressive Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa hotel, it offers a more upscale, modern-resort golf experience. Castle-like in appearance, the hotel presides over the golf course and the surrounding development, with multiple restaurants and large, comfortable rooms. Think of it as a junior-varsity Ritz-Carlton.
The golf course at Ross Bridge ($150) is one of the biggest ballparks in public golf. Two central lakes dominate the bowl-shaped, 300-acre site, affording long views across the heaving property from most tee boxes and greens. True to scale, the golf course features are huge as well, with many greens pushing 10,000 square feet in size and 49 large amoeba-shaped bunkers protecting them. The sheer size of the property makes it a fun escape, with plenty of interesting golf shots and exquisite conditioning adding to the experience. With a set of tees at 8,191 yards and a man-made waterfall that serves as the backdrop of the 9th and 18th greens, Ross Bridge is a prime example of pre-Recession golf course development.
Montgomery: Capitol Hill and Cambrian Ridge
Alabama's capital city is fairly quiet but tremendously historic, known as the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement. The Rosa Parks Museum downtown is a must-see site in addition to the two Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail sites within close reach.
The first, Capitol Hill, opened in 2000 and sits just 20 minutes north of town in Prattville. Its three 18-hole courses ($99) are among the Trail's most popular and also longest, averaging more than 7,700 yards from their back tees. They have also hosted professional golf, including an LPGA Tour event from 2007 to 2016. It is where a then-16-year-old Lexi Thompson captured her first professional win in 2011.
Capitol Hill's three courses are the Judge, Legislator and Senator. The Judge is home to the Trail's most famous opening tee shot, a 100-foot plunge into the Alabama River bottom where most of the course plays out. The Legislator rambles over riverside and higher terrain, while The Senator is a more open and windswept design with more than 100 pot bunkers dotted throughout.
Capitol Hill is also home to one of the Trail's most popular resorts, the Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel & Conference Center. Another lodging option in the city is the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa, located at the city's convention center.
About 45 minutes south of Montgomery is another of the Trail's seven original sites: Cambrian Ridge ($96), located just outside the small town of Greenville. With three nines - Sherling, Canyon and Loblolly - and a nine-hole short course, the undulating property lends itself to exciting golf, with the Sherling and Canyon nines being the preferred 18-hole rotation. As at Ross Bridge, two lakes provide much of the scenery and drama with the run of holes 3 through 7 using the lake in different ways to intrigue the golfer. After serving as an out-of-play backdrop to the 3rd green, it is in play on each full shot on the par-3 4th and par-4 5th holes. The 6th flees the lake to higher ground, while the 7th returns to its edge greenside. It represents some of Jones and Rulewich's best design work on the Trail.
Mobile: Magnolia Grove and Lakewood Club
The Trail's southern terminus comprises two sites about two and a half hours south of Montgomery, on either side of Mobile Bay. The first, Magnolia Grove, is similar in scope to Oxmoor Valley, with two big 18s - Crossings and Falls - and an 18-hole par-3 layout that is regarded as one of the Trail's best. Though coastal Alabama is decidedly flatter than Birmingham and even Montgomery, there is still enough elevation change throughout Magnolia Grove to keep things interesting. Like Capitol Hill, Magnolia Grove has hosted its share of pro golf, including what is now the Korn Ferry Tour Championship.
On the other side of Mobile Bay, in the scenic town of Fairhope, is Lakewood Club, a private club that has been part of the Trail since 1999. Its courses date back to the 1940s, with architects like Perry Maxwell and Joe Lee involved in their evolution. Robert Trent Jones, Sr., too. Though Lakewood is private, it is accessible to guests of the nearby Grand Hotel & Resort, which is also owned by the Trail's parent company. On the Mobile side, the city's historic Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa is a great base of operations, too.
Lakewood's two courses - Azalea and Dogwood ($198) - are a great contrast to the rest of the Trail. Their decades of history makes them feel lived-in and comfortable, with mostly flat terrain and tons of gnarled live oaks throughout the property. Conditioning is country-club pristine, thanks to superintendent Niall Fraser. The back nine of the Dogwood course is particularly peaceful: core golf and a lovely walk. The club has hosted the U.S. Senior Women's amateur four times, most recently in 2021.
LAKEWOOD CLUB (DOGWOOD)— Tim Gavrich (@TimGavrich) May 26, 2022
Point Clear, AL
Perry Maxwell/RTJ Sr/Joe Lee/Niall Fraser (1947-2016)
None of Maxwell’s work remains apart from the back nine routing at this auxiliary Trail site; even so, a pleasant marsh-then-parkland walk with exquisitely-kept greens. pic.twitter.com/L2b99IjZgk
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: assorted notes
- Treating the Trail as a statewide golf-course-crawl is only half the fun, because Alabama's food scene is arguably even more varied than its golf. Culinary highlights include Dreamland Bar-B-Que (several locations), Wintzell's Oyster House (Montgomery and Mobile) and Birmingham's Back Forty Brewing Co., whose food might just be even better than its beer. Their Neapolitan-style pizza is some of the best I've had south of the Mason-Dixon.
- The Barber Vintage Motorsports museum is a top Birmingham-area attraction, sporting one of the finest collections of motorcycles anywhere.
- Mobile is home to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, a fascinating museum of American military history.