Discovering The Real Alabama
By Dan Gleason
If you’ve never visited Alabama, your impressions might have sprung from a lot of old tabloid fabrications and B-movie stereotypes evoking images of farmers whittling on the front porches of houses and blue tick hound dogs sleeping in the shade of the yard.
But the truth is, Alabama really is “Alabama the Beautiful,” a progressive state in what we know as The New South, graced by green mountains and sugar white beaches, by charming and historic cities like Birmingham and Mobile, and by a wide array of absolutely magnificent golf courses.
In a savvy marketing move in the 1980s, the State of Alabama contracted with Robert Trent Jones to complete the biggest single construction job in the history of golf—The Robert Trent Jones Trail, showcasing a bevy of great courses running from the bluffs of the Tennessee River on the northern border to historic Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico. In all, the Jones Trail includes 26 golf facilities with 778 holes—and to save you the backbreaking work of going out there and measuring all that, it comes out to just over 100 miles of fairways.
While the courses along the Robert Trent Jones Trail have garnered this Sunbelt state a tremendous amount of deserved, favorable publicity and thousands of tourists yearly, there is also a wide-ranging
inventory of excellent courses that are “Off the Trail.”
What might be particularly interesting for Arizonans is that the lay of the land provides equally astonishing but starkly contrasting golfing experiences from our own. Rolling green vistas and often dramatic elevation changes grace the landscape, while moss-draped live oaks and other thick hardwood trees frame lush fairways.
Although many Trail courses have a reputation of being very difficult, it may depend on what tees you play, so the best advice is don’t bite off more than you can chew, and keep in mind that golf is a game, not a discipline. If we want to get beat up, we can take up prize fighting. In fact, from the up-tees, the courses are extremely enjoyable; the average golfer can score well and most of the Trail courses are very “women friendly” from forward tees.
Where you start on the Trail and where you end is up to you. You can play one course, a dozen courses, or if you have several months to kill, you can eventually take on all of them. There are no two Trail courses exactly alike, and many facilities have multiple courses. For example, Silver Lakes, in Anniston/Gadsden—off I-20 between Atlanta and Birmingham—has three championship nines that can configure into three different 18-hole experiences, and with five sets of tees. Every regulation 18 on the Trail has five tee boxes, giving golfers a tremendous amount of choices.
But Silver Lakes also offers a magnificently groomed, extremely challenging nine-hole parthree
course, called The Short Course. The Short Course has four sets of tees, rare for a par-three layout. From the tips, six of the nine holes are 200 yards or longer, and the shortest measures 186 yards. But from the far forward tees, the entire nine measures only 798 yards, and only one hole is as long as 100 yards.
When it comes to variety, the Capitol Hill facility in Prattville is a “must play” on the Trail, because it is the only stop with three fulllength 18-hole courses. Just off Interstate 65 and only a few minutes from downtown Montgomery, the state capitol, the courses are aptly named “The Legislator,” “The Senator” and “The Judge.” These are three drastically varying golfing experiences: The Senator, named as one of Golf Magazine’s Top Ten new courses when it opened, is a Scottish-style links course with big mounds and 160 pot bunkers. Golf Magazine ranks The Judge among the nation’s top public courses and deemed it “worthy to host a U.S. Open.” The views from the higher elevations on this course, and along the Alabama River, should rate The Judge an extra star. The Legislator is a more traditional course that meanders through thick hardwoods along the native cypress swamp, rising up to scenic bluffs.
Montgomery is well worth seeing, particularly for its Civil War and Civil Rights historical sites. Only ten minutes from the Capitol Hill golf facilities is the newly opened, 346-room Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa, in the heart of the city’s revitalized downtown district. The hotel provides transportation to and from the Capitol Hill courses.
Some 40 miles south of Montgomery, in the town of Greenville, where streets are lined with broad oaks and stately homes, is another Trail course called Cambrian Ridge. This one offers two 18-hole courses that are among the more scenic and challenging on the entire Trail—or as the locals call it, two real “jaw droppers.” Golf Digest named Cambrian Ridge’s Sherling Course as the #3 Best New Public Course in America when it opened in the 1990s.
A little over an hour north up I-65 from Montgomery is Birmingham, the state’s largest metropolis. Although it’s a big city, it still has a small city feel; it can perhaps be compared to the way Atlanta was some 30 years ago. A center of corporate and industrial activity, Birmingham’s scenic backdrop is the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Here you will find two Trail courses, Oxmoor Valley, and just two miles away, Ross Bridge, as well as an excellent “Off the Trail” dandy called Timberline, designed by former U.S. Open champ Jerry Pate.
Timberline is in Calera, just south of Birmingham off I-65. Pate built this 18-hole dazzler over what had been a somewhat “blah” old nine-holer. The new club added a 7,500-square-foot clubhouse and restaurant. This semi-private course has been open almost six years now and has received rave reviews not only for its golf, but also for the top-notch country club service. As the name suggests, the course is inundated with hardwood trees that border rolling fairways.
Oxmoor Valley has two challenging 18 courses that are both a lot of fun to play. Perhaps the big draw is the 150-foot elevation changes and scenic lake views on the Ridge and Valley courses. Oxmoor also has an 18-hole, par 54 Short Course; from the tips, the Short Course stretches to 3,300 yards, but it doesn’t play anywhere near that long because most of the holes are downhill tee shots. Like the Short Course at Silver Lakes, this one has four sets of tees.
Ross Bridge may be one of the toughest courses in the world. It is the world’s third longest course from the tips at more than 8,100 yards! You had better bring a change of clothes and a sack lunch to play some of those par-5’s, one that measures 698 yards, another that’s 620 yards. Even Tiger might leave here grumbling. And whatever tees you play at home, move up at least one set of tees because this one can be brutal (as short as 5,400).
But there’s nothing brutal about the accommodations. The Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa is a 4-star-plus hotel that includes a first-rate European spa whose signature treatment is a hot stone massage—just the thing after belting 18 drives with unharnessed fury. The 259 guest rooms overlook the fairways or the Ross Bridge course and the hotel’s Mediterranean cuisine is outstanding. This is also the place to stay if you’re playing Oxmoor, which is at most five minutes from the hotel’s front door.
If you stand outside that front door and you listen really closely on any autumn Saturday, and if the wind’s just right, you just might hear the shouts of “Roll Tide” coming from 60 miles down Interstate 20 in Tuscaloosa. That’s the home of the University of Alabama and the location of another one of eight Alabama courses designed by Crimson Tide alum Jerry Pate. The course he designed in Tuscaloosa, Ol’ Colony, is one of the nation’s better public tracks. When it opened in 2001, Ol’ Colony was ranked by Golf Digest as the #5 Best New Affordable Course in the U.S.
While golf is a significant part of the Alabama’s lure, there are loads of other little touches that make it such an enjoyable place to vacation. The Southern charm, for one thing, like how waitresses in the diners call you “Sugah” or “Darlin’” and how people speak cordially to strangers on the streets. There is also all that preserved history—the Civil War battlegrounds, the old forts, the Antebellum homes, most especially in charming Mobile, a sort of mini-New Orleans, but without all the clutter.
Mobile’s streets are lined with mossy live oaks and antebellum period homes.This city by the bay has seven historic districts and an assortment of museums, theaters and concert halls. Many buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, dating back as far as the early 1800s. But what visitors may be most attracted to, especially following a day of golf is Mobile’s French Quarter, filled with lively pubs, great cafes and joyful music.
The Mobile area has two Trail courses—36 holes at Magnolia Grove and 36 more at the historic Marriott’s Grand Hotel in Point Clear, on Mobile Bay, called Lakewood Golf Club. But there’s also a real sleeper that’s Off the Trail near Mobile—Timber Creek in nearby Daphne, a magnificently scenic and extremely well-groomed 27-hole layout. Sculpted out of the magnolia, pine and dogwood forests, over gently rolling terrain on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, Timber Creek is not only beautiful, it’s fun to play and attractively priced.
One of the state’s most charming hotels is here in Mobile, the newly renovated, historic Battle House, which is now operated by Renaissance Hotels. The Battle House, the city’s most historic hotel, first opened in 1852, it was considered to be among the South’s most elegant. This past year, the facelift was completed and was celebrated with a black tie gala, as this grand dame again became one of the region’s finest. A European spa was added to the list of amenities of this eight-story, 238-room showpiece, which now connects to the new, sleek, Battle House Tower, Alabama’s tallest building.
You can’t visit this part of America without sampling its regional cuisine, just like an outsider wouldn’t want to miss a taste of our own authentic Southwestern food. And just as you’ll find in Arizona, not all of the great dining is found within opulent surroundings.
Take Wintzell’s Oyster House in Mobile, for example. Wintzell’s has been a Mobile favorite since it opened in 1938. A restaurant cannot last in one town for 70 years without being very special. Founder J. Oliver Wintzell first opened it as a little 6-seat oyster bar that has since expanded and prospered through the nation’s booms and busts, mostly because the word-ofmouth reviews kept the crowds coming.Wintzell’s has garnered an array of awards over the years, among them the Taste of Mobile’s prize for “Best Gumbo.” The Wintzell family sold the restaurant in the 1970s, but the original interior, plastered with placards of Oliver’s homespun adages, remains intact.
Up in Tuscaloosa, off I-59 at Highway 82, there’s “Big Daddy” Bishop’s original Dreamland barbecue shack, opened a half century ago. Dreamland is the home of some of the world’s best ribsand-pork and hickory smoked chicken. Plain folk rub elbows here with famous faces that get just as covered with the tasty sauce. This was a favorite haunt of legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant—and like “The Bear,” Dreamland’s barbecue and the white-bread-and-banana pudding is known far and wide.
Certainly, the Robert Trent Jones Trail has been instrumental in turning Alabama into one of the world’s premier golfing destinations. But there is so much more to see and do when you’re not out there whacking at golf balls. Alabama is blessed with fabulous scenery, from the northern mountains to the sea, and with a wide assortment of historical treasures, absolutely terrific dining, and a lot of good, old fashioned fun to be had. While a lot of things in Alabama have changed as the state has progressed, the love of a good time isn’t one of them.
The perfect time for Arizonans to enjoy Alabama is October during overseeding. While our great courses are unavailable, Alabama’s are in prime condition, prices are more than reasonable and southern hospitality is always beckoning.
And if you are driving along some Alabama side road and happen to see someone out on his front porch and he appears to be whittling, check to see if the stick might be graphite and there might be a golf bag resting next to that sleepy hound dog.