When it comes to golfing getaways, Alabama may not be the first place that comes to mind. But spend a few days on the Robert Trent Jones Alabama Golf Trail and you’ll discover one of the best-kept secrets and values in regional golf.
Twenty-five years ago, the Alabama Retirement System hatched an audacious plan to diversify its holdings by building a trail of golf courses. Designed by one of the sport’s greatest architects, Robert Trent Jones, the trail today numbers 11 sites, many centered around luxurious resorts, with 26 courses and 468 holes of what The New York Times calls “some of the best public golf on earth.”
“Every single hole is an ‘Oh, my goodness experience,’” agrees Jon Snell, an engineer from Midland, Texas, who has been playing the trail since 1999. “Robert Trent Jones was a mastermind and the courses show his vision. The three-tiered greens, the rolling fairways, the bunkering. It can be absolutely diabolical golf and, at the same time, incredibly beautiful.”
Snell says he has played around 1,700 holes on the Trail. He once played 67 holes in a single day, teeing off with his son at dawn and “pushing our cart” back to the clubhouse at dusk.
“I often go in the summer,” says Snell, 54, who dreams of retiring to one of the trail’s communities. “The courses are rarely crowded and you can play all day for a little over $100. That’s a bargain.”
In December, I decided to see for myself, visiting the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa overlooking Mobile Bay in Point Clear. It was an eight-hour drive from Sarasota, but an easy one, a straight shot up I-75 and then west on I-10.
My wife and I rolled into the resort just before 4 p.m., in time to experience a comforting Southern tradition: a parade and cannon firing, followed by tea and warm cookies. An hour later came the 5 p.m. bell-ringing, signaling cocktail hour, enjoyed around fire pits outside the bar, with magnificent views of sunset on the bay.
The hotel itself, named one of the top historic accommodations in the nation, served as a hospital during the Civil War. Featuring 450 rooms and five buildings over 550 acres, the Grand Hotel is full of large and small charms, including seven restaurants, one a four-star steakhouse.
After glasses of bourbon and a game of horseshoes, my wife and I retreated to our suite, which featured two porches overlooking a small marina. We sat in rocking chairs, cuddled in blankets, mesmerized by the swaying boats below.
The next morning, I headed across the street to the Lakewood Golf Club for a lesson and tour from director of golf Niall Fraser. “Golf has to be fun,” he told me. “That as much as anything is what we try to do here.” The approach was evident at the practice facility, which included a large tiki-like bar equipped with a big-screen TV, a bar and a massive driving range.
We climbed into a cart for a tour of the course and growing community that surrounds it. Outside the fitness clubhouse were tennis courts, a water park and a lake encircled by a running-walking track.
But the main attractions are the two challenging courses, the 7,063-yard, par 72 Dogwood course and the 7,504-yard, par 72 Azalea course. Fraser says the courses are renowned for their “oak trees, fox squirrels [an unusually big species that look like monkeys] and sunsets.” Another attraction: They are rarely crowded. Fraser said fewer than 3,000 rounds are played annually, about a third of what is considered capacity.
Given my limited skills, Fraser urged me to play from the closer tees, which proved sound advice. In two days, I lost only a few golf balls and managed a handful of pars. Days later, what stuck in my mind was the tranquility of the courses, the seamless weaving of sport and nature. Even when I skulled a chip shot, I found myself too relaxed to get mad, especially when I caught sight of a fox squirrel the size of a small dog appearing to laugh at me.
“How did you play, sir?” the attendant asked as I drove the cart back to the clubhouse.
He seemed sincerely interested, and I was struck again by the old-fashioned civility and unrushed tempo that permeates the resort.
“That’s how it is at every course and resort on the Trail,” Snell says. “In all the years I’ve been coming, I’ve never had a rude experience.”
Few golfers can match Snell’s devotion to the Trail. But, as I discovered, one trip is enough to make you a fan.