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Alabama's Golf Renaissance

INSIDE: RTJ Trail Golf; RTJ Trail Accommodations; RTJ Trail Dining; RTJ Trail Plus

With Ireland and Scotland as the possible exceptions, golf road trips are almost universally ignored. Golfers seem far more inclined to pack their bags and park at a resort where driving thirty minutes to an "outsider" course becomes a real cause for grousing. But in this day of increased problems with air travel, perhaps it is time to rethink our park-and-play habits. And the finest golf road trip stateside clearly is the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama.

While not new, the story of the RTJ Trail is one of the most fascinating in golf, and it just keeps getting better. The brainchild of Dr. David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the idea took shape in the 1980s as a way to diversify the assets of the state's pension fund as well as to draw retirees to the state. Coupled with the artisanship of a "retired" Robert Trent Jones, what followed was the largest construction project in the history of golf. The Trail consists of 378 holes scattered over eight sites in one state, the majority of which were planned and constructed within a three-year span and opened for play in 1992 and 1993. Another three courses were completed after Jones died in 1999; just outside of Montgomery, they are some of the most spectacular in the state. And luxury accommodations are now being added at various sites along the way, which makes the experience that much better. But "luxury" comes at a lower price down here, making the Trail still one of the best buys in golf.

Robert Trent Jones, arguably the greatest golf architect of the twentieth century, called the Trail one of his greatest achievements. Beyond a few masterpiece courses, it is hard to imagine a finer accomplishment. The tracks wind through a variety of landscapes, and each captures the distinct topography of its location. Of course, there is a plenitude of RTJ's trademark doglegs, uphill shots, forced carries and undulating greens, yet the courses move from links-style to parkland to target golf and from the imminently playable to the club-throwingly difficult, showing the architect's mastery of design.

Part of the beauty of this trip, moving from the Gulf Coast to the surrounding hills of Birmingham, is that it covers such a wide, culturally diverse area, proving that Alabama certainly isn't just about golf. Along with its reputation for excellent barbeque joints, there are enough top-notch hotels and gourmet restaurants to keep any traveler satisfied. The hospitality is always first-class and never feels forced. It would take a fortnight to play every course, but given a week even the uninitiated can take in most by starting in Mobile and working up I-65 through Montgomery, taking a detour to Auburn and then hitting Anniston and Birmingham.

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