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!