Not every great golf course in Alabama was built by the Retirement Systems of Alabama as part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. It just seems that way. That’s a credit to the trail and its visionary founder, David Bronner, who envisioned it as a tourism generator for the state two decades ago.
When I accepted an invitation from the Alabama Tourism Department last fall to play golf for a few days, I thought about it for all of two minutes. Once I saw that my schedule was open for the last full week of October, I accepted the invitation and went home to clean my golf shoes.
I’ve played a lot of golf in Alabama. I’ve played in Birmingham more times than I can count. For years, I’ve gone at least once a year, and sometimes twice, to play with my good friend Jim Smither, who runs the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. When I saw that this golf trip included his neighborhood course, Highland Park, I sent him an email right away.
Highland Park is a small municipal course in the heart of downtown with a storied history, and I thought it was very cool that this trip included it with some of the “big boys” across the state. So I signed on and discovered a few new gems for golfers that are worthy of a trip.
Pam Shaheen with Crossroads Marketing Inc. in Atlanta was our host on the trip. To her credit, she made it clear from the get-go to me and 10 or so other golf writers that this was a working trip.
“We’ve got a great week for golf ahead of us,” she said as we boarded the coach. “The weather looks perfect until the tail end of the trip, and you’re going to be playing some RTJ Trail courses, plus a few others that I think you’ll really enjoy. And, I will be following up with all of you about your stories — you can count on that!”
Shaheen was a taskmaster when it came to staying on schedule, and she and I met each other halfway so I could get the video interviews I wanted as part of this trip. We were always in a hurry after golf to get to the next course, but I hadn’t carried the video equipment down there to leave it on the coach.
Once we figured out that I could go out with the first group each day and get my video interviews while the other groups finished, we were all good.
I got waylaid in the Memphis airport on the way down and missed golf at Highland Park in Birmingham, so it was a good thing I’d played it many times. It’s managed by Honours Golf, a sponsor of this trip, and I grabbed an interview with golf professional Evan Godfrey.
“This course was the original Birmingham Country Club,” he told me. “It was built in 1903, and Bobby Jones won one of his first tournaments here at the age of 14. Bob Hope played here, and this was the home course to Charley Boswell, a Birmingham native, who won the national championship for blind golfers 17 times. The course was later renamed for him.”
That evening, after a brief ride to Montgomery, we were treated to Dreamland BBQ, compliments of the Montgomery Convention and Visitors Bureau. This Alabama institution began in Tuscaloosa in 1958. There are two items on the menu that you must have at Dreamland — barbecue and banana pudding. If you don’t, they’ll know you’re from out of town.
Downtown Montgomery, the state capital, has undergone a significant renaissance over the past few years, and we stayed at the impressive new Renaissance Hotel and Spa.
This was a 27-hole day. The weather was great, and we were teeing up at the RTJ Trail’s Capitol Hill complex in Prattville. Many golfers think of the Judge there — one of three 18-hole layouts. Its signature first tee towers above a verdant fairway that spreads along the Alabama River more than 200 feet below. But the Judge was closed while we were there.
Not to worry. We played 18 holes on the Senator in the morning and nine holes after lunch on the Legislator. The LPGA’s Navistar Classic is played on the Senator.
The greens there — and on every RTJ course we played — were multitiered and fast. Even by week’s end, it was difficult to leave any first putt near the hole unless you were directly beneath it. I don’t know how many eight- to 10-footers I had coming back after I was above the hole on my approach.
After a full day of golf, our group headed for Auburn, where we were treated to a tour of Jordan-Hare Stadium at night and a pizza dinner compliments of the Auburn-Opelika Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Give Shaheen and her partners credit. We ate at local favorites. The Brick Oven Pizza restaurant is a popular watering hole for Auburn students, and their beer selection, antipasto and pizzas make chain restaurants in town a bad choice for out-of-town guests.