Golfers in the northern climates, have you shut your season down yet? I always get a bit of the blues this time of year when the season end is in site, but today’s practice session offered a ray of hope.
I went to the driving range to work on my swing for the first time since June. Readers of this blog know that I have foregone swing practice this year for more frequent play. I can attest to the soundness of this approach after reviewing the full body of work since I made the decision and the results I turned in during my trip to Alabama three weeks ago. Without the benefit of any swing preparation, I had one of the best ball striking weeks in recent memory. Sure, you can hit it good on any given day, but keeping my head free of swing thoughts for a full week and performing for the duration sold me on the approach.
So I hadn’t hit a ball for 15 days and figured I’d better get a few swings in before next weekend’s final mini-golf trip to the Delaware shore. I pounded a bucket at the range with essentially the same move that was working in Alabama and enjoyed continued success. After finishing up, I rolled a few putts before heading home for the final time this year, and then some complete stranger walked over to me and asked me if I wanted some more range balls. Not sure what was going on, I accepted and this guy proceeded to give me tokens for seven buckets of balls, for free. Then he just walked off.
That little random act of kindness brightened my day and I had brief visions of heading back to the range ala Vijay Singh and banging another four or five hundred balls, but I came to my senses and threw them in my golf bag. Maybe the season is not over quite yet.
So to that mysterious stranger I say, “thank you very much!” For the rest of you, is your season over or otherwise?
Grand National is the 54-hole facility on the RTJ Trail in Opelika, AL and is next door to the Auburn Marriott Opilika Hotel and Conference Center. This was our final stop on the October 2013 trip and we played the two 18 hole courses and associated par-3 track over October 10th and 11th. We did not stay at the Conference Center and opted for the Hampton Inn on South College Street in Auburn and were very pleasantly surprised. The accommodations were quite comfortable and they ran a social from Mon-Thr where they served good food, beer and soft drinks. All were complimentary. On Friday’s before home football games (Auburn Tigers) they did a complimentary tailgate party. We thought this was a great value and a great way to save a few bucks. The hotel was only a 20 minute drive from the golf course.
First on the playlist was the Links course. The name is misleading because the course doesn’t play anything like a traditional seaside links. They fancy the name because of the mounding around a lot of the greens, but this plays more like a parkland course as you wind your way through tall pine trees that beautifully frame many of the holes. In fact, standing on the second tee, I remarked that this course reminded me very much of Parkland at The Legends in Myrtle Beach.
What strikes you about this course is the huge undulations in the Bentgrass greens and the significant bunkering protecting the approaches. A traditional links course would permit bounce and run approaches but not here. You need to bring everything in high and strike it pure. The greens were smooth and rolling medium speed which was plenty difficult considering the slopes we had to navigate. A considerable number of holes had pins cut on the edges making it very tough to get close and score. I played my best all around golf on the trip at this course and shot a five-over 77 with 32 putts and thankfully only two three-jacks. After play, I couldn’t help thinking that if they had the greens rolling faster, the course might be unplayable from a difficulty standpoint. However, the conditions on Links were impeccable. We played the orange tees that measured 6,574 yards and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. In retrospect, we probably didn’t help ourselves by warming up on the putting green near the range which was Bermuda, was cut tight, and was rolling very fast. Oh well, que sera sera.
What’s interesting about the clubhouse at Grand National is that it’s exactly the same layout and structure as Oxmoor Valley’s. From the pro shop, to the kitchen, to the grill, to the rest rooms; an exact duplicate. I also noticed that the golf carts were identical at all the sites. Then I finally connected the dots: all these RTJ Trail courses were built at the same time with the same architect and sub contractors, since the state of Alabama had sponsored the project. The only significant difference between the clubhouses was the better food at Grand National.
After lunch we headed out on the Short course, and wow! This track of 18 legitimate 100-200 yard 3-par holes was drop dead gorgeous. Much of the routing took us down by the lakes and in the mid to late afternoon with nobody around to push or hold you up, this was some of the most serene and enjoyable golf I have ever played.
The greens were Bermuda and were running medium fast, but you didn’t have the undulations of Links or the elevation changes of the Short course at Oxmoor Valley. We played the orange tees at 2,802 yards at a par of 54. If you come to Grand National, you must play this one.
On Friday, we played the Lake course. I noted the need for precision off the tee, and it seemed like every tee shot had a complex set of fairway bunkers you had to avoid. I ended up only hitting driver on two of the first five par-4s, and all the thinking left me mentally taxed. There are many doglegs as well and even though the course rating is lower than Links, I found this play more difficult. The course is all Bermuda and the greens aren’t nearly as sloped as Links, which should make them putt easier, but I found reading putts more of a challenge. Perhaps it was the last day of our trip and we’d been shifting from Bent to Bermuda on almost every round, but I couldn’t get a good read on many putts.
My swing was on early and I managed a one-over 37 on the front with a couple of birdies, but alas, all good things come to an end. I fell apart on the back nine, with the round punctuated by a quadruple bogey 7 on the signature hole (par 3 #15). After splashing two 3-irons on the approach to the island green, I limped in with a 10-over 46 on the back and a total of 83 for the day. We played the orange tees at 6,488 yards.
Value (4.0 out of 5.0)
Booking fees for Link and Lakes were $79.20 which included cart and range balls. We used coupons given to us from Tony at Oxmoor Valley to play for free on the Short course and only paid $12 for a cart fee. I can’t remember playing better caliber golf for such a great price. Coupons aside, Grand National is a very good value for your golfing dollar.
Facilities (4.25 out of 5.0)
The range at Grand National is huge and has plenty of great grass hitting stations that were rotated daily. Next to the range was a good size putting green and a short game green with bunkers. Up by the clubhouse was another large putting green so there was plenty of room to warm-up and practice. The range was a considerable drive away from the clubhouse via cart, but if you wanted to just come and practice, the range had it’s own parking lot and balls were for sale for those not on a golf package. All practice areas were well conditioned and the quality of practice balls was good. One interesting note: the bunkers on the driving range were actually concrete painted white. You didn’t know that until you hit into one and bounced your shot about 50 feet in the air.
Customer Experience (4.25 out of 5.0)
Great customer service appears to be the norm across all the RTJ sites we visited, and Grand National was no exception. On day one, our bag drop attendant didn’t just unload our clubs, he gave us the history of the place and provided directions to all the important stops and stations (very helpful). Your clubs were loaded and ready to go when you walked out of the pro shop, and you didn’t have to seek out instruction, the cart guys were there to proactively ask you where you were playing and point you in the right direction.
Kayla in the golf shop was super nice when she checked us in on day one and was helpful as we purchased some souvenirs. The professional (forgot his name) who checked us in for our Thursday afternoon round on the Short course told me we were going to “love it.” I like that when folks show passion for their everyday jobs and for tasks that may be a little mundane but can make a difference to a first time customer. He was right and the nice little touch sticks out in my mind. And finally, the food was pretty darn good in the grill, and we ordered lunch after both rounds. Overall our experience at Grand National was a great one. Don’t miss it on your trip to RTJ!
The starter at Oxmoor Valley described the experience of playing the Ridge course and then the Valley course as going from hell to heaven. I understood the context of the comment after playing the two primary 18 hole tracks back to back. With an excellent 18 hole par-3 short course added in, this 54-hole facility in Birmingham, AL on the RTJ Trail provided a fascinating and enjoyable golf experience. We played all three courses over two days on October 8th and 9th and it was a wild ride.
First up was Ridge with it’s tight tree-lined fairways, huge changes in elevation, and quirky pinball bounces. You definitely need a Sherpa with local knowledge to negotiate your way around this mountain. And playing directly after Ross Bridge, with it’s wide open expanses, we pushed the level of our comfort zones. Some of the locals said the best way to play Ridge was to try and land your ball as close to the 150 yard poles because that’s the only flat place on the course. I could see their point, but if you’re trying to get to a scoring yardage in close that becomes a problem.
Ridge has Bentgrass greens and Bermuda through the fairway and rough. I actually putted these greens quite well after coming from the Bent surfaces at Ross Bridge, but found that moving to the Bermuda greens on the short course and Valley a difficult adjustment.
On the day we played Ridge there were two issues. First, we found out that on all RTJ Trail courses, the driving ranges are closed for maintenance on Tuesday mornings. The pro shop staff offered to let us play a few holes on the short course as a warm-up, which we did, but unbeknownst to us was the difficulty and precision required to play the short course, and we ended up losing two balls each on the first two holes just warming up. Secondly, the tees and fairways on Ridge had not been cut. It appeared that a mower had been driven on each of the tee boxes, but no grass was taken, which seemed very peculiar and we pointed that out to the pro shop staff. The long fairways were actually a blessing in disguise, as some of our off-line tee shots did not roll out into the penal Bermuda rough. The main takeaway; you need to fully warm up your swing before playing Ridge. I shot a seven-over par 79 from the Orange tees that were playing at 6,527 yards and was quite happy with that score.
In the afternoon, we played the Short course. This is a collection of 18 legitimate par-3 holes that were pretty darn tough. Many of these played considerably downhill. Club selection was difficult and the Bermuda greens had some severe undulations. They were in good condition, but were hard to negotiate after playing on Bent for a couple of rounds. Four three-putt greens and an 12-over par 66 later, I finally figured out I needed to “pop” the ball with the putter like Brandt Snedeker to get a decent roll. Nevertheless, the Short course was a very fun and challenging play. We played the orange tees which measured 2,971 yards.
Next up was the Valley course on Wednesday, October, 9 and we found it also challenging, but much more open off the tee and more aesthetically pleasing with its gently rolling fairways and meticulously landscaped touches. Valley’s Bermuda greens were cut tighter than the short course and were in excellent condition, yet weren’t rolling as fast as they looked.
We were paired up with Charlie, a local, who gave us great course management tips and some interesting history of the Valley and Ridge courses. There is something to be said for local knowledge and more open sight lines; it relaxes you. However, there were strategically placed fairway bunkers on most holes in the 240-260 yard range off the tee. Hit them and you were in trouble, but well placed drives were rewarded with good looks at the greens. Valley was clearly the preferred play of all the locals and I could see why. I managed an 11-over 83 from the orange tees that were playing at 6,588 yards. This course felt easier than Ridge but I struggled again on the Bermuda greens.
Value (3.75 out of 5.0)
Booking fees for Ridge and Valley were $79.20 which included a cart. I actually saw some fool going out to walk on the Ridge, so it was permitted but I would advise against it. I hope they found the guy. We played the short course on a replay special rate for $22 which included a sleeve of Nike balls. This was a great value considering I can play my 9-hole executive course at home for $20 and the quality of golf doesn’t compare. Range balls had to be purchased separately but we found an ample supply left at the hitting stations for a free warm-up on Wednesday.
Facilities (3.25 out of 5.0)
The range had about 25 hitting stations which were on good conditioned mats. Normally they hit from several tiers of grass but the range had been overseeded and mats were in order during the first two weeks of October. There was a large putting green near the clubhouse where chipping wasn’t allowed and a smaller green for short game practice near the range. The facility also hosts a separate range and short game area reserved for a golf school that wasn’t available for general use.
Customer Experience (4.25 out of 5.0)
The operation shines at Oxmoor Valley with exceptional customer service. Our bag drop greeters were right there when we pulled up and very courteous and helpful with directions to the range, first tee, and general instructions on protocol. Special shout out to Tony who was working carts on Tuesday and recharged ours for the afternoon round on the Short course. Tony also hit us up with coupons for a free round at any RTJ course, which we greatly appreciated and took and used at Grand National later in the week. The pro shop staff moved my Wednesday tee time from 7:50 a.m. to 9:50 a.m. upon my request, despite the time not being available when I booked a month in advance. Bottom line, this was some of the most friendly service we’ve experienced in our travels. Only complaint is that the clubhouse food selection was very limited and the turkey and cheddar sandwich I lunched on was quite ordinary. Charlie, our Wednesday playing companion, also reiterated that the food was not that great.
Overall experience at Oxmoor Valley was very good. Valley is a must play and I’d love to come back and tackle that Ridge course again now that I have an idea of where to hit it.
Playing Ross Bridge as your opening course on a trip to Alabama’s RTJ Trail feels like trying to learn to drive in a Cadillac Escalade. This outstanding championship venue is located in Hoover, AL, and is the third longest course in the world (measuring 8,191 yards from the back tees and covering over 300 acres.) It is the on-site companion to the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa.
What immediately strikes you is the enormous size of everything and the exquisite conditioning and attention to detail in all areas of the operation. From the pristine all grass driving range with its pyramid stacks of new golf balls, to it’s gigantic putting surfaces, to the miles of open fairways, to the long traverses from green to tee, this golf course was a delight to play.
Even though you will be riding, prepare to do some walking. The course is so large that there are ample stretches where you are on foot from cart to green and back.
Warm up your driver and forget about losing any balls or laying up on any holes, as this is a bomber’s paradise.
The course’s main defenses are the huge greens and deep green-side bunkers, a lot of which are protecting the front of the surfaces. If you are in a green-side bunker, you will have a long tough sand shot, so good ball striking off the tee and a solid iron game are at a premium.
To get off to a good start on the first hole which is a long par-5, your line should be to carry the right side of the fairway bunker, but guard against going left on your second shot layup, as water sneaks in close to the fairway.
The par-3 4th hole has a false front. Take plenty of club and play to the back-middle of the green.
#7 is a par-5 dog leg right. You are tempted to cut the corner but don’t as everything bounces right. There’s plenty of room left center; take it.
This course is long. Check your ego at the door and play the appropriate set of tees; you’ll have more fun. There are five to choose from (Black – 8,191; Purple – 7,446; Orange – 6,783; White – 6,200; Teal – 5,312).
Value (4.0 out of 5.0)
We booked our play at the RTJ Trail as a package and most of the venues on the site were known for good value and came in at $79.20 which included a cart. Ross Bridge is considered a resort and commands a premium level $151.80 greens fee. If you were to play here five times, your golf vacation could become costly, and even at the stated price, I questioned the value when I booked the tee time until I played the track. It is worth every penny. Having played comparable courses in the $100 – $200 range, such as Bulle Rock and the redesigned Pinehurst #2, I can clearly say that Ross Bridge provided the best value.
Facilities (4.5 out of 5.0)
The clubhouse and pro shop are attached to the beautiful 248-room Renaissance resort. There is a grill and a fine dining restaurant to choose from, but we did not eat here so no comment on the food. The pro shop was of good size and well stocked. The practice facilities include the tremendous all grass driving rang, a short game area to chip, pitch, and hit bunker shots, and an extra large putting green located between the staging area and first tee. The course was empty on the Monday that we played and I felt like a kid in a candy store with all these wonderful amenities at my disposal. Tees, fairways, and rough are all Bermuda grass and the greens are Bent and were rolling medium fast and very smooth. Of the hundreds of courses I’ve played, Ross Bridge’s practice facilities rank third, behind only Pinehurst and Congressional.
Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)
Booking a tee time was easy and I did this by calling RTJ a couple months in advance. They will book golf and / or lodging for you at the Marriott-Renaissance resorts or just golf, which I elected to do. We stayed at the Hampton Inn on Lakeshore Drive for three nights and found the accommodations very comfortable and about a 15 minute drive to the course.
Upon arrival, the bag drop attendant was right there to meet and greet and got us loaded promptly. When we finished up, he cleaned our clubs and gave us directions to the Oxmoor Valley clubhouse, where we were to play the next day. The pro shop staff was professional and welcoming and the starter actually provided playing tips for the first hole, which was much appreciated, and mentioned where to park our cart at the second green to avoid an inordinately long walk to the third tee. We played as a twosome and were not rushed and did not push anyone all the way around. It was a truly enjoyable golf experience. On your next trip to RTJ, don’t miss this one.
We played here on Monday, October 7, 2013 and I shot a six-over par 78 from the Orange tees which measured 6,783 yards.
At the risk of sounding like the two-faced ferry operator in The Outlaw Josey Wales, I need to practice these two catchphrases for my upcoming trip to the RTJ Golf Trail in Alabama. We are visiting during the second week in October and our travels will take us from Birmingham (Tide country) to Auburn/Opelika (Tigers) and cover seven days and five rounds. I’ve done some preliminary research and believe that the courses we’ve selected are among the finest on the trail. The line-up:
The 800 mile trek from DC to Birmingham is a haul and we’ve decided to fly instead of drive. Our thoughts were to stay/play at as many courses in the same areas and minimize the travel between sites. The RTJ Trail has partnered with some Renaissance and Marriott resorts on site and will book a stay-play package for you, or they offer you the option of doing your own hotel reservations, as we have done. Full course reviews are coming for each site, as well as an evaluation of our travel and booking strategy. Right now I’m looking for any travel insights, course playing tips, or advice on good barbeque joints along the trail; please send!
Have you ever tried to peak your game for a golf trip? My advice is not to try too hard because you end up traveling with too many mechanical swing thoughts, and even though the airlines don’t charge for them, they are more costly than most baggage fees. As this trip gets closer, I’m thinking of trying to just play as much as I can and not worry too much about practice. Usually, I play better the day after I practice, but yesterday’s outlier round gave me great hope on the “play only” strategy. I hadn’t touched a club in over a week and went out cold for a game in the wind and rain at Rattlewood. I hit about 20 balls, rolled a dozen 3-foot putts and teed it up. Four hours later, I returned soaking wet, but had hit 14 greens and shot even par for my best round of the year. Strange game. I have noticed a marked improvement in my ball striking and have hit double-digit GIR in six of my last eight rounds. I may be onto a fundamental “ah ha” discovery but it’s too early to tell. The trip will provide a great opportunity to test my theory and I’ll fill you in upon my return.
Need some advice on a new golf destination. I want to book a fall trip on the Robert Trent Jones (RTJ Golf Trail) in Alabama and have read lots of good things about excellent value, great courses, top notch playing conditions, but I’ve never been to Alabama much less considered how to play the trail.
It seems the trail is spread out over the entire state and there is some serious mileage between courses. I’m looking for a reasonable itinerary for a week of golf in the October time frame with about 18 holes per day and was wondering if this was even doable considering how spread out the RTJ Trail is. Does it make sense to identify a center-state spot as my headquarters and venture out for day trips, or travel along the trail to different sites?
I’m also a huge fan of SEC football and would LOVE to turn this adventure into a bucket list event and couple it with a home game at the University of Alabama on either Oct 19 vs Arkansas or Oct 26 vs Tennessee!
Anyone with tips on golfing the RTJ or how to get Alabama football tickets, please send. Thanks!
Conversation about course reviews, travel, instruction,and opinion. Please join in!