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Blazing A New Trail

Blazing A New Trail

The Back Yard in Birmingham Adds a Distinctive Amenity to Alabama's RTJ Golf Trail

By Glen Turk


In a world where everything either seems to cost more or is ravaged by shrinkflation, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama is thriving thanks to their tried-and-true business model of providing world-class golf at an affordable price. And their stellar replay rates are the opposite of shrinkflation, where golfers can pay less to play more.

"We have only had to increase our rates minimally on the Trail Courses since inflation hit us earlier this year," began Jonathan Romeo, vice president of advertising and marketing for the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. "We still pride ourselves on the multi-day package discounts we offer, plus we have numerous local programs that benefit the daily fee golfer as well. We have really tried hard to combat inflation, including offering a $100 rate with cart, or a buy one day get a day for half price special for the out-of-state golfer. Also, we have been holding steadfast that Alabama residents can only book 11 days in advance. Since the traveling golfer is such a large part of our business, we want to make sure all courses have tee times available," concluded Romeo.

The only way the RTJ Golf Trail could be charged with shrinkflation is based upon their latest amenity, The Back Yard (www.rtjgolf.com/thebackyard) in Birmingham that is connected to the trail site at Oxmoor Valley. Meant to be played in about an hour by a foursome, the nine par-3 holes can play as short as 59 yards with the longest at 132 yards. The Back Yard is a walking only golf course designed with no water hazards and just a handful of bunkers so that even the most novice golfer will enjoy their experience. At the same time, the scratch player will be challenged by interesting and sometimes confounding green designs. Leave your golf bag in the car and grab your putter, a couple of wedges, and maybe a short iron because that's all you'll need to enjoy The Back Yard. {Editor's Note: When your wife tells you it's time to do yard work, you can leave the house and say you were just following orders. Plus, green fees start at only $35 which is far less expensive than any yard work project I've ever completed.}

While the price you pay to play the RTJ Golf Trail might be of paramount importance, it's not the only numbers of consequence. 27 courses over 11 trail sites are only the start. Multiple properties have hosted TOUR events (Ross Bridge, Capitol Hill & Grand National) while seven have world-class resorts either adjacent to or nearby. There is even a separate RTJ Spa Trail throughout the Yellowhammer State for those who love being pampered after a day on the links.

A few trail courses are receiving makeovers in 2023, so MGM always recommends calling before arriving. According to Romeo, the flagship project of 2023 is a full renovation of the bunkers and greens plus some ancillary tree removable at Ross Bridge, one the Trail's most respected just outside of Birmingham. The only single course venue on the trail is scheduled to reopen in October. Tree renovations are also taking place at Magnolia Grove in Mobile, but daily play will not be interrupted.

It's funny how some facts seem more poignant when you hear them over the phone. When speaking to Jonathan Romeo, he made a point that the farthest drive from one trail spot to another in the entire state is only 1:45 minutes. I remember reading that before, but when Jonathan spoke it, I again realized why the founders of the trail, led by Dr. David Bronner in the late 80s were so far ahead of their time. And with 10 of the 11 sites being multi-course venues, the opportunities are endless for Midwest golfers looking to start their 2023 season early. Plus, I just watched a great video on weather.com showing off an above average weather forecast for most of Alabama from February through March.

Through the years, the staff of MGM has been blessed to play every RTJ Trail site and with that we were bound to develop a few favorites. Now, granted this is like picking your hometown team's top championship season memory, but we will give it a try.
Capitol Hill is technically in Prattville, Alabama, but is only 12 miles from the capitol building in Montgomery. The 54-hole property is divided into three championship nines, The Judge, The Senator, and The Legislator, which pays respect to Alabama's nearby seat of government. The trio is spread out over 1,500 acres that is part arboretum, part wildlife sanctuary, part golf course.

The Judge is hallmarked by spectacular vistas along 200 acres amongst the backwaters of the Alabama River. The first tee lies 200 feet above the fairway overlooking the river and the Montgomery skyline and makes for the ideal group photo op. With 14 holes adjoining the water and a bulkheaded island green, the Judge beckons to be played twice in the same day so your senses can have time to take in all the beauty.

The Legislator is a more traditional course than the Judge as it plays in and out of pine trees and along a bluff overlooking the Alabama River. Holes 10 through 15 are laid out in a native cypress swamp and feature epic views as you ride down the "Sky Bridge". The final three then lead you back up to Capitol Hill's stunning shared clubhouse.

The Senator, a Scottish-Links style course, is home to more than 140 pothole bunkers and mounds ranging from 20 to 40 feet in height. These moguls make every hole play silently unto itself and create a feeling of isolation for four-plus hours. New TifEagle Ultradwarf greens were installed on the Senator Course in 2020, which only adds to the superior playing conditions on the trail. The 54-hole facility is buoyed by the nearby Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa, a 140,000-square-foot palatial estate that provides luxurious stay and play packages for locals and traveling golfers alike.

Less than an hour south of Capitol Hill resides Cambrian Ridge, a 27-hole facility that is highlighted by three distinctive, nine-hole tracks. Descriptive course names abound on the trail, as the nines are dubbed the Canyon, Loblolly, and Sherling, which gives a nod to nearby Lake Sherling.

The Canyon nine is carved from former hunting grounds where deer blinds remain nailed to the hardwood. You'd better pick your targets wisely, as omnipresent hazards are everywhere making the Canyon nine a lesson in risk vs. reward and course management.
If you're looking for an Augusta-like experience in Alabama, then look no further than the Loblolly nine. The course is known for its gently rolling fairways, massive bunkers, cathedral-like pines, and water-fronted greens. Trust me, it's a thrilling combination that will test every shot in your bag!

Finally, The Sherling nine starts at the highest point in Butler County and tumbles to play along Sherling Lake before ending with a dramatic climb on the finishing hole. The par-4 18th plays 368-yards straight uphill to a 192-foot deep green that it shares with the 9th hole on the Canyon course.

Northeast of both Capitol Hill and Cambrian Ridge rests Grand National in Auburn/Opelika. The course is only a pitching wedge away from Auburn University, the school that produced three transcendent athletes from the 80s and 90s - Charles Barkley, Bo Jackson, and Frank Thomas. Voted the #1 public golf facility in America by the readers of Golf World, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. is on record saying that Grand National was the single greatest natural site for golf he had ever seen. Grand National is built on 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee with 32 of the 54 holes draped along its shores. The property is also accentuated by the nearby Auburn Marriott Opelika Resort & Spa, one of the top lodging options on the trail.

The Lake course features 12 holes hugging the shoreline including all four par-3s. While the 230-yard island green 15th may get all the accolades, Director of Golf Joe McNally has his favorite for good reason. "While I think that all the par 3s on the property are great, No. 3 on the Lake course is my favorite because it is the site of my only hole-in-one on the property. The hole plays uphill with all but a sliver of the right side over the water. The green has three defined quadrants that, depending on the placement of tees and pins, can make the shot selections very different," ended McNally.

The Links course, hailed "the cornerstone of the complex," was recently renovated to much fanfare. Featuring new tees, bunkers, and the very best TifEagle Ultradwarf greens, the Links is a definite must play along the Trail. The par-4 18th is without a doubt the strongest finishing hole on the Trail. Your tee shot must carry a corner of the lake, while the approach is played to a shallow pedestal green shored up by massive boulders.
The property rounds out with the Short Course, which is anything but your typical par-3 layout. The tiny gem, which was reimagined last year, plays a staunch 3,328 yards from the back tees and is an absolute delight to play. "The Short course is the home course for the residents of the National Village; many of those residents are of retirement age," began McNally. "When we first began the renovation, we had two goals: modernize the turf on the greens and make the course more enjoyable for the customer. We achieved both goals and so much more: expanded teeing surfaces, original green sizes and shapes, land bridges to most of the greens, and a total reimagination of the eighth hole."

In 2023 when it comes to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, playing 27 has taken on a whole new meaning thanks to their 27th trail site, The Back Yard in Birmingham. For more information on the entire RTJ Trail, log on to www.rtjgolf.com

We have noticed that since 2020, golfers are planning their trips farther out in advance and that groups are willing to drive farther to enjoy world-class golf. Have you noticed this as well and how has the RTJ Golf Trail benefitted from this shift?
Since the beginning of the pandemic- we have seen customers driving farther than before. Airfare was expensive and flights got shrunk. Difficulty in getting rental cars. Our radius of business is 1600 miles- snowbirds who travel to Florida come and pay the trail on the way through. The why the trail designed you never drive more than 1:45 before hitting any trail property.

With seemingly all prices going up due to inflation, how does RTJ's impressive green fee structure resonate with local and traveling golfers alike?

We have had to increase our rates minimally- multi day packages equal discount, we have numerous local programs that benefit them as well. Tried to combat that- including $100 rate with cart- buy day get a day ½ price - all sorts of packaging for the traveler- residents can only book 11 days in advance. Space availability is traveler based vs local.

3.Anything else you'd like to add about the upcoming 2023 season would be ideal.
Renovations at Ross Bridge- scheduled to reopen in Oct 2023 updated greens and bunkers - we get approached for events all the time Started first bit of tree work yesterday.
New Short Course at Grand Nationals
Updated Valley Links - Birmingham, Opelika
Tree renovations- Magnolia Grove in Mobile

Joe McNally- Grand National
Grand National is clearly one of the crown jewel properties of the Trail. Please discuss how hosting so many high-profile tournaments plus day-to-day player feedback have led to this status.

Grand National is one of the world's most beautiful pieces of property. The fact that we have three great golf courses carved into it makes it that much better. Over the years, the numerous events we have hosted have only added to the skills and seasoning of our staff, which in turn makes us better on a day-to-day basis for the customers you mentioned. I believe that the facility is the total package, leading to the crown jewel status.
Jonathan mentioned that you just renovated the Short Course. I played it back in 2018 and absolutely loved it. Please discuss the new changes and what they mean for the player experience.

The Short course is the home course for the residents of the National Village; many of those residents are of retirement age. When we first began the renovation, we had two goals, modernize the turf on the greens and make the course more enjoyable for the customer. We achieved both goals and so much more: expanded teeing surfaces, original green sizes and shapes, land bridges to most of the greens, and a total reimagination of the eighth hole.

In terms of the Lake Course- how incredible was RTJ's design philosophy to have all four par-3's wrap around the lake? Which one is your favorite and why?
While I think that all the par 3's on the property are great, number three on the Lake course is my favorite because it is the site of my only hole-in-one on the property.  The hole plays uphill with all but a sliver of the right side over the water. The green has three defined quadrants that depending on the placement of tees, and pins, can make the shot selections very different.

The Links may appear a bit easier than the Lake, but what challenges does it present to players of all abilities, in your opinion?
The Links is the harder of the two courses, by about five shots on paper but much more to a person unfamiliar with the course. Most of the holes on the Links, the trouble spots are in and around the greens making the approach shots rather difficult, especially if you are playing over aggressively or are not in great control of your golf ball.

Anything else you'd like to add regarding the 2023 season would be appreciated.
2022 was Grand National's best year, and we were without the Short course for much of the year. 2021 was a great year for us as well, and we were without the Links course for much of that year. I am very excited to have all three courses open and ready for play throughout 2023. I believe it will be another banner year for Grand National.

Annual Platinum Membership
The Ultimate Golf Experience on Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. The Annual Platinum Membership includes:
Unlimited green fees for 12 consecutive months at all Trail sites, except Lakewood Club and Ross Bridge
Unlimited range privileges at your home facility as well as day of play range privileges throughout the RTJ Trail
USGA/GHIN handicap service for calendar year
Use of locker at home club
Applicable Trail Card rate for accompanied guests
Tee Time reservations can be made up to 14 days in advance
The Annual Platinum Membership can be purchased in the Pro Shop of any of our Trail sites, except Lakewood Club and Ross Bridge.

Annual Individual: $2,400; Annual Couple: $3,450; Annual Family: $4,400Monthly payment option is available. Couple constitutes two family members living in same residence. Can be parent and child provided child is 18 years of age or younger. Family constitutes multiple individuals living in same residence. Limited to two adults and children age 18 years of age or younger. Rates do not include applicable taxes.

Annual Membership
The Annual Membership provides unlimited greens fees at all Trail sites, except Lakewood Club and Ross Bridge. Tee Time reservations can be made up to 10 days in advance in-person or by calling the course and 11 days in advance on RTJGolf.com and the RTJ app.

The Annual Membership can be purchased at the Pro Shop of any of our Trail sites, except Lakewood Club and Ross Bridge.

Annual Individual: $1,950; Annual Couple: $2,825; Annual Family: $3,700Monthly payment option is available. Couple constitutes two family members living in same residence. Can be parent and child provided child is 18 years of age or younger. Family constitutes multiple individuals living in same residence. Limited to two adults and children age 18 years of age or younger. Rates do not include applicable taxes.


Revised: 03/20/2023 - Article Viewed 2,990 Times


About: Glen Turk


Glen Turk Glen Turk is a Wisconsin native and is the Senior Writer/Editor of Midwest Golfing Magazine. Midwest Golfing Magazine was formerly known as Pub-Links Golfer's Magazine and is a free publication distributed four times per year throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio.

His duties at MGM include writing course features, facilitating product testing, and overseeing the overall content and look of the magazine. But clearly his most important task is playing as much golf as his wife allows. Fortunately for him, she plays also and loves out-driving him even with a 60 yard head start.

Glen plays to a 6 handicap but once set a record by having his ball retriever regripped 15 times in one calendar year. It was a December trip to Guam that ultimately did him in. Finally, if you haven't caught on by now, the two most worthy weapons in Glen's writing arsenal are self-deprecating humor and pithy one-liners.

My signature line, "Be A Force on The Course" and now more recently, "Hit 'Em Where They Mow!" can be reused at no charge.



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