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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Where Golf is a STATE of Mind

"God builds courses, men only find them," said the legendary
Robert Trent Jones, who lent his expertise and name to a
state-wide, seven-stop, 324-hole Alabama golf trail. The largest
such project ever built - and a heck of a bargain - it is
about to open its eighth course in Montgomery this spring

Friday, January 29, 1999
MICHAEL GRANGE

Bliss and its polar opposite curl in and around the black pines, the magnolia bushes and the clean, fresh air that infuses Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, arguably the finest collection of public golf facilities in North America. It is the kind of place that invites your mind to wander and your thoughts to settle in soothing spaces. Aided by a crisply struck 7-iron, thoughts of real time and real life fade as you amble along the trail's grand, green expanses.

Robert Trent Jones, the living legend of golf-course design, who came out of semi-retirement in his 80s to lend his name and expertise to the trail, says that "God builds courses, men only find them." That may be true. But at the close of the 20th century, only someone who knows a lot about turning God's creations into profitable enterprises could dream up something like the trail, the largest golf construction project ever undertaken. Frustrated with his adopted state's reputation as a redneck backwater, David Bronner, chief executive officer of Alabama's public employees' pension fund, decided to make the state--already known for its inviting climate and sumptuous countryside--a tourism and retirement destination.

It worked. In the few short years since Bronner's vision came to fruition, the trail has become the most important story in public golf. Encompassing the geographical diversity of a state that stretches from the rugged, hilly north to the sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the trail features seven affordably priced golf complexes, each with either 27 or 36 championship holes, as well as either nine-hole or 18-hole, par-three courses, several of which are ranked among the top 10 "one-shotters" in the United States. All the facilities are located near interstate highways, each no farther than a two-hour drive from the next. An eighth facility is set to open outside Montgomery this spring.

And the people have said that the trail is good. Roughly two million rounds have been played on it since the first location opened in 1992. And since then, several of the trail's courses have consistently ranked as "must plays" by leading golf publications.

So that's what we did--myself and three friends--on a mad, six-day, 171-hole spree that took us to five sites, missing only the 54-hole facilities at Hampton Cove, in Huntsville, and Magnolia Grove, in Mobile, the extreme northern and southern ends of the trail.

We began our odyssey at the practice range at Birmingham's Oxmoor Valley, the trail's headquarters. Perched near the top of Little Shades Mountain, it features proper greens as targets, set like flower boxes on steps as the valley yawns below, a lake shimmering in the background. Even mis-hits sailed high and cascaded gracefully, building confidence that we would need in spades later on.

We played the Ridge Course, one of two championship 18-hole courses at the Birmingham facility. The first track to open on the trail, it swoops and climbs along the spine of the Appalachians. Stretching 7,055 yards, sporting 150-foot elevation changes from one hole to the next, and home to dense tree cover, the course is one long photo opportunity. That's especially the case on the signature hole: The 539-yard, par-five 12th finishes with a green that perches well above the fairway on a black shale cliff, which rebounds weak approach shots in any number of interesting directions.

Finishing in time to make good use of the wraparound veranda, from its rocking chairs we watched the sun set over the valley below, a frosty beer in hand. Similar plantation-style clubhouses serve as the focal point of each course on the trail--grand structures whose high ceilings, classic oak bars and plushly appointed locker rooms are the perfect places to rest up between days on the green.

Day two took us to Silver Lakes, outside of Anniston, a town typical of most of the stops on the trail. Perched near the interstate, it offers a choice of chain restaurants and hotels for travellers, but little to distract us from the task at hand. At Silver Lakes, the less-than-encouragingly named Heartbreaker, Backbreaker and Mindbreaker nine-hole courses drove home a message we had only vaguely been aware of on the previous day: If you're looking for a leisurely slap-and-chase session on your golf holiday, go somewhere other than the trail.

Each hole on the trail can be played from four different tee positions, according to the individual golfer's handicap. With forced carries a common occurrence, and well-guarded, elevated greens the norm, you quickly learn to ignore the suggested tees at your peril. The combination of the Heartbreaker and the Backbreaker plays just short of 7,700 yards from the tips and 6,686 from the next step down, while the forward tees are a more benign 4,907 yards. The result is some very demanding golf.

After an evening enjoying the sights in Auburn, home of Alabama's largest private university, we woke up on day three primed for what was reputedly the best the trail has to offer. Robert Trent Jones has put his stamp on more than 500 courses around the world, and he says the raw materials he had to work with at Grand National were the finest he had ever seen. Thirty-two of Grand National's 54 holes hug the glittering 240-hectare Lake Saughahatche. The rest wind in and out of tall pines that summon images of that other National--Augusta National, site of the annual PGA Masters Tournament--one state over, in Georgia. Both of the championship 18-hole courses at Grand National easily cracked Golf Magazine's list of the top 100 public courses last year--the Links ranking 51st, the Lakes Course, 59th.

The Links Course has been described as a collection of finishing holes, challenging enough to be worthy of a U.S. Open. The one that stands out is the par-four 18th. With a tee shot that requires a carry over the corner of the lake, and a mid-iron approach to a shallow green that is perched on the lake's marshy edge and guarded by boulders, it can undo a great round any number of ways.

And while the Lakes Course is considered the easier of the two, that is a relative term. After all, it's challenging enough to have hosted the LPGA Tournament of Champions and the Nike Tour Championship in the past two years. Darkness fell before we could finish its last three holes, or fully appreciate the par-three 15th and its island green, considered the prettiest hole on the entire trail. But as we were crossing the suspension bridge spanning the lake, with the morning bass fisherman now long departed, and the sun disappearing behind the western shore, it was hard to think of a day better spent.

From there, the days began to blur in a whirl of golf euphoria. We next dipped south, first to the classic, gently rolling Highland Oaks Course in Dothan, the self-described peanut capital of the world. It includes a boardwalk through lush marshlands, magnolia bushes almost joining in a canopy overhead. Then we headed west, into the roller-coaster dips and climbs at Cambrian Ridge in tiny Greenville, whose 501-yard, par-four first hole on the Canyon nine hosts a vertigo-inducing 200-foot drop to the fairway below.

We ended our week where we had started it, back at Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham. This time we played the Valley Course, which seemed somehow appropriate. Although it has a technical layout that doesn't lay down easily for low-handicappers, the Valley Course is a little more inviting to players with handicaps higher than the legal driving age. It felt like a good, solid track you might play at home on a Sunday.

Or at least it did until we reached the 18th hole, nicknamed "The Assassin." This steep, uphill finishing hole more than makes up for any kindnesses that came before, reminding you that the trail is not about bliss alone. Standing before it, staring into a brisk wind, my thoughts were neither of bliss nor its opposite. All my mental energy was concentrated in figuring out how I could get back here again.

MAKING YOUR ESCAPE

Air Canada offers up to four direct flights daily from Toronto to Atlanta. From there, it is less than a two-hour drive to Silver Lakes, near Anniston. Another option is to fly to the trail's headquarters at Birmingham; Canadian Airlines offers up to six flights daily from Toronto via Chicago. By car, the trip to Birmingham from the U.S.-Canada border at Detroit takes about 10 hours.

High-season rate (March, April, May) is $49 (U.S.) for 18 holes at the 54-hole facilities, and $39 at the 36-hole complexes. Those prices go down to $34 and $29, respectively, from December through February. The short courses are $15 for 18 holes, and $7.50 for nine holes, all year. Walking is always an option, but carts can be rented for $15, or $10 on the short courses. Second rounds are half-price, subject to availability. Unlimited golf packages, with three days and two nights accommodation, start at $169.

Tee times can be booked up to four months in advance, for all courses, by calling the trail's central reservation number (800-949-4444), a smart move if you plan to visit in high season. They'll also fax or mail any information you request. If you book at least 15 days ahead of arriving, tee times and hotel reservations can be made with one call. Any later than that and you're on your own for accommodations, although each stop on the trail is well served by leading hotel and motel chains, which offer discounts to golfers. The trail's Web site--www.rtjgolf.com--is also a great source of information for planning your entire trip.

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