The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is one of the jewels of America's sporting landscape. This collection of 11 courses scattered throughout the state of Alabama can actually trace its roots back to the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” David Bronner, then CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, founded the courses as part of a bold diversification strategy for the state's pension fund. Famous golf architect Robert Trent Jones was brought in to consult and lent his name to the project. Course designs were actually mostly handled by Roger Rulewich, who held to Jones' longstanding philosophy of difficult holes that provide can great reward to those who are willing to take calculated risks.Image Source: rtjgolf.com Grand National
The first four courses opened in 1992: Grand National in Opelika, Hampton Cove in Huntsville, Magnolia Grove in Mobile and Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham. Dothan's Highland Oaks, Greeneville's Cambrian Ridge and Anniston's Silver Lakes were quickly completed and added to the Trail in 1993. Over the next few years, four more courses were added: Capitol Hill in Prattville, Lakewood Golf Club at Point Clear, Ross Bridge in Hoover and The Shoals in Florence. All told, the courses of the Trail represent 468 holes of some of the best and most challenging golf in the world.
Bronner's outside-the-box thinking has paid off well for both state retirees and the general economy. Over half a million people visit the state each year to play at least one of the trail's courses, generating an estimated $100 million in revenue annually. The Senator and Crossings courses host annual LPGA Tour events, and in 2015 the Grand National course hosted the PGA Tour's Barbasol Championship. The enduring popularity of the trail inspired other states in the region to attempt similar course collections, such as The Audobon Golf Trail in Louisiana and The Bear Trace in Tennessee.
Must-See Spots on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
Jones and Rulewich believed strongly that no one remembers an easy course. They also believed in using the local topography to best advantage in designing each course, meaning that every course on the Trail is a unique experience. There's a reason why so many people insist on playing the whole thing! You really can't go wrong with any course selection here, but below we've listed some of the particularly unique and intriguing high points. If you're determined to play the whole thing as part of your bucket list, you'll want to look into signing up for an Alabama Trail Card, which gives you some level of priority in making reservations and choosing tee times.Image Source: trugolf.com Judge Course at Prattville's Capitol Hill
If you're a zen master of golf looking to really test yourself, many feel that the most difficult course of the trail is the Judge Course at Prattville's Capitol Hill. But this 18-hole course is also quite possibly the most picturesque of them all, enough so that less experienced golfers won't feel nearly as bad about their scores. The Judge has drawn notice from major media sources — it's been named one of the top 10 courses that would be suitable for hosting the U.S. Open by Golf Magazine, and Zagat also rates it as one of the top 50 courses in the nation. 14 of the course's 18 holes are adjacent to the water, and you may recognize the very first hole as one of the most frequently photographed on the Trail. The readers of Golf World voted Capitol Hill as a whole the second-best public golf course in the nation.
If the Judge Course is not the toughest of the pack, then that honor would have to go to the Fighting Joe Course at Florence's The Shoals. Established in 2004, this course was the first on the trail to top 8,000 yards in length. A driver's paradise, to be sure, but very narrow fairways rigorously test the skill of all comers. One must also contend with the distracting natural beauty of the Tennessee River setting with every shot! The Shoals is also home to the Schoolmaster, a course that some regular players argue equals and possibly even exceeds the Fighting Joe in level of challenge.Image Source: tripadvisor.com Fighting Joe Course
Ross Bridge at Hoover is a historical landmark established by Scottish entrepreneur and immigrant James Taylor Ross during the Civil War as a means of transporting goods both into and out of the growing city. The Ross estate is now home to the course and a resort, and the history of the family and their national heritage is honored nightly by roving bagpipe players at sunset. Naturally, the resort bar is one of the best places to enjoy scotch in the state.
Hate bunkers with a passion? Make a beeline for the River Course at Hampton Cove in Huntsville, the lone representative of the Trail that has no bunkers whatsoever. That isn't to say that it isn't challenging, as the course has been designed in a truly old-school style leaving very large oak trees intact. Those heading south for the winter will likely find Hampton Cove to be the first stop on their schedule.
On Memorial Day weekend, Cambrian Ridge in Greenville is host to the annual Father/Son Championship. The course is worth a stop at any time, however, with a fresh renovation just completed in 2016 that has seen many of the holes redesigned to offer improved views of Sherling Lake.Image Source: rtjgolf.com Cambrian Ridge in Greenville
Accessibility and Families
Players with disabilities will find that the courses on the Trail are wheelchair-accessible and have golf carts with specially adjusted seats. All of the Trail's courses are open to the public, and tee markers are always pegged to ability level rather than gender or age.
Golfers traveling with families will find that nearly all of these courses have been developed with resorts and upscale hotels either directly on the course or very close to it. Though the courses will likely be too challenging for younger golfers to take on, activities are available for kids who are too young to duff or would prefer to do something else while the adults are out on the links.