Follow Alabama's trail to golf nirvana



AUBURN, ALA. / / Seven of us stood on the first tee, squinting into the distance as we tried to figure out just where the first hole was. It was an early June morning near this Southern college town, and we had been told we were about to play one of the most scenic and demanding golf courses in the region.

Only problem was we couldn't see it. The fog was so dense, we could make out a few vague shapes a couple of yards away, but beyond that, there were only shades of gray. Charcoal gray straight ahead, battleship gray off to the right -- everything shrouded in steel wool.

This course was called the Links, like the seaside layouts in Scotland where the game was born. It seemed more like the Moors, a mysterious place where we would not only lose every golf ball hit into the nothingness, but also might drift away into the marshland ourselves, never to be seen again.

We had the first two tee times of the day, and the starter was eager to get things rolling. He pointed in a direction that we wouldn't have guessed and said, "That's your line. You'll be OK if you hit it there."

The first four players smacked their drives and drove off in their carts, vanishing about 25 yards from the tee. We followed 10 minutes later, heading uncertainly into the vapor.

We had set out to play the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, a series of singular courses that runs the length of this lush and rolling state. Our six-day trip stopped at three of the trail's 10 sites -- in Birmingham, near Auburn and just north of Montgomery. This was a golf-centric trip: 36 holes a day, with barely enough time left for a bite to eat and a few hours' sleep.

In the end, the winner was the trail itself, a breathtaking collection of 432 holes. The trail still doesn't have the nationwide recognition of such established golf meccas as Pinehurst, N.C.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and California's Monterey Peninsula and desert resorts.

That's a pity, because when it comes to value, quality of the layouts, friendliness of staff and sheer volume of extraordinary courses, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail ranks near the top of the nation's great golf destinations.

David Bronner, chief executive of the state's pension, came up with the idea for the trail in the late 1980s as a way to help fund Alabama's pension system, increase tourism, attract retirees and improve the image of the state, which for many people outside the Deep South was still best known for the racial strife of the 1960s.

By 1990, he had launched the largest golf course construction project in history, simultaneously building seven golf complexes with clubhouses and two or three courses at each site.

In 1992, Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham became the first facility to open, with two wildly different championship courses. In the next two years, six other sites would open, 324 holes spread among the seven. Each of those sites includes a challenging short-course layout as well. Courses from all along the trail appeared on national golf magazines' lists of best new public facilities.

Three more sites have opened in the past six years. The most recent are Ross Bridge in Hoover near Birmingham and the Shoals in Florence in the northwest corner of the state, two high-end resorts designed to attract golfers who want their accommodations to be just as dramatic as the courses they are playing.

Jones, who died in 2000, called the project the greatest achievement of his career.

Oxmoor Valley

Three of us began our trip to the trail a day ahead of the four others, just to get a warmup round at Oxmoor Valley before beginning the safari in earnest the next day at the Grand National resort about 100 miles southeast.

We played that opening round on the Ridge course, a spectacular hilly layout carved through the pines and oaks at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains.

But for the three of us who had played there on a visit 18 months earlier, our favorite layout at Oxmoor Valley was the tree- and-stream-lined Valley course, with an opening hole that drops precipitously from the clubhouse and a finishing hole that begins with an elevated tee, heads over a ravine, then climbs uphill 441 yards and who knows how many shots later to the final green. That hole is a little slice of agony nicknamed "The Assassin," aptly describing the challenging nature of virtually all of the courses on the trail.

From Birmingham, three of us drove a couple of hours to meet the rest of our group at Grand National, a 54-hole complex near Auburn University that Jones said was his favorite. Three courses -- the Links, Lake and short course -- are built around 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee, with 32 of the 54 holes hugging the fingers of the lake. It's a 1,200-acre fantasyland, a postcard come to life -- but with nasty twists everywhere.

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