You’ve heard the story a thousand times. Or maybe you haven’t. But surely you’ve heard of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, right? The single biggest enterprise in the history of golf — the original golf trail, an 11-facility course network spread across all of Alabama.
Admittedly, the Trail Story hits a bit closer to home for me than for most writers — literally — so I’ve been following along closely for more than a decade. I live 75 miles from Mankato State University, the academic institution Up North, in the land of Lutefisk and the Hot Dish, that nurtured the entrepreneurial mind of Dr. David Bronner — the brain behind the biggest and brawniest of golf projects in our solar system.
We used to have billboards lining our Minnesota highways promoting the Trail all the way down in Alabama. It’s that big of a deal. Think of it this way: Pinehurst Resort has 10 golf courses. Robert Trent Jones’ “Resort” has 27.
Twenty. Seven. It’s a Big. Deal.
You might be thinking The Trail isn’t logistically a “resort.” But technically it is — the biggest golf resort on Earth. Thanks to Marriott Resorts and their eight partnering hotels, all but three of the eleven locations have lodging and dining combinations. Swimming pools, water parks, restaurants, free shuttles, stellar service — the entire structure is loaded with amenities and incredibly in sync from one RTJ Trail site to the next (all connected by major highways). Same price structure, same architectural team, same enormous steal of a deal. It’s a massive resort, to be sure, and it’s everything Dr. Bronner ever dreamed it could be — and probably even more.
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But just because the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail became an incomparable success doesn’t mean that was always a foregone conclusion.
Imagine paper-fanning yourself in a hot room sometime in the late 1980s (as a board member of the Retirement Systems of Alabama) listening to a young bloke from Mine-somewhere-or-other ask you to invest millions of dollars in a statewide golf project — back in the days before Tiger Woods burst onto the scene and sent golf construction into the stratosphere along with the rest of the game.
As that “board member” you’re admittedly tired of travelers essentially driving around Alabama to get to the beaches of Florida and the Gulf Coast of Texas. “We have that same gorgeous beach!” you scream out the window at out-of-state license plates. And some of the most incredible golf turf on Earth.
So it’s not that the notion of a “golf trail” was absurd. It’s that Dr. Bronner wasn’t suggesting Alabama simply dip a toe into the golf-construction waters. No sir. He wanted Alabama and the entire retirement system to simultaneously go jump in a lake — and hope everyone could not just float but excel at swimming.
Dr. Bronner wanted to open 378 golf holes simultaneously … on one day. That paper fan in your hand has probably been replaced with a brown paper bag at this point — you’re hyperventilating. Mission. Impossible. I don’t know that Tom Cruise or anyone else has ever been asked to risk more for a more uncertain reward.
And then, just when you think you’ve heard it all, you learn that Dr. Bronner and Robert Vaughan (of Sunbelt Golf Corporation) are banking the entire development and success on a semi-retired golf architect in his 80s. Seriously?
Robert Trent Jones Sr. had been a household name in the design business for more than 50 years at this point, with 500-plus courses to his name. He was the furthest thing from an unknown. But this was an era where everyone was pursuing Nicklaus, Dye, Fazio and Jones’ own two sons (Rees and Junior) for their premium projects.
“Why on Earth would we do this?” someone in the room asks. “Put it this way,” Dr. Bronner replies. “The stronger the Retirement Systems of Alabama can make Alabama, the stronger the Retirement Systems will be.”
OK, but … “Do we have to open all 378 golf holes at the same time?”
“You Betcha!” Dr. Bronner (might have) replied. “I don’t do windows and I don’t do just 18’s.” (He did say those last words.) So it was all or nothing apparently as the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail mapped out a mix of brawny championship courses and clever par-3 short courses.
There’s no record of a vote (at least that I’ve found) nor any account of how close that vote might have been, but somehow it passed and Bronner, Vaughan and Robert Trent Jones Sr. set to work on the 378 golf holes — more than 100 miles of golf — a surreal undertaking that further expanded in 2005 with two more sites and then added Lakewood Golf Club later, bringing the total of golf holes on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail to its current number of 468.
So how does this concept work? In his book “The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its Historic and Economic Impact,” author Mark Fagan writes: “Retirees become permanent tourists as popular tourist areas evolve into retirement areas. The more time tourists spend in an area, the greater the likelihood they will retire there. Retirees become turbo tourists because they have the time and money to enjoy the local tourist attractions. Jobs follow people with money.” It’s a full circle of success.
Not long after Kevin Costner wrapped the filming of “Field of Dreams” up in my neck of the Midwest, Dr. Bronner, Vaughan and Robert Trent Jones wrapped up their own field of dreams down in Alabama. Same concept. Same success story.
“If you build it, they will come.”
How many is “they?”
How about 12 million golfers so far.
And that there is a pretty good success story, Dontcha Know?