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Driving Alabama

By William S. Casey
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 11, 1999; Page E01


Late on a sunny afternoon, a fresh Alabama breeze rattled the trees as we stood on the tee of our 270th hole. Only 363 yards from the white tees, No. 18 on Oxmoor Valley's Ridge Course is still no piece of cake--an uphill dogleg with a conspiracy of trouble on its port side.

Both my partner, John, and I hit solid drives up into the fairway. Unfortunately, on courses like these, well-tempered tee shots alone don't produce birdies or even pars. The second shot here demands a delicate bunker-clearing approach to an irregularly shaped, rolling green. We both ended up with double-bogey 6s.

Our 270th hole? Amazing but true. We'd just completed two weeks of playing each hole at least once on every course--with a single exception--on Alabama's renowned Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the seven-location collection of 17 first-rate public courses that stretches from Huntsville in the northern part of the state to Mobile in the deep south.

At Oxmoor that Sunday, we played the Ridge course. The day before we had taken on Oxmoor's other layout, the equally rugged Valley course. On Friday, it had been 18 holes at Silver Lakes, another of the RTJ sites, north of Anniston. On Thursday, we had also been at Silver Lakes, but playing different combination of nines--twice in fact, for a total of 36 holes that day. You get the picture.

Just like regular people, golfers dream when they sleep. What kind of dreams? Of playing the Game of Kings on Great Courses in Great Places. Our RTJ Golf Trail experience would earn a high place in any list of golfing fantasies: a succession of coveted championship layouts, each course in top condition, most of them uncongested, golf every day--and all for a reasonable price.

Still in transition from not-quite-discovered to major year-round golf destination--a phase, please note, that's unlikely to last very long--the RTJ Golf Trail offers opportunities to many kinds of players, in addition to "extreme golfers" such as John and me: casual players interested in weekend golf getaways, couples on longer tours mixing golf with other activities, small groups interested in playing at a resort-type destination, curious travelers who have never had much reason to visit Alabama. Playing all of the Trail's venues in one trip is an exception; the typical Trail visitor plays at just one or a few locations per visit. Still, we have no regrets.

The RTJ Golf Trail is a collection of public golf courses offering 27 or 36 holes (in combination with nine or 18 holes of par-3 golf), in seven (soon to be eight) distinct locations (counting "courses" can be tricky, since some locations feature three sets of 9s). Not yet a decade old, it reflects a major investment in tourism and retirement on the part of the Retirement Systems of Alabama. Luring the legendary course architect Jones from his own retirement in the late 1980s--Jones has been principal designer of more than 500 courses, including many of the world's best--potential sites were identified and acquired under the aegis of the Sunbelt Golf Corp. The result is a collection of superlative public golf facilities. The first site, Oxmoor Valley, near Birmingham, opened in 1992. We chose that course to end our golfing vacation.

For more than a year, John and I had kicked around the notion of a mega-golf experience. We've always kept in touch: He and I grew up a few blocks apart in northern New Jersey and were fellow pupils from kindergarten through high school. Over the past decade we've managed at least one golf outing annually. For 1998, though, we had something more ambitious in mind: playing daily for a two-week period.

From golf magazines, word-of-mouth and various Web sites, we knew of the RTJ Golf Trail. As John and I discussed priorities, Alabama came to seem more ideal: Here was a ready-made collection of courses around which we could plan an extended series of rounds and matches. Both of us play to similar handicaps (ranging from 12 to 16) and the idea of ongoing head-to-head competition was hard to resist.

The challenge of the RTJ courses was also a plus: They have already won numerous awards and enjoy a reputation for toughness. They have hosted various PGA, LPGA and USGA events, including two scheduled for this year. And then there was cost. June marks the beginning of the low-priced summer season on the Trail, so all rounds would be $34, plus $15 per person for a cart if we chose to use one. We'd be living large and going cheap.

Our first official day on the Trail started and ended as a textbook Gulf Coast Alabama summer's day--oppressive heat and dishrag damp. It wasn't until we arrived back at the motel that evening that the local TV news informed us that the day's "heat index" was 117. Luckily, warnings to "avoid unnecessary outdoor activity" don't apply to something as serious as golf, so we were safe.

Which is not to say comfortable. Arriving at Magnolia Grove at around 7 a.m., we pulled up to the golf bag drop area to unload our clubs. A phalanx of courteous collegians got things going smoothly (this corps of eager helpers was a Trail trademark we'd encounter at every location). After some discussion, John and I elected to carry our bags rather than use a golf cart.

What sounded virtuous made for 18 sweltering holes. Players do indeed carry their clubs on RTJ courses--a plus for many golfers, especially since it's allowed on weekends--but the heat magnified the effort required. Leaning over to tee up, so much perspiration would drip over my face that I'd have to remove my glasses and wipe them down each time. This turned out to be the hottest and most uncomfortable day of our whole trip, but it disabused us of the notion of walking. From that day on, we rented a cart.

Regardless of weather, the Crossings was terrific--everything we expected in course quality, enhanced by having it largely to ourselves. Like other Trail layouts, the Crossings capitalizes on its natural surroundings. Magnolia Grove may be situated in Alabama's coastal plain, but it's not flat. Each of the ups and downs is a factor as play unfolds. The courses at Magnolia boast a variety of hardwoods and pines in addition to a good supply of regionally evocative magnolias.

At the same time, each hole exhibits signatures of Jones (now in his nineties) and his chief assistant, Roger Rulewich. Large, elevated and highly contoured greens demand precision approach shots. Sixty- and 70-foot putts across slick greens can easily lead to three-putts--if not dreaded four-putts--for average golfers. All greens are heavily bunkered, and Jones courses are known for fairway traps and swales, always strategically positioned to catch the optimistic risk taker. And, of course, there's water: Jones puts it in play as often he can.

Trail courses offer four sets of tees. The Crossings measures 7,151 yards from the tips (longest tees) with a slope of 134--a very tough rating. Its short tees reduce course length to 5,184 yards and are documented for use by both men and women. John and I, as middle handicappers, generally prefer courses 6,100 to 6,600 yards long. On this first day, we selected the whites: only 6,063 yards, but with a not-trivial slope of 128.

Four hours later, the two of us were back in the Magnolia clubhouse, overheated, dehydrated, temporarily exhausted but also thrilled with the course and pleased with our initial rounds. Each of us navigated the Crossings with 94 blows--not embarrassing for first-time efforts early in our trip.

While we're rigorous when it comes to rules and scoring, neither of us focuses on handicaps. Comfortably lackluster, we're confident that a good round (82 or 83, even a 78) will be followed by a 97 or worse. After a better-than-average round, John invariably announces that our scores will soon "regress to the mean."

We expected Trail courses to be hard. They were. But our handicaps actually dropped slightly over the two weeks. Our play improved a little as we moved along the Trail and course slopes were generally higher. (An 88 on a course with a 130 slope looks better at handicap calculation time.) But scoring was immaterial to the experience of being on the courses, appreciating their variety, subtlety and fine condition. Of course, winning each day's match did matter: We invariably played for the evening's dinner, and we took the competition seriously.

Day 2 on the Trail, Magnolia Grove's Falls course got the call. With 18 holes under our belts, there were only 252 left (not counting 109 more par-3 holes, which we also played at each location, just for kicks). The Falls course is allegedly easier, but it turned out to be more difficult for us. My pitiful 101 put me in a hole it would take me the rest of the trip to dig myself out of. Afterward, it was time to head east to the Highland Oaks facility in Dothan.

Thus was established the pattern for the better part of the trip--two days at a location playing both of its championship courses, or two days playing different combinations of nines at sites with 27 championship holes. And of course, the local par 3, played for the prize of the next day's breakfast check.

In Dothan we encountered Mack and Bobby, a pair we came to know as the "bionic golfers." John and I were playing with no one ahead of us on the Highlands and Marshwood nines. Aided by a cart, we moved right along, maintaining a stalwart pace. But every time we looked back, there was a twosome close behind. Both golfers were carrying their own bags; sometimes they'd even have to wait for us to hole out to hit their next shots. Knowing they were walking and we were riding, we tried to accelerate our pace, but each time, thinking we'd outdistanced them, there they were again, hovering just a couple hundred yards behind us.

It the parking lot, we finally made their acquaintance: local members Mack Kirkland and Bobby Sirmon, both about 60 and as friendly as could be.

"We do play along pretty quickly," said Kirkland. Both Sirmon and Kirkland are year-round Highland Oaks regulars. Sirmon told me on the phone recently that he had "missed three days" of golf last month. Neither man, however, would confess to having artificial body parts.

Driving between RTJ locations offered another bonus. Finding ourselves mostly on older highways (U.S. 231, State Route 21), we wound through Alabama's rural landscapes, passing through small towns: the notable (Talladega, Tuscaloosa) and less-so (Luverne, Sylacauga). John has a preference for breakfast at Shoney's, and since I was paying most of the time, thanks to my regular losses on the par-3 courses, he had to be humored. Nevertheless, we encountered some good local food: Benson's 34 West in Ozark, Wanda's Cafe in Gunterville and the Court Cafe in Greenville.

Heading northwest, we stayed in Montgomery, Alabama's capital, for four nights. From there it was a simple commute alternately south to the Trail's Cambrian Ridge location in Greenville and northeast to Grand National in Auburn/Opelika. Cambrian Ridge, with its three nines full of dramatic descents and plenty of devilish water, was probably our favorite venue on the Trail. In fact, we liked Cambrian so much that we played 36 holes there one day. The nine-hole short course was as spectacular as its championship nines, with picturesque drop-offs, beautifully positioned greens and water everywhere.

We also discovered that playing every day, besides serving to sharpen our games, seemed to be good for our bodies. Each day we found our 50ish joints and limbs a little looser and easier to warm up. This was a surprise: Planning the trip, we considered scheduling a day or two off. We were glad that idea had died.

The number of rounds played mounted steadily. By the time we departed Montgomery and settled in at Oxford for three nights, we had been on the Trail for eight days and had logged 162 holes (nine 18-hole rounds). From Oxford, we were able to travel to two of the remaining three Trail locations: Hampton Cove in Huntsville and Silver Lakes in Anniston.

Our one major disappointment involved Hampton Cove. We enjoyed playing the tough Highlands course, but due to a previously scheduled tournament, we were unable to get on its sister, the River course. This conflict had been identified in advance, but until the end we had held out hope of a late-in-the-day exception. No way: we had to find satisfaction in an extended afternoon competition on the Waterworld-like 18-hole short course. Happily, the River course, allegedly the only Jones design anywhere with no bunkers, now provides additional incentive to us for a return RTJ trip.

After our 36-hole day on the Silver Lakes courses Thursday, the end of our tour was in sight. We played another Silver Lakes round Friday and then headed down the road to Birmingham to wind things up with a final weekend at the Trail's Oxmoor Valley location.

In the end, John and I have few complaints about our Trail experiences. We'd both read criticisms of RTJ's cookie-cutter approach to clubhouse design. Sure, it got a little tedious--the menu was the same everywhere, the food wasn't terrific, and pro shop prices were not as low as you might hope--but so what? Virtually every staff person we encountered on Trail locations was courteous, and the courses were uncrowded and endlessly challenging. The golf was cheap.

The most important variable for golfers considering the RTJ Golf Trail will involve crowds. We benefited by touring at the start of the low (summer) season: the weather was still bearable, and golfer populations, especially on weekdays, was sparse. Only one-third of the time were John and I assigned other golfers to play with us. In spring and fall, bookings are much heavier, and likely to increase as RTJ earns its place on the national golf-vacation map.

Our romance with the RTJ Golf Trail is probably not over. Capitol Hill, the eighth Trail site, is just north of Montgomery with a view south to the state capitol. The first 18 holes opened last month, with another 36 holes following by summer's end (but, alas, no short course). Obviously we'll need to plan an Alabama reprise. Maybe we'll fit in that new location, the River course at Hampton Cove that we missed this time--and while we're there, we might as well swing by Grand National or Cambrian Ridge for a few rounds, just for old times' sake.

Sounds like a good week or 10 days to me.

William Casey lives in Minneapolis.

DETAILS: Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

GETTING THERE: A junket on the Sunbelt Golf Corp.'s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail involves travel to one--or perhaps several--Alabama cities. Driving from Washington is not out of the question for those with time to spare or interest in a two-day, 800-mile road trip.

Many RTJ visitors will want to fly rather than lose vacation days that could be spent golfing. Three entry points to the trail are good airline destinations are Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham. Each is reachable via connections from Washington by major airlines (American, Delta, Northwest) and advance-ticket purchases can bring round-trip fares down below $300.

THE GOLF: Sunbelt Golf's central RTJ office in Birmingham (see below) arranges tee times on any of the RTJ Trail courses up to one week before play is scheduled. Within a week, individual venues can be contacted directly for reservations. March through May are considered high season on the Trail, when greens fees range from $39 to $49, depending on the specific courses involved. Low season rates are less by about $10 and are available in midsummer as well as the winter months.

Carts are $15 per person per round but golfers can always elect to walk rather than ride.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Since RTJ Golf Trail sites involve a good portion of Alabama's extent, the full range of motels, hotels and bed and breakfasts are possibilities for any aspiring golfer. We found reasonable motels at prices as low as $35 and $40 per night for singles, with prices somewhat higher in larger cities such as Birmingham and Montgomery.

PACKAGES: The Sunbelt Golf office also offers golf packages: hotel and motel stays in combination with rounds of golf at one or more RTJ courses. Prices are attractive and an increasing number is available. Typical packages include three days of golf at one RTJ venue in combination with two nights of lodging for $150 to $200, again depending on the site. The reservations office can customize packages of virtually any composition and length.

INFORMATION: For RTJ reservations and information, contact the Sunbelt Golf Corp., 1-800-949-4444, For general information on Alabama, contact the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel, 1-800-252-2262,

--William Casey

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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