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Sweet Home Alabama

sweet home alabama

If you’ve driven through Alabama with your eyes open, you’ve seen the green highway signs for the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Everywhere. In fact, in some places, whether you’re a golf geek or not, the trail is assumed to be known by motorists; “RTJ Golf Trail” with an arrow is what you get. We saw the signs a long time ago – the trail is a beacon for golfers, featuring over two dozen courses and including six resorts. We took some time to indulge.

The first tee lies 200 feet above the fairway on the Judge course at Capitol Hill Photo RTJ Golf
The first tee lies 200 feet above the fairway on the Judge course at Capitol Hill
Photo: RTJ Golf

Driving through Alabama from any direction delivers a Southern fried taste of natural beauty. Approach the cruise from any direction, swinging north through Muscle Shoals, east through Anniston, Opelika, or Dothan, or south through Point Clear or Mobile, the state has got you covered.

Part of that drive is marked with green and white signs marking the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which takes in 26 courses and six accompanying resorts and spas, located off every major roadway through Alabama. The trail was created to convince snowbird drivers on their way to Florida to stop and spend some of their tourist dollars in Alabama.

Over the last 30 or so years, the trail has attracted golfers in groups, be it a boys’ day out or couples who split into golfers and spa patrons during the day before reuniting over cocktails and dinner.

The trail began when David Bronner, head of the public Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), saw the plan as a profitable investment for the RSA while helping small business owners by increasing tourism.

“David Bronner was in charge of the pension funds and he’s a golfer,” said Robert Trent Jones Jr., whose own golf architecture firm builds courses worldwide from its headquarters in Palo Alto, California. He recalled that in the late 1980s, his father was semi-retired but came to Alabama to talk with Bronner about his idea for the golf trail. Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was approved by the state legislature in 2000. Jones said his father told Bronner, “You need five to seven golf stops along the major routes to Florida,” with the idea that golfers would play the first one they came to and then the next, and the next, leaving tourism dollars behind.

David G. Bronner Chief Executive Officer at Retirement Systems of Alabama Photo Carol M. Highsmith Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
David G. Bronner, Chief Executive Officer at Retirement Systems of Alabama
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The new courses would be created in Hampton Cove in Huntsville, Magnolia Grove in Mobile, Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham, and Grand National at Auburn/Opelika. They all opened in 1992, making the deadline.

Bronner said the first four golf trail courses represented the largest golf construction project in the world. He believes it couldn’t and wouldn’t be done today, mostly because of cost and increasing government regulation.

Jones said he helped a bit himself on the courses, but the majority of the design and fieldwork was accomplished by Roger Rulewich, who moved to Alabama and worked every day for a year and a half to make it a reality. Rulewich had joined the Robert Jones Trail’s firm right out of Yale and worked there for 35 years before starting his own company, Rulewich & Fleury Golf Design in Bernardston, Massachusetts.

Bronner points to overall state tourism revenue as a sign of the success of his idea; he said the money increased from $1.8 billion the year before the courses opened to more than $25 billion in 2022.

“It took a lot of years,” Bronner said. “This is the 31st or 32nd year. We had some spots that made money and some that didn’t make money, but we got them all up to where they make money now. It’s all about quality. If you keep the quality up, it’s going to work.”

With 26 courses on 11 sites, if a golfer played all of them, the holes would stretch for 85 miles, tee to green, with 700 miles of driving between courses.

The Grand Hotel Golf Resort Spa Autograph Collection Photo
The Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection

Across the state, here’s a brief breakdown of the trail (you can download your own Trail Guide at

Capitol Hill in Prattville has three 18-hole courses (The Senator, The Judge, and The Legislator) and has been named the second-best public golf facility in the country by Golf World readers. Golf magazine named The Judge among the 10 public courses worthy of a U.S. Open. The Senator, a links course with more than 140 pot bunkers, hosts the LPGA’s Epson Tour Guardian Championship each fall.

Cambrian Ridge, located in Greenville, south of Montgomery, offers 27 holes over three courses. It was named in 1994 by Golf Digest as the third-best new public course in the country. You can pick your own combination of 18 holes.

Grand National, Auburn/Opelika, has 54 holes over three courses. While both Bronner and Jones say the elder Jones didn’t play the favorites game, they agreed he liked the Lakes Course at Grand National the best on the trail. With 12 holes along the shores of Lake Sougahatchee and a par-3 15th hole that stretches 230 yards from the tips to an island green, the Lakes Course appealed to RTJ’s highest challenge for golfers. “He loved water,” Jones said. “He said it was the most important hazard … because it was final.” The course has hosted the NCAA D1 Men’s and Women’s National Championship, LPGA Tour, Epson Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, and PGA Tour. In addition, the Links Course is just that, and the Short Course was recreated in 2022 to add new greens to the 18-hole par-3 challenge.

Robert Trent Jones Sr. Photo USGA Photo Collection
Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Photo: USGA Photo Collection

Hampton Cove in Huntsville has 54 holes over three courses, with the Highlands Course and its old mule barn on the 5th hole; the River Course, which is the only RTJ course built without a single bunker and features water on 16 of 18 holes; and the Short Course, a links-like layout with water on 11 holes.

The Lakewood Club, Point Clear, is different from the others as it existed as an 18-hole course in 1947 and later expanded to two courses and 36 holes. The courses bask in the historic luxury of the Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa. The Dogwood Course, renovated in 2018, recently hosted the U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur Championship. The Azalea Course was remade in 2019. The entire resort has been named repeatedly to Golf magazine’s list of best golf resorts in America.

Highland Oaks in Dothan is a unique layout of four nine-hole courses, the Highlands, Marshwood, Magnolia, and the Short Course. Golf Digest named the Highlands/Magnolia combination as one of the nation’s Great Value Courses. The Marshwood course is famous for the par-5 sixth hole, a huge 701 yards from the tips.

Magnolia Grove in Mobile has 54 holes in three courses with the Short Course named by Golf Digest as the best par-3 course in America. The Crossings course has a traditional layout that has attracted both the LPGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour Championship. The Falls Course is the only par 71 layout on the trail.

Oxmoor Valley, Birmingham, has 45 holes over three courses built on a former U.S. Steel mining operation. The Ridge Course is known for its elevation changes, heavy tree cover, and challenging lies. The Valley Course was renovated in 2021 with new tees, bunkers, and greens. The Back Yard, opened in 2022, features nine par-3 holes and a fire pit surrounded by rocking chairs where the group can enjoy cocktails and total up the scores.

The Short Course at Silver Lakes between Anniston and Gadsen Photo RTJ Golf
The Short Course at Silver Lakes between Anniston and Gadsen
Photo: RTJ Golf

Ross Bridge, Hoover, is a single 18-hole layout and was named one of the top golf resorts in America by Golf magazine in 2019. It features a castle-like resort where a kilted bagpiper plays on the lawn at day’s end, saluting the birthplace of golf. If your group likes to play the tips, Ross Bridge boasts to be the fifth-longest course in the world, stretching 8,191 yards. The course just reopened in the fall after being closed for renovation.

Silver Lakes, Anniston/Gadsden, has four 9-hole courses in the Appalachian foothills about halfway between Huntsville and Opelika/Auburn. The names of each course might be an indication of their appeal: the Backbreaker, the Heartbreaker, the Mindbreaker, and the Short Course. The layouts were built over forests, wetlands, and grasslands, and feature numerous elevation changes.

The Shoals, Muscle Shoals, features two courses and 36 holes. Built in 2004, the Fighting Joe Course was the first on the trail to top 8,000 yards. Rolling among dunes, mounds and tall grass, the fairways are long but straightforward. The Schoolmaster Course has narrower fairways and demanding approach shots at nearly 8,000 yards from the tips.

Photo RTJ Golf
Photo: RTJ Golf

For Tom Dobat and his seven buddies from the Class of 1979 at Rochester High School in Rochester Hills, Michigan, the courses at Oxmoor Valley were an easy choice when classmate Chris Carr hosted the group last October at his home in Birmingham.

Dobat said he had played Grand National at Auburn/Opelika a few years ago and liked the courses, so he wanted to see what Oxmoor Valley offered.

“We played the Ridge Course on Wednesday and Thursday,” he said. “It was a tough track. I mean, it’s beautiful but there’s not a flat lie on that course.” They took on the Valley Course on Friday and then ended the trip as an eightsome at The Back Yard, a nine-hole, par-3 course.

“We’re definitely going to keep it in the rotation now,” Dobat said.

Jenner Christiansen of Hayward, California, joined seven of his friends for what they hope will be an annual guys’ golf trip, choosing Ross Bridge, and the Ridge course at Oxmoor Valley, as two of their venues. One of the group works at a private golf club in California and was able to arrange for them to play two private courses around Birmingham, for four courses in four days.

For accommodations, Christiansen said they went through VRBO to find a house big enough for all eight guys, which added to the camaraderie.

“All the courses were really nice,” he said. “We’re all from California, so we were expecting things to be more expensive, but they were definitely affordable. I would absolutely recommend them.”

In addition to the golf courses, RTJ offers the Spa Trail (, a collection of six resorts with spa and salon experiences for golfers looking for more than golf or a non-golfing spouse.

“It’s something a husband and wife, or two guys or two women can do if they go to a resort and it’s raining, or they’re looking for something else to do after five days of golf,” Bronner said.

The Spa at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear promotes itself as “an experience that offers medicine for the soul.” The spa offers salon services for hair and nails, as well as massages or facials, an indoor pool, a fitness center, a dry sauna, a steam room, and a whirlpool.

The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel Spa Photo
The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel & Spa

The Spa Trail includes The Spa at the Grand Hotel, The Spa at the Battle House (Mobile), The Spa at Montgomery, The Spa at Grand National (Auburn/Opelika), The Spa at Ross Bridge (Hoover), and The Spa at the Shoals (Muscle Shoals).

If you’re in need of a good cigar along the RTJ Golf Trail, there are a few smoke shops scattered about the state.

Harris Saunders, his brothers, and their father own two locations of Cigars & More in Birmingham, another called Vitola & More, and stores under the Vitola Fine Cigars brand in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. He regularly sees golfers on their way to the courses in Oxford Valley and Ross Bridge.

“We have four stores in Birmingham, and we definitely see tourists coming in for the Golf Trail; it’s a big draw,” he said. “I’m always amazed how far people travel for it. We’ll see people from California, Michigan, all over.”

The Birmingham stores’ best sellers are Davidoff and Perdomo among the 1,000 cigars in the walk-in humidor. Smokers can stay for a cocktail or take their smokes to the indoor lounge or the patio.

For golfers playing the Capitol Hill courses, 23 Court, in the shadow of the state capitol building in Montgomery, offers up a broad selection of bourbon, Scotch, rye, and other whiskeys, rums, tequilas, etc. in a classy, lounge environment that allows smoking and features live music. Take a seat at the bar or a table.

The humidor at Vitolas Fine Cigars Mountain Brook Photo Vitolas Fine Cigars
The humidor at Vitolas Fine Cigars Mountain Brook
Photo: Vitolas Fine Cigar

Best of all, smokers don’t have to bring their own as 23 Court features a menu of a couple hundred cigar brands with Montecristo, Oliva, Davidoff, and Arturo Fuente among the most popular.

Other offerings include the Cigar Room, with stores in Florence, Madison, and Guntersville, which partners with the Swampers Bar and Grille – name checking the iconic studio band that put Muscle Shoals on the map – at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa every few months for a patio evening of cigars and bourbon tastings.

Other leisurely pursuits include Grand National Village in Auburn/Opelika, and the boutique shops in Fairhope, near the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and the American music legacy that is Muscle Shoals.

The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is a small cinder block building, but a time machine could take you back to the 70s, when Bob Dylan appreciated the obscurity the town gave him while he recorded Slow Train Coming, allowing him to wander around the local mall without being besieged by fans.

Rod Stewart’s band could be seen smoking cigarettes on the stoop outside the studio while inside, the Swampers, the studio’s house band, were tracking the Atlantic Crossing album. The session musicians were considered some of the best going, immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Boomer anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Studio tours are offered, and the studio is still active.

To book golf and accommodation on the RTJ Trail, call SunBelt Golf, which manages the trail for the RSA at 205-942-0444. If you know your dates, courses, and hotel arrangements, you can contact each course through the online directory.

You can also contact each resort and spa separately, but you don’t have to stay at the RTJ facilities to play the courses. A Google search finds many hotel chains with lodging near the courses, and the short-term house rental industry caters to golfers through VRBO and Airbnb. Spa and salon sessions can be booked without staying in the resorts.

Costs vary, as the RTJ courses present a wide range of greens fees, depending on which course you want to play, the season, and the day of the week. The courses also offer combination deals, especially if you’re looking to play two different courses in a single day. In general, the courses located at golf resorts charge higher greens fees but may also be more challenging designs. And they are still a bargain compared with golf resorts on either coast.

The RTJ resorts average from $250 to $300 per night, with lots of seasonal variations. For example, Grand National in Opelika goes up to $950 a night during weekends when Auburn University plays football.

With college football season behind us, it’s probably golf that you’re thinking about this winter. It’s hard to beat the number and variety of courses, resorts, and spas spread across Alabama by Dr. David Bronner, Robert Trent Jones Sr., Roger Rulewich, and hundreds of others. The most difficult part may be in making the right choices for you and your friends.

This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2024 issue. Subscribe today to get the magazine in your mailbox.

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Categories: Travel
Countries: United States
Cities: Alabama



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