It is possible to cover all 11 sites of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in one trip. My son, Dylan, and I did when he was 11 years old, playing 22 of 27 courses (and eating at 22 Sonic restaurants) in 12 incredible June days. Take the golf portion as a challenge if you’d like. Or take a more reasonable approach to golfing The Trail and split the trip up a bit. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume you’re not insane. We’ll break The Trail Trip up into three (more) logical sections for you (14 nights total), assume you’ll get at least 12 hours of daylight, and also assume that the airlines will consider your golf schedule their first priority.
North (4 nights)
“Move It, Move It”
“Move” is a weird word. Have you noticed that? Why doesn’t it have two o’s like “moose?” Anyway, in this segment you’ll get used to moving, in part because the golf locations dictate that you must. You’ll also have to improvise a bit on “stays.” The Trail’s partnership with Marriott Hotels is extensive, but not extensive enough to cover site outliers like Huntsville and Silver Lakes. No worries though. You didn’t come down here to sleep. You came here to golf. And golf you shall.
Day 1: Because of the fact it serves nearly every major airline on Earth, it makes the most sense to fly into Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM). Because we won’t let you visit Birmingham without playing Ross Bridge, we’ll start there — a short, 17-mile drive south of the airport, in Hoover.
The Clubhouse Restaurant will feed you wings or a sandwich for lunch (“to go” if you’re in a time crunch) and the first tee is right out the door. The starter is accustomed to people taking a mulligan on No. 1, so don’t stress while he tells you about the elephant buried under the first fairway that kicks all golf balls left into the lake. I was told, when my ball stayed dry, that the elephant must have been sleeping. (Why couldn’t he have stayed asleep for my next shot?)
The challenging Ross Bridge is the fifth longest golf course in the world at 8,191 yards, with 10 holes that play along lakes and signature waterfalls. In full bloom the course feels very much like Augusta National (legitimately), and the wild topography is sure to keep you entertained.
You’ll stay at the 259-room Renaissance Ross Bridge tonight — the “Castle on a Hill” with a great little splash-pad park for children, The Spa with dozens of soothing-sounding treatment options, and dining venues at Brock’s (Mediterranean) and the indoor-outdoor JT’s Lounge with nightly live music.
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Day 2: Get up early and get going. You’ve got a full day of long drives ahead of you, on and off the golf course. Drive 85 miles to Silver Lakes Golf Course in Gadsden. Silver Lakes has 36 golf holes — three nine-hole routings called Heartbreaker, Mindbreaker and Backbreaker — and then a polar opposite golf experience (by length and description) in the lovely lakeside Short Course. I’d call Silver Lakes “the little course that could” if it weren’t so big. The most resilient of The Trail’s courses, Silver Lakes was bludgeoned by an EF-4 tornado in 2011, nearly destroyed and then completely rebuilt, better than ever by most accounts. The conditioning, as it is throughout the Trail, is immaculate and the three regulation nines are all big, brawny and beautiful. Save the Short Course for last. It’s so pretty, with all the water and waterfalls, and a pretty great way to wrap the day …
… If you didn’t still have to drive another 85 miles, of course. (Me, laughing hysterically.) That’s the bad news: You’ve got to get to Huntsville tonight. The good news is, Huntsville might have “the most fantastic BBQ per capita of any city in America” and plenty of lodging options among the hotel chains (including a Courtyard by Marriott) to fit whatever budget. And as a reward for driving up there, you get to spend two nights in the same hotel! You can unpack! (A little.)
Day 3: You can sleep in a bit today, if you’d like. In Huntsville you’re only 10 miles from the 54 golf holes at Hampton Cove. The northern gateway to The Trail, Hampton Cove has a Highlands Course that was restored in 2008 to its original Scottish-Links design (with a cool rustic mule barn on No. 5), a River Course in the flood plain of the Flint River that is the flattest course on The Trail (with water in play on 16 holes but not a single bunker) and an 18-hole Short Course with water in play on 11 holes. We recommend playing the two full-length courses today if you can. Time will be a little more of the essence tomorrow.
I mentioned the BBQ in Huntsville. The options, mostly excellent, are ludicrously endless. In one 12-hour period I tried Boarhog’s Barbeque, The Chuckwagon, Melvin’s Place and Pig N Out. They were all amazing. (You don’t go to Alabama to diet.) While boasting of my feat (feast) to a local golfer, he just shook his head. “Y’all didn’t try any of my favorites.” (Say what???) Turns out there are no less than 45 BBQ joints in Huntsville. Forty. Five. (I needed 12 more days here.)
Day 4: If you are physically able to roll out of bed after whatever BBQ feast you enjoyed last night, you should. Roll back over to Hampton Cove for whichever course you didn’t cover yesterday and swing away the calories, if for no other reason than to make room for one more BBQ stop at lunch before driving to the northeast corner of Alabama — to The Shoals Golf Club.
It’s a 65-mile drive to The Shoals from Huntsville. Not bad, right? And don’t worry about whatever calories you packed on at lunch. If you’re bold, you’re about to play one of the longest golf courses in America — the first built more than 8,000 yards. The Shoals Golf Club sits on the banks of the Tennessee River with two courses as long as they are scenic. Fighting Joe, named in honor of General Joseph Wheeler, opened in 2004. The links-style course is a physical and visual stunner, especially along the closing stretch. Its sibling, The Schoolmaster, named for President Woodrow Wilson, opened a year later, and is more woodsy and rolling. Doesn’t really matter which one you play today. You’ll play the other tomorrow morning.
Tonight you’re going to stay at the Marriott Shoals. There are many great hotels associated with the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. This is one of my favorites. Also perched on the banks of the Tennessee River, adjacent the Wilson Dam, the Marriott Shoals has Alabama’s only 360-degree dining experience, with astonishing views, at the 360 Grille, and the liveliest of atmospheres with superb Southern flavors adjacent a kid-friendly splash pad at Swampers Bar and Grille. I spent more time at Swampers than I did in my room, so great was that ambience, but the rooms here were so plush and comfortable we didn’t want to leave them either.
Day 5: It was golf that pushed us back out the door, just as it will to you. You’ll likely have to get up early today to play the other course at The Shoals, and you’ll resent it, but not because you don’t want to golf anymore. You’ll resent it for being your last day. You’ll find on a Trail visit that it takes very little to motivate you to go explore more of their great courses. Long as some are, tough as some are, they are all stunning in their own right. After your final round at The Shoals, you’ll reluctantly climb in your car and sail back to Birmingham (115 miles).
If for whatever reason you miss your flight … oh well … spend another night at the Renaissance Ross Bridge and give it another go round. Then fly home. Blessing in disguise. (OK, so it’s not really disguised. It’s an outright blessing.)
Central (4 nights)
“Like A Ross”
We’re not going to bank on you missing a flight for this second segment, in order for you to play Ross Bridge twice. Or if you’re road warriors like us and were intending on doing two sections in one trip anyway, then it works out perfectly. You can hammer the central part of the Yellowhammer State with this option — take on the heart of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail like a boss, and have more Ross fun than NBC gave us in 10 seasons of F-R-I-E-N-D-S.
Day 1: However you end up in Birmingham, whether by plane, train or automobile, make your way over to the Renaissance Ross Bridge and check in (again). Change for golf, take the elevator down to the pro shop and step out with enthusiasm onto the first tee of Ross Bridge. Avoid the elephant under the first fairway, or take a mulligan, and make your way around a topsy-turvy course that gets more and more fun every time you play it. As the sun sets over the waterfall that drops 80 feet between the No. 9 and No. 18 greens, listen for the bagpiper and make your way to the Clubhouse Grille for a great post-round dinner. (They used to have a Coca Cola BBQ Burger here that was to die for!) #BringItBack
Retreat to the luxurious confines of your room or tower suite, (you’ll spend two nights here) and get some sleep. You’ve got a long day of great golf tomorrow.
Day 2: One of the greatest perks of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is just how much golf most of their sites have. Another perk is the incredible value you can get with some of their “Unlimited Play” deals. If you’re coming down, like we did, to play 22 courses in 12 days, you won’t need to find more golf. But if you’re coming down for five days, maybe you want to cram more golf in. Maybe 36 holes isn’t enough. In that case, you can take advantage of the 54-hole golf steal at Oxmoor Valley Golf Club. Oxmoor Valley is just two miles from the Renaissance Ross Bridge. Ordinarily the plan would be to play the two full-length courses at Oxmoor today and the 18-hole Short Course tomorrow. The level of ambitiousness is up to you. The Ridge Course is a rollercoaster with more than 150 feet of elevation changes and some amazing green complexes carved into remarkable limestone structures. The Valley Course is much tighter with more lakes and low-lying holes, less dramatic elevation changes but still plenty of scenery. And then there’s the 18-hole Short Course.
The practice facilities at Oxmoor Valley (and throughout The Trail) are high-quality enrichment spaces, either as a warm-up or to fix something that’s broken in your swing. The fantastic, fun short courses at seven of the sites are an exceptional extension to their practice facilities and the Short Course at Oxmoor Valley gives the irons and wedges in your bag plenty of quality work. You can play all 54 holes at Oxmoor in one summer day here, no problem, or 36 any other time of the year, and save 18 for the next morning. Either way, you’ll stay at the Renaissance “Castle on the Hill” again tonight. Wine, dine and unwind to your heart’s content.
Day 3: If you saved an 18 from Oxmoor Valley, you can play it here. Otherwise you can get an early start (or sleep in) and make your way 85 miles south to the Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel and Conference Center at Capitol Hill, 13 miles north of the Alabama state capital, home to the RTJ Golf Trail stop at Capitol Hill. (It’s worth noting that there are two Trail hotels around Montgomery. If you’ve fancied your Renaissance stays the past two nights, you can continue the trend in downtown Montgomery at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa. Trail concierges offer either hotel in their packages.) Whichever hotel you elect to stay at, you can (again) stay two nights, so you might as well get comfortable. Dump your suitcase out, sort your visors and iron all your clothes. Then go play.
While many claim Ross Bridge to be the marquee course on The Trail, every Trail site has its marquee moments, and arguably no moment on The Trail packs more “wow” into it than the opening tee shot on The Judge at Capitol Hill. There are three courses at this Trail site as well, but what makes it unique is that they are all full-length courses. The Judge gets all the laud and attention, in particular for the dramatic first hole with panoramic views, but the other 18-hole courses — The Legislator and The Senator — pack in the drama as well. If you didn’t play this morning I’d suggest taking on The Judge this afternoon. If you did play this morning, roll with The Senator instead.
Calling The Senator “easy” is grossly inaccurate. Yes, it is more wide open than the other two courses at this site, but it has more than 160 pot bunkers and massive mounds throughout that can work in your favor or against you, depending on how accurate you are. Though nowhere near the sea, it is described as “Scottish links” style and does play firm and fast with some rather large greens. The women’s Symetra Tour likes it so much they’ve hosted their annual Guardian Championship there.
There are no Tour events hosted on The Judge. It would be too challenging for today’s PGA Tour players (think Bethpage Black with water everywhere) with some holes too short, some too narrow and some with too much water. But that makes it a ton of fun for the rest of us. The views provided on The Judge are stunning throughout, with 14 holes running along the Alabama River backwaters and even an island green.
Day 4: Where Capitol Hill separates itself from the rest of the Trail sites is in the massive diversity in designs from course to course. Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Roger Rulewich had more than 1,500 acres to play with here, and he made the courses as different from each other as he could. The Senator is fast and fun. The Judge is fair while also demanding and penal (“jury” and “executioner”). The Legislator…well, it’s a perfect blend of the other two courses, with some open golf holes mixed with some tight holes. Weaving in and out of pine trees and down into a native cypress swamp, the golfer gets a little bit of everything in his or her game on The Legislator.
Today is an ideal 36-hole day, and whether you pair The Legislator with The Senator or with The Judge, you will have two visually rewarding experiences, probably lose some golf balls and definitely be ready for a big hearty meal when you’re done. If you’re staying in Prattville, check out Uncle Mick’s Cajun Market & Café or (for BBQ) Rock’s or Fat Boy’s. If you chose the Renaissance downtown and don’t need fancy but “yes” on the tasty, look up Mrs Bs Home Cooking, the Scott Street Deli or the Urban Cookhouse.
Day 5: The luxury of being so close to Birmingham in Montgomery is that it’s an easy interstate drive back to Ross Bridge. You might have to get up early, one last time, but if you can manage to squeeze in one more 18-hole round there … why wouldn’t you? Better yet, if you got lucky and snagged a late departure time, or drove to Alabama by chance, you have no excuses. Take advantage of the opportunity. There’s a saying down here that, “One Can Never Have Too Much Ross Bridge.” Test that theory out, THEN go home.
South (6 nights)
Road Warrior’s Dream
If by a significant statistical anomaly you’ve completed the first two segments and are still looking for more golf, this segment will definitely give it to you. On the other hand, if you’re a golf traveler looking to hit The Trail, don’t mind driving, and might even be hoping for some Gulf and beach time, this more extended south segment should be right up your alley. Alabama has 32 miles of pristine beach down in the Gulf Shores and this particular trip lets you drag your feet in that sand if you’d like to.
Day 1: You could fly into Mobile but you’d have to do a bit more driving in the end when you don’t really have the time to, and some awkward backtracking, so it makes more sense to fly into Pensacola (assuming flight availability). From the Pensacola International Airport (PNS), it is 53 miles to The Grand Hotel Golf Resort and Spa (Marriott Autograph Collection). There you’ll find a property perfectly perched on a peninsula jutting out into Mobile Bay, with a private pier, sandy coves, a great pool area, award-winning spa and some remarkable room views, especially at sunset. The boardwalk is littered with hammocks and comfortable chairs purposefully set up to further enhance the intimacy of the waterfront, sunrise and sunset experiences. This hotel nails the service and setting components that are so critical to vacationers, and they’ve got two pretty great golf courses right across the street.
Hopefully you arrive early enough, on a perfect weather day, to play 18 holes at Lakewood Golf Club and still make it back across the street to capture the sunset. You might be wondering why I’d start you at Lakewood for this segment. Here’s why. You can’t play both courses at Lakewood Golf Club in a day. One is reserved strictly for members. So your best-case scenario is to play one on arrival afternoon and the other the next morning. They’ll dictate the playing sequence for you, so don’t worry about it. Focus more on where you’ll eat that night. The Grand Hotel has three signature restaurants: Southern Roots, The Bayside Grill and the “piano bar, adult venue” Bucky’s Lounge, a bar “1847” for after-hours enjoyment and a killer breakfast (especially the Sunday Brunch) in the Grand Hall.
Day 2: Depending on which Lakewood Golf Club course you were able to play yesterday, you’ll play the other this morning. Architect Perry Maxwell opened the first 18-hole course in the region at The Lakewood Club back in 1944. The club then joined The Trail in 2005 and materialized into two 18-hole courses.
The Azalea Course (closed through November to transition the greens to tif-eagle) has azalea-lined fairways and water everywhere, including around the signature par-5 14th with the island green. Most claim this is the tougher course. Both are sufficiently challenging and beautiful. When the flowers are in full bloom, the pretty little par-3 No. 4 hole is an absolute stunner. It’s the dramatic elevation changes of this course that will likely catch you most by surprise, given the otherwise flatness of the other course, and of the land in general along The Gulf.
The Dogwood Course is one of my favorites on the entire Trail (especially the front nine), and in my opinion the much more challenging of the two at Lakewood Golf Club. I played 21 holes on Dogwood during my last visit here, just so I could end at sunset on the par-3 No. 3 hole, with a bulkhead tee box and green facing the hotel and the water. The first four holes on Dogwood are all intriguing nail-biters, and just when you think the round simplifies, the tension ratchets back up at 8 and 9 with more water and more tricky golf shots. I’ve determined my favorite 18-hole routing is the Azalea front nine followed by the Dogwood front nine, but you only get to play that if there’s a club event. Speaking from experience, it was pretty darn fun!
After your round, today you’ll leave one historic hotel for another — The Grand Hotel to The Battle House Renaissance Mobile Hotel and Spa. Mobile, like Montgomery, does technically have two Trail Hotel options (two Renaissance hotels 0.3 miles from each other), but the Battle House has a rooftop pool and Jacuzzi, and based on my last golf vacation there with my entire family (my wife raves about their spa), I can’t imagine staying anywhere else in the city of Mobile. Ever. The Battle House is in the heart of the city, near the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial and only 14 miles from The RTJ Trail site at Magnolia Grove. (The Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel is another luxurious option on the Mobile River, connected to the Convention Center with a fantastic restaurant at The Harbor Room.)
You played 18 at Lakewood Golf Club this morning, and to stay on schedule you’ll need to play 18 at Magnolia Grove this afternoon. Magnolia Grove features two full-length golf courses and an 18-hole Short Course that Golf Digest once named as the best par-3 course in America. Do not play The Short Course today. Pick one of the other two, both listed by Golf Digest among “America’s Top 50 Affordable Courses.”
Both of the full-length courses at Magnolia Grove are fair and fun. The Falls Course is a bit flatter and easier, the only par-71 track on The Trail. It weaves around creeks, marshland and waterfalls to some pretty big greens. The Crossings Course has hosted numerous LPGA Tour events, with cool crushed-oyster-shell waste areas, plenty of water, great wooden bridges (including a covered one) and dramatic tee shots galore. You cannot go wrong with either course. My favorite hole on The Crossings is the par-3 No. 14 with that covered bridge, over water. And my favorite hole on The Falls is the par-3 No. 11 over the signature waterfall. If it were me, I’d play The Falls today. But it’s not me … it’s you.
Day 3: Regardless of which Renaissance Hotel you stayed at last night, you’re 127 miles from the (budget breakfast) Waffle House in Greenville, and another five miles from the radical, 36-hole golf environment at Cambrian Ridge. Cambrian Ridge has four nine-hole courses, one of them being a Short Course, and any combination is bound to be a wild one. Even their driving range is among the craziest you’ll find this side of Top of the Rock in Branson, Missouri. I was once told that Cambrian Ridge is the least played of all The Trail courses. How is that possible? Yes, it’s tough, but for sheer beauty there may not be a more beautiful site on The Trail — and there are many stunning sites on The Trail.
The Canyon Nine does a good job of faking you out over the first four holes in terms of hiding its beauty. A few steep down-then-uphill runs lead you to a four-hole stretch of beautiful water-carry holes before forcing you back uphill to a massive green shared with the Sherling Nine.
The Sherling Nine doesn’t take nearly as long to get dramatic. The tee box of the third hole shows you the drama you’re in for, and from hole 4 to 8 you’ll be switching back and forth from clubs to camera for some of the most amazing golf shots, and probably digging a few extra balls out of your bag. By the time you reach that shared ninth green, you’ll be winded, even if you’re riding in a cart, and probably wishing you could play that nine again.
The Loblolly Nine might not pack in the views like the other two full-length nines, but it doesn’t lack at all in challenge or intrigue. Don’t take that to mean it isn’t beautiful. It’s just more of a different kind of beauty. Wild mounding and turbulent green surfaces require every bit of your focus, and then, when you do get that beauty on the par-3 No. 6, you’re able to handle it a little better.
I’ve heard some say you should start with the Short Nine. I caution that you might not have enough golf balls for the other three if you follow that advice. (The pro shop won’t mind.) Play it last. This course is as pretty and challenging as inland short courses get. Wedged between a steep ridge and the shores of Sherling Lake, with water in play on five holes (and very little grass on some of those), this nine is exhaustingly exhilarating.
Play all 36 holes, then drive the 132 miles back to your hotel in Mobile. That hot tub on the roof of The Battle House will feel so good.
Day 4: You played one full-length course at Magnolia Grove on Day Two. Play the other one here, ideally teeing off around or before 8 a.m. Then, if you have 54 (or so) swings left in you, take on the highly-acclaimed 18-hole par-3 course around 1 p.m. Best guess, the United States has a dozen 18-hole short courses available for public play. Three of them are on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and this is my favorite of the three. (You’ll play another of them on Day 5.) There is so much character in this design, and so many great golf shots.
If you played this according to schedule, you should be on the road by 5 p.m. at the latest on a 3.5-hour drive to the Auburn Marriott Opelika Resort and Spa at Grand National (the longest drive you have to make in the entire two-week trip). Don’t worry, with another Short Course tomorrow, I’ve built in a little recovery time for you, and if you need a massage, the Marriott on Lake Sougahatchee has a great spa for you (and indoor-outdoor pools). You’ll stay here two nights.
Day 5: If there’s a day you’re going to want to sleep in, it will be this one … and that’s fine. Sleep in until 8 a.m if you’d like, then schedule a round on the 18-hole Short Course at Grand National between 9 and 10. That will get you done around noon and let you tee off on a full-length course by 2 p.m. All good. You’ll play 36 holes at Grand National today, and you’ll quickly find out why Robert Trent Jones claimed this was “the single greatest site for a golf complex he’d ever seen.”
The Short Course is the most beautiful of The Trail’s 18-hole short courses, with more than half of the holes on Lake Saugahatchee, and neck-and-neck with Magnolia Grove’s for the most dramatic. I recorded my first ace on this course — the greatest bladed shot I likely will ever hit — and the rest of the round was a blur of blue and beauty.
I suggest playing The Lake Course in the afternoon. Those closing holes at sunset are remarkable, and with 12 Lake holes clinging to Lake Saugahatchee, you’re not going to find many spots with more scenic golf moments in Alabama. I hope, for your sake, you are really good with your long irons, and that you catch the par-3 No. 15 on a perfect day. That island green hole is THE signature hole of the entire complex. The green out in the middle of the lake is something to behold (even if you can’t hold it with your tee shot). Wrap up the round, grab dinner in the clubhouse, then head back to the Spa and pools.
Day 6: The Links Course awaits you this morning, preferably by 8 a.m. In my book, this was the hardest course on the entire Trail. The first 14 holes are packed with challenge and drama, with trouble permanently on one side or the other. Constantly trying to avoid one hazard, I often found myself in another. It’s the one course I most wish I had another shot at, and my only birdie of the day came at the property’s best closing hole. I have a lot of love for this facility, and can certainly understand why so many golf groups consider this such a spectacular Stay and Play.
Grab a quick lunch then hit the road for your 2.5-hour drive to Highland Oaks in Dothan. Highland Oaks, like Cambrian Ridge, has four nine-hole routings. You’ll want to play at least two of those nines today, and which two will depend on the remaining sunlight. Ask which nine has the least play on it and go with that one first. If you’re lucky it will be Magnolia — typically the quickest to play with the least trouble.
Magnolia pairs up well with the Short nine, as it makes up for Magnolia’s lack of water with three great holes on it and some really fun green complexes. If you can fit in another nine-hole course before dark, I’d go for it (play Marshwood). If not, go find a quick bite (perhaps at Willie’s Place or The Blue Plate) and a hotel. The Trail doesn’t have any Marriott Resorts in Dothan, but they do have a Courtyard by Marriott (and a Water World if you’ve brought the family).
Day 7: This is it. Your last day after as many as 14 nights on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Hopefully you were able to secure a late flight (you’re 2.5 hours from the Pensacola International Airport) so you can make the most of your final 18 holes at Highland Oaks. If there’s any way that you can manage to have the Highlands Nine as your final nine, you’ll appreciate it. Other than the Short Course, it is the most scenic of the sets at Highland Oaks. Marshwood is most known for its 701-yard par-5 No. 6. But too many golfers overlook the other remarkable holes, like the par-3 No. 4 and the par-4 5th along the water, as well as the brilliant closing hole.
However it gets set up, in whichever order you play the nines, you’ll roll over to the airport with a big smile on your face and plenty of stories to tell when you get back home. Two weeks on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, however you do it, is two weeks you’ll want to tackle again someday. My son and I sure do.
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For more information about the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, visit RTJGolf.com, and to learn more about golf and travel throughout Alabama, visit GolfAlabama.org.