Highland Oaks The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is a series of 26 championship golf courses at 11 sites across Alabama that are based on the designs of legendary American golf-course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. The system is part of a massive financial investment and economic development project sponsored by the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) and includes resorts, spas, and dining facilities. The Trail has been praised widely by critics and players alike for the affordability and the quality of play. It has been cited in the media as one of the world’s top-ten trips and was featured prominently in the book Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die by Chris Santella.
David G. Bronner The plan for the golf trail was originally conceived by David G. Bronner, a Minnesota native who in 1973 took over as chief executive officer of the RSA, the pension funds organization for public employees. Bronner, who earned both a law and doctoral degree from the University of Alabama, initially concentrated on traditional investments. But by the mid-1980s, facing the challenge of diversifying a now-$8 billion pension fund and bringing more business and industry to an underdeveloped state, Bronner embarked on a highly unusual strategy. Inspired by Field of Dreams, a 1989 Hollywood film in which a farmer builds a baseball field to attract tourism, Bronner decided to fund construction of a series of championship-caliber public golf courses in the state. He envisioned the courses as a fulcrum for boosting tourism, attracting retirees, and spurring economic growth within the state. Bronner first brought in Robert “Bobby” Vaughan, the former director of golf at Tanglewood Golf Club in Clemmons, North Carolina, to put together a design team for the project. Vaughan formed the SunBelt Golf Corporation and, with Bronner’s assistance, began forming alliances with municipalities, corporations, and private developers throughout the state to secure donations of prime land for the courses along the state’s interstate highway system. When all the property was secured, SunBelt began hiring experts from throughout the U.S. golf industry to develop, construct, and operate what would be the largest single golf-course construction project ever undertaken at one time anywhere in the world.
The Shoals Early on, Bronner and Vaughn seized on the idea of establishing a “trail” of golf courses that would meander across the state, from the foothills of the Appalachians in north Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. In this conception, winter residents of the Gulf Coast heading south could play golf as soon as they crossed over the Tennessee line and continue all the way down to Mobile Bay. The next challenge was to decide upon a name for the trail that golfers from around the world would instantly recognize and associate with championship golf. They settled on Robert Trent Jones, arguably the premier golf-course architect in the world. In a career that spanned nearly 70 years, Jones had designed or redesigned nearly 500 top-flight golf courses in 45 states and 35 countries. Jones’s belief that every golf hole should be “a hard par but an easy bogey” had exerted a profound impact on American golf in the second half of the twentieth century.
Early in the planning process, Jones visited the state and inspected several of the sites, and although he was in semi-retirement, Jones agreed to tackle the project. He left most of the detailed design work to his principal associate, Roger Rulewich, however. Still, the Trail courses reflected all the essential elements of Robert Trent Jones’s personal design philosophy, in which “risk-reward” shots became a staple of modern golf. The golf courses on the Trail would live up to Jones’s highest standards, offering genuine championship layouts designed to stand the test of time and pose major tests for generations of golfers. Aspiring to a level of difficulty that even surpassed the expectations of Jones himself, SunBelt president Bobby Vaughn encouraged Rulewich to make the trail courses as difficult as possible, while at the same time offering value to players at various skill levels. A wide variety of teeing locations, pegged to ability level rather than age or gender, enabled golfers to play the courses at varying distances. This flexibility was absolutely needed to make the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail a satisfying golfing experience for a mass market, an experience that would challenge the best golfers in the world yet at the same time allow an enjoyable outing for casual and beginning golfers. Adding to the flexibility was the inclusion of so-called short courses, highly challenging circuits located at seven of the trail facilities. At least three of these courses have merited consideration as the most challenging par-3 courses in the world.
Oxmoor Valley The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail opened in 1992 with four courses: Grand National (Opelika, 54 holes), Hampton Cove (Huntsville, 54 holes), Magnolia Grove (Mobile, 54 holes), and Oxmoor Valley (Birmingham, 54 holes). The following year, three additional courses opened: Highland Oaks (Dothan, 54 holes), Cambrian Ridge (Greenville, 54 holes), and Silver Lakes (Anniston/Gadsden, 36 holes). The Bronner-Vaughn strategy worked: The golf trail earned nearly universal acclaim, winning accolades and awards from numerous golf and tourism magazines and quickly transforming Alabama into one of the world’s top golf destinations. With green fees initially starting at less than $50 for a round of golf, the Wall Street Journal cited the trail as one of the best bargains in the nation.
The system expanded to include four additional sites: Capitol Hill (Prattville/Montgomery, 54 holes), Ross Bridge (Hoover, 18 holes), the Lakewood Club across from the Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa (Fairhope, 18 holes), and The Shoals (Florence, 36 holes). Three of the sites are also host to on-site Marriott hotels offering deluxe resort amenities and services. The trail has hosted a number of major golf championships, heightening awareness and bringing it even wider publicity. In 2000, the Grand National in Opelika hosted the NCAA Men’s Division I National Championship, followed by the Women’s Division I National Championship in 2004. From 2002 through 2005, the Ladies Professional Golf Association held its Tournament of Champions at Magnolia Grove in Mobile. From 2004 to 2006, the culminating event of the Nationwide Tour took place at Capitol Hill in Prattville. The Grand National in Opelika hosted the LPGA Zimmer Biomet Championship in 2019, and the Capitol Hill course in Prattville hosts the LPGA’s Guardian Championship.
Ross Bridge Resort & Spa Although the golf courses themselves are only marginally profitable when compared with other aspects of the $25 billion-plus Alabama retirement system, the overall trail initiative and accompanying hotel development served as the centerpiece of a successful effort to bolster tourism and attract industry to Alabama, bringing about a billion dollars to the state between 1995 and 2005. Indeed, the RSA became the largest hotel developer in the state. The trail has spawned several state-financed projects in other southern states, including Tennessee’s “The Bear Trace” (a series of Jack Nicklaus designs) and Louisiana’s “The Audubon Golf Trail.”
- Golf Digest’s Places to Play in the Southeast. New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 1998.
- Fagan, Mark. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its History and Economic Impact. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2016.
- Hansen, James R. A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf. New York: Gotham Books, 2014.
- Santella, Chris. Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2005.
- Segrest, Michelle. Alabama, Northwest Florida Golf: The Ultimate Guide to the Region’s Public Courses. Birmingham: Seacoast Publishing, 1994.