It was the late 1990s, and John Cannon was living the good life on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. And that’s when he got the call to check out a golf project a few states away. So he made the trip to Prattville, Alabama, a little town of about 19,000 people a few miles away from the state capital. What he saw being built would eventually become the 54-hole Capitol Hill golf complex, complete with a Marriott hotel on site.
And that was the moment Cannon knew he’d pack up and head South to become president of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Telling his wife was another story, as he details with hosts Mitch Laurance and Darin Bunch on Episode 140 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast.
From the mind of Dr. David Bronner, the RTJ Golf Trail — which “took a little bit of insanity,” Cannon says — now hosts golfers from all 50 states and around the world each year at its 11 destination sites, which extend beyond just the golf courses themselves. Lodging, dining (both fine and bar-grille), spa facilities and other activities have built the Trail into a tourism moneymaker both for Alabama and the retirement system it was created to benefit.
With Mitch and Darin, John focuses on how Dr. Bronner’s dream has become a reality over the past three decades (and how the Trail is always looking at opportunities to further expand its portfolio). He also dives into how Robert Trent Jones Sr. signed on the project and the role golf designer Roger Rulewich has played from the beginning to the present day.
“[Dr. Bronner] understood the power of branding and really attracting golfers — what a “name” would mean,” Cannon says. “Because, you know, the Alabama Golf Trail? OK, that sounds fine. But getting the name attached to it that golfers knew and understood, and then getting a constancy and a consistency to what golfers could expect over seven to now 11 sites really required one vision. … Mr. Jones picked up the phone [when he got the letter from Dr. Bronner] and brought Roger with him and they looked at a couple of the potential sites, and you know it just became a marriage that was meant to be.”
But how does the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail continue to compete at a time when destination golf in America is experiencing a resurgence?
“It’s just like any other business,” he says. “You have to be aware of your competition and you have respect that. And I actually admire it all [places like Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley and Streamsong, which he mentions earlier in the podcast]. You know I admire what SeaPines has reinvested into their golf courses there because that’s the only way they could stand out and really survive in the competitive environment. And I think that’s what we do well [at the Trail].
“We can’t try to be something that we aren’t. But we also we also understand golfers. We listen to them. We understand what they expect from the experience when you look at the total market for a travel golf. You guys are in the business you know it’s not what it was in 2001 — there are less golfers. In other words, I’d have less available customers today than I had 18 years ago. How can I still get more than my share? Well all I can do is actually try to get better every day. And that’s not only in the quality of the golf courses — that’s the quality of the service, that’s quality of our marketing and trying to find golfers and not just focusing on who’s been here before. I’ve got to get new golfers. But I’m also so proud that we have golfers who have come 18, 19, 20 years in a row. That is a great compliment to every one of our 1,000 employees, otherwise that would not happen. We would be losing market share instead of gaining market share.”
Words all golf destinations should live by — and part of a fun, entertaining and insightful conversation with John Cannon, president of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Enjoy the connection.
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For more information about the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, visit www.RTJGolf.com.
And for more on Alabama golf and travel, visit GolfAlabama.org.