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Alabama's Golf Renaissance

100 SunBelt Parkway, Birmingham; 205-942-1177. Yardage: 7,055. Par: 72. Slope: 140. Green Fees: $35­$57.
T&L Golf Rating: ****
As the name suggests, the Ridge course runs along a crest of Little Shades Mountain. This topography provides for many elevation changes and some stunning vistas of the rolling hills surrounding Birmingham. The Ridge is one of the most playable and beautiful courses on the Trail. The crux of this fine layout is nine through twelve. Three of the four holes are gorgeous, short par fives that can make or break a round. Take the 539-yard par-five twelfth, for example. You must land a drive in a fairway split down the middle and flanked left by a creek. Try to cut off too much of the approach or overcook it and flirt with the water. Then decide whether to hit a fairly simple layup to a wide fairway or hit an approach to a miniscule green that is perched atop and guarded left and back by shale hillocks. Touché.

One SunBelt Parkway, Glencoe; 256-892-3268. Yardage: 3,846 (Backbreaker); 3,828 (Heartbreaker); 3,579 (Mindbreaker). Par: 36 (all three nines). Slope: 148 (Heartbreaker/Mindbreaker); 151 (Backbreaker/Heartbreaker); 155 (Backbreaker/Mindbreaker). Green Fees: $35­$45.
T&L Golf Rating: ****
Built at the northern edge of the Talladega National Forest, this facility boasts higher slope ratings than any other site on the Trail. Why?Almost every hole on these already long tracks features an uphill forced carry. The par fours are particularly nasty. And as the name suggests, there is a fair amount of water. The Backbreaker/Heartbreaker combo, even with its mere 151 slope rating, is what most outsiders come to challenge, but you'll see many locals take on the more manageable Mindbreaker nine. They are all stunning courses, offering up marvelous views of the Appalachian hills. The Backbreaker's third is one of my favorite holes on the Trail. Standing on the tee box with the hills stretching into the distance and the hole rolling downhill below, it's tempting to pull up a chair and watch the sunset. But the 455 yards, with canyon-like mounding on either side of the fairway, just beg to be tackled. The drive must land in a narrow area between two bunkers, and the fairway falls off into a swamp on the left side. The false-fronted, heavily undulated green is raised quite a bit, so any short approach will leave a forty-foot chip. The view from the green eases any frustrations.

3000 SunBelt Parkway, Opelika; 334-749-9042. Yardage: 7,149. Par: 72. Slope: 138. Green Fees: $35­$65.
T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
The twelve holes situated along the shores of the 600-acre Lake Saughahatche are the signature of the Lake course. The marshy stump-filled water adds a stunning backdrop to a pretty straightforward design. Pine trees abound, giving the track some Carolina flavor, particularly if you manage to push a shot into the straw. It's the back nine that sets the track apart, starting from its setup. To get to the back nine from the clubhouse, you must navigate a long wooden bridge to the tenth tee box, which is perched up to give a panoramic view of the lake. The 434-yard tenth is one of the best holes at the facility, mainly for its simplicity. The hole is a straight par four that rolls down from the tee, then back uphill to the green. There's only one bunker, about thirty yards from the green, but the fairway is tight, so errant drives will cause a lot of trouble. The fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth are delicious holes on the lake, with the 230-yard par-three fifteenth playing to a large peninsular green with little room to bail out.

7000 Lamplighter Drive, Mobile; 251-645-0075. Yardage: 7,239. Par: 72. Slope: 137. Green Fees: $35­$57.
T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
The Falls course gets headliner billing at Magnolia Grove because it plays a little harder than its neighbor, and the lake (which was once part of a public park, a swimming hole and Mobile's water supply) provides some scenic fireworks. Still, many locals prefer the more dynamic Crossings course. The Falls' difficulties arise mainly from the increased presence of H2O and the inability to get a flat lie anywhere on the course. The tenth, a 570-yard par five, requires a well-placed downhill drive between two large bunkers, then curves left along the lake. The lake drains (the "Falls") into a creek that runs through the fairway ninety yards from the green, wrecking havoc on both short second shots and layups. The green also falls off left into the lake. It's the sort of demanding and strategic hole that RTJ is known for.

100 SunBelt Parkway, Birmingham; 205-942-1177. Yardage: 7,292. Par: 72. Slope: 135. Green Fees: $35­$57.
T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
Yes, that's right, the Valley course occupies the valley below the Ridge course. You play down the side of the mountain on the first hole, a 440-yard dogleg that plays about fifty yards shorter, then spend sixteen holes meandering through a links-like layout before climbing up again on the eighteenth. The yardage granted on the downhill first is quickly gobbled back on the finale, fondly known as the "Assassin," which is listed at 441 yards but plays so far uphill you worry if your drive will hit the fairway and roll backward into a deep ravine. The Valley is less penal than the Ridge course, as the fairways are wider and the trees more sparse. There are also far less long uphill approaches, which is a little easier on the back.

The three nines at Highland Oaks ($35­$45; 334-712-2820) in Dothan are at the top of anyone's list on the Trail and have played host to the Buy.com Tour Championship. But unless you have more than eight days, they are really off the beaten path and probably aren't worth the driving time. The Hampton Cove courses ($35­$45; 256-551-1818) in Huntsville are nice but just aren't as highly regarded as the other courses and again require too much car time.


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