You’ve probably heard the phrase Play Nine, but we’d like to introduce the concept of Stay Nine. Getaways are as much about the Stays — the lodging and dining — as they are about the Plays — amenities and activities. But golf stay-and-play vacations are even a little more specific, typically focused on a single hotel or resort base with golf courses in the immediate vicinity.
Thanks to the relationship between Marriott Hotels and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Alabama has a half-dozen marquee bases purposefully spread around the state. But look a little closer and you’ll find another trio of stay-and-play options also worthy of your consideration (plus a mountaintop bonus for those seeking something even more scenic).
Montgomery Marriott Prattville at Capitol Hill: Nothing about this Marriott (13 miles north of Alabama’s state capital) is over the top, but everything about it is ideal in terms of real estate (location, location, location) and golf estate, adjacent 54 RTJ Golf Trail championship holes (on 1,500 acres) at Capitol Hill. This resort has its act so together that the Symetra Tour hosts the top 144 rising stars in women’s golf here for the Guardian Championship each year, and Golf Magazine once labeled The Judge golf course as one of it’s “Top 10 Candidates to Host the U.S. Open.”
I don’t know about it’s Open worthiness, but The Judge’s first tee box absolutely presents one of Alabama’s two most dramatic tee shots (competing with No. 5 at FarmLinks), and the course meanders along the Alabama River with no less than 14 holes possessing significant aquatic qualities. In other words, it doesn’t need the USGA’s help to be challenging. The Legislator is similarly tough, but with slightly less dramatic topography. You’ll enjoy the ride down the Sky Bridge though, deep down into the swamps. And the Senator Course nails everything about links-style golf except the “being near the sea” part, with more than 150 pot bunkers and massive mounding throughout. There’s a wishing well out there too, but it doesn’t work if you’re hoping for aces.
Southeast: Auburn and Opelika
Auburn Marriott Opelika Resort and Spa at Grand National: Home to the 2019 NCAA Final Four Auburn Tigers men’s basketball team, locals can also be proud to host a Marriott hotel and three RTJ Golf Trail courses. The resort has played host to a PGA Tour event, and is a favorite among Golf Trip Experts for comfortable, laid-back atmosphere, including the outdoor pool with Splash Bar that invites you to soak and sip while catching a glimpse whatever sporting event happens to be on the flatscreen TVs. Grand National also has a family and children’s pool area all its own, fitness center and the rejuvenating Spa at Grand National.
When it comes to food, take on a rack of ribs at Southern Oak (the three-meal restaurant has a hearty selection and the pub is a great gathering spot for drinks) or head downtown for more great barbecue at Full Moon (and save room for an award-winning Half Moon cookie). And if you’re looking for something seasonal, the farm-to-table Acre eatery serves up one of the most fun, interesting and eclectic menus you’ll find, all with the Southern flair you’d expect in these parts.
The longest of the Grand National golf courses is the somewhat surprisingly named Links course where your air game is actually far more important than your ground game. The Lake course has a more appropriate name — it’s fun and beautiful with several superb signature holes. But THE signature hole is the 230-yard 3-par that plays entirely over water to an island green that is rather hard to hit and hold with a 3-wood. While taking pictures of that hole, I watched four groups come through — 16 golfers — and only one of them hit the green. His ball didn’t stay on the green, but he hit it. So if you’re looking for that fine line between drama and disaster, the 15th on the Lake at Grand National is capable of providing plenty of each.
The third course at Grand National is an 18-hole short course. Personally, I believe if you don’t ace at least one hole on this course, you’re not very good. On the other hand, even Golf Trip Experts such as Darin Bunch, who couldn’t manage his own hole-in-one (like I did), consider the short course at Grand National to be one of the best 18-hole par-3 courses in the country.
Southwest: Mobile and Gulf Shores
Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa: 550 acres of shoreline property in Point Clear on the scenic Mobile Bay makes for a memorable wedding, honeymoon or family vacation. With the Grand Beach, indoor and outdoor pools and whirlpools, a waterslide, bike rentals and trails, fishing, the spa and a fitness center, there’s something for everyone at the Grand Hotel. Plus, the 36-hole RTJ Golf Trail site — Lakewood Golf Club — is just across the street, and Rock Creek Golf Club is only 10 minutes away.
The hotel’s Bayside suites are massive, with balconies and expansive water views, and there are an assortment of swings, hammocks and lounge chairs lining the boardwalk, set up to maximize the impact of stunning sunsets on “Alabama’s ocean.”
Lakewood Golf Club is semi-private, with Dogwood and Azalea courses both designed by Perry Maxwell, alternating days for public play to keep one course each day for their members. The Azalea course is 500 yards longer, but the front nine on the Dogwood course is arguably the toughest (and most scenic). Earl Stone’s Rock Creek is also worth the quick drive, a brilliant and challenging design where locals contend Prince Madoc played America’s first golf round in 1170.
Kiva Dunes Resort: Offering a lodge and vacation rentals (condos and houses) four swimming pools, tennis courts and a beach club on the white, Gulf Highland shores “sand-wiched” between Bon Secour Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, Kiva Dunes continues to step up its golf-and-getaway game. The Kiva Beach Club’s setting atop a 30-foot dune creates a uniquely sloped zero-entry “infinity pool” overlooking the beach below the restaurant and massage rooms in the clubhouse. The surreal expanse of protected shoreline in each direction establishes this club in a class of its own, a luxurious amenity that perfectly complements the award-winning 18-hole Jerry Pate and Jim Edgemon golf course near the Kiva Lodge and Kiva Grill.
The condos offer golf views along the course lakes with their pet gators (just don’t pet the gators) and balconies that make you want to grab your clubs and go play. And the golf course doesn’t disappoint with plenty of elevation changes for as flat as it is. On a visit with Jerry Pate, he agreed: “The course is deceiving in that the elevation changes are underground.” It makes perfect sense when you play it. It’s worth noting that at Kiva Dunes you are exactly 20 miles from Lambert’s Café — home of the famous “throwed rolls” (that they actually throw at your head) and an unreal appetizer buffet.
And another key aspect of a Gulf Shores vacation is the abundance of accommodations. The Beach Club Resort & Spa also offers a variety of overnight rentals, quick access to the sand and surf, plus Coast Restaurant and Sushi Bar, which some have said is not only the best sushi they’ve had in Alabama but the best sushi they’ve ever had.
The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Resort and Spa: An historic Marriott marvel, the Battle House stands tall in the heart of Azalea City — the official birthplace of Mardi Gras — with a rooftop pool and verandah ideal for taking in memorable municipal and Mobile River views. Pet friendly with a full-service spa and fitness center, Whispering Arches for kids (and childlike adults like myself) and table tennis for those of a competitive nature, the hotel also offers multiple dining options at The Trellis Room, the Royal Street Tavern and Joe Cain Café and rooms with some pretty great views — all just a few blocks from a little place we love called The Blind Mule. And if you’re looking for high-end dining (and we mean HIGH as in the 34th floor of the Trustmark Building), head across the street to Dauphin’s for everything from Spiny Lobster to Mobile Bay Stew (topped with a poached egg).
The Battle House isn’t directly connected to a golf course, but we stay here to play the 54 holes at the RTJ Golf Trail’s Magnolia Grove, just 14 miles away, and hit Meat Boss on our way back to the hotel. The Crossings course at Magnolia Grove has unique oyster-shell waste areas and has hosted numerous LPGA events. The Falls course, aptly named for its waterfalls, is the only par-71 on The Trail. And the 18-hole short course was once named by Golf Digest as the “Best Par-3 Course in America.” Need more golf? Azalea City Golf Course, near Magnolia Grove, is a Robert Bruce Harris design, a great muni that once hosted the PGA Tour.
Stewart Lodges at Steelwood: Located about halfway between Mobile and Pensacola, this is a perfect guys-getaway spot filled with golf, fishing and lotsa laughs. It’s part of the private Steelwood community, but you can have access to the amenities and Jerry Pate-designed golf course by booking at the Stewart Lodges. In addition to the community fishing lake, there’s also quail and pheasant hunting. And each of the plantation-style lodges features gathering space; lake-overseeing, rocking-chair-equipped screened porches; informal and formal dining areas; commercial-grade kitchen; and meeting space with the necessary gadgets for the technological age. The flexibility makes the Stewart Lodges an ideal stay-play. The golf is right outside your door, and the lodge staff is available to prepare memorable meals.
Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa: This place has been a signature stay for a century — a setting made famous by such recording artists as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Bob Dylan, as well as for its setting on the Tennessee River, adjacent the Wilson Dam. This Marriott experience is highlighted by the dramatically diverse dining — from the elegant flair of the 360 Grille (Alabama’s only rotating restaurant) overlooking Florence to the sweet Southern vibe, flavors and live music of Swampers Bar and Grille, where youngsters are treated to some of the coolest kids meals and adults can binge on popular dishes like shrimp and grits and beer chili.
The resort has an indoor pool and outdoor water park, a whirlpool, sauna and fitness center. And the RTJ Golf Trail has a stop in Muscle Shoals, with 36 holes of golf on the Schoolmaster and Fighting Joe courses, only a 15-minute drive away. If you’ve ever felt like 7,000 yards just wasn’t enough golf course for you, Fighting Joe (named after Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler) tips out at 8,092 yards. Yep, you read that right. It has three 5-pars of more than 600 yards, and the other 5-par (arguably the course’s signature hole) is a bit shorter at only 592 yards. The Schoolmaster is named after President Woodrow Wilson and rolls along the Tennessee River not far from Wilson Dam (fittingly). And while it’s not as long as Fighting Joe, Schoolmaster might actually be the tougher of the two courses … if you can believe that.
North-Central: Birmingham and the Talledega National Forest
Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa: As a teacher or parent, you’re not supposed to play favorites, but most probably do (well, at least the teachers). As a golfer and traveler, you can’t help but have favorites. And when a favorite Stay pairs up with a favorite Play, it’s logical that many an Alabama golf traveler would find their favorite at the most recommended resort in a state. Welcome to the Renaissance Ross Bridge.
Perhaps it’s the Irish “castle on a hill” vibe of the non-Irish hotel perched over the city of Hoover. Maybe it’s the waterpark in the courtyard or the live music pumping out the windows from the piano bar at JT’s Lounge. Maybe it’s the fact that the golf clubhouse is in the hotel, the course is right out the door and that the food at Brock’s and The Clubhouse Restaurant are spectacular all day and all night long. Favoritism likely stems from all of those things, but much of the Renaissance love is generated by the spectacular Ross Bridge golf course.
Rumor has it there’s a mammoth buried under the first fairway. Fact or fiction, there’s no fiction to the fact that this rollercoaster around hills, over lakes and alongside waterfalls is as picturesque, fun and underrated public golf as you’ll find in the South. How do you improve on those accolades? You tell people there are 54 more RTJ Golf Trail holes built on rugged, Appalachian mining land just down the street at Oxmoor Valley.
FarmLinks at Pursell Farms: If there’s another resort like FarmLinks, it doesn’t exist in Alabama. Four generations of the Pursell family have provided golfers with a most unique and comfortable Southern Hospitality experience — a surreal stay-play — at the world’s only research and demonstration golf course. With the Orvis Shooting Grounds, the Spring House Spa, the chef-prepared food at Arrington, the lively atmosphere of Old Tom’s Pub, the diverse and historic lodging options around the chip-and-putt and championship tracks and the panoramic views out on the golf course, you won’t ever want to leave.
Golf groups book the 14,000-square-foot, eight-bedroom, 16-person Parker Lodge perched over the pond on No. 17. Others (such as our Golf Trip Experts gang) like to hang out on Masters Row in one of the four cabins off Hole 11 named Hogan, Sarazen, Nelson and Snead. But there are so many more options, including the brand-new Inn along the 18th hole.
That there’s a golf course is a bonus. That the golf course is spectacular on so many points, that’s yet another bonus. The signature par-3 No. 5 is Alabama’s most dramatic tee shot — perhaps among the most dramatic tee shots in America — and if you catch that hole near sunrise or a perfect sunset, it’s likely you’ll forget why you’re even there as you soak it all in. Is this heaven? No, it’s Alabama.
Speaking of views … while FarmLinks and Ross Bridge might have the best golf views in Alabama, the best views in the entire state might be found at Cheaha State Park overlooking the massive Talladega National Forest, near Talladega Superspeedway, 70 miles east of Birmingham. Cheaha State Park offers camping sites, Lodge, Cabin and Chalet reservations — accommodations literally marked as historic treasures, and some of them (like the ones we stayed in) even perched atop cliffs on Cheaha Mountain, Alabama’s highest peak at 2,400 feet. Golf groups can rent out the 12-bedroom Bald Rock Lodge, and everyone can eat lunch and dinner at the Vista Cliffside Restaurant and take in stunning sunsets on the pier-like platforms at the summit. Golfers will find a scenic and mountainous Troon Golf experience in the former apple orchard at the base of the mountain at Cider Ridge, with another RTJ Golf Trail site at Silver Lakes a bit farther north offering a 36-hole facility with three nines — appropriately titled Heartbreaker, Backbreaker and Windbreaker — and, in my opinion, the prettiest short course in Alabama.
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Now you can see why we’re as fond of the Stay Nine notion as we are of the Play Nine philosophy. Alabama blends the two concepts together so perfectly that none of these stays-and-plays disappoints. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has been labeled “the greatest golf value on Earth” many times, and that could be true, but all of Alabama is a fantastic value in all aspects. If you haven’t been yet, you are most definitely missing out.
For more information about Alabama golf and travel, visit GolfAlabama.org.