Fairway of Dreams

A weekend with Robert Trent Jones
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On the RTJ Golf Trail

Photo courtesy of the author. 

A quarter century ago, David G. Bronner encountered an unlikely problem: he needed to spend a few hundred million dollars. The Minnesota native, who went to the University of Alabama to get his law and doctoral degree and never left the state, had been heading Alabama's pension fund since 1973. Under his lead, the Retirement Services of Alabama invested smartly and effectively, increasing the value of its portfolio from $500 million to $8 billion by the mid-1980s. But Bronner wanted to diversify the investments to decrease the likelihood of a shock to the system. And if he could kickstart tourism to the downtrodden state, well shucks, that would be a boon as well.

Bronner turned to Kevin Costner. "If you build it, they will come," the executive thought to himself, editing a baseball field in Iowa for a public golf course in the Heart of Dixie. Check that. Actually, Bronner imagined twenty-one golf courses spread out across eight sites around the state. He would make a golf trail. And the people would come.

(A brief aside about the Field of Dreams anecdote: while it appears in many stories about the creation of the Trail, it is, very likely, apocryphal. That said, if you spend a certain amount of time in Alabama, the idea that a Minnesotan would act on a vision of building a massive golf trail inspired by a Hollywood movie is not that far from the realm of possibility. The bigger question is how a man from the midwest ended up in charge of the state's pension fund.)

Bronner hired Robert "Bobby" Vaughan to deal with the details of his dream. The director of Clemmons, North Carolina's Tanglewood Golf Club formed SunBelt Golf Corporation and sent out a call for course designers to pitch their ideas. Legendary octogenarian Robert Trent Jones Sr. answered—he literally phoned Vaughan—and won the job with his "hard par/easy bogey" philosophy that previously revolutionized the sport's courses. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail moved within a chip and a putt of realization. (Jones's associate Roger Rulewich did most of the actual design work, but his boss's name hangs over entire affair. The younger man doesn't seem to mind.)

The crew broke ground on five sites during the winter of 1990. They had less than two and a half years to build the first twelve courses. "The invasion of earth moving equipment throughout the state was tantamount to a D-Day of bulldozers," RTJ's website reads with predictable but perhaps inappropriate bluster. "Over 700 pieces of equipment were in operation at one time."

The invasion succeeded. In May 1992, Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham opened, marking the debut of the RTJ Golf Trail. Three sites followed soon after, with another eight courses opening the next year. Capitol Hill, Ross Bridge, Lakewood Golf Club, and The Shoals came later, bringing the Trail to its current 468 holes (twenty-six courses) on eleven different sites. The entire affair cost the state $200 million ($500 and $600 million if you include hotels sit a short golf cart ride away from eight of the sites). Praise for the courses was effusive from the overblown (Golf's "Alabama has the American golfer's equivalent of Disney World.") to the ridiculously overblown (Cincinnati Inquirer's "Alabama's 100 miles of golf stands on par with the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Interstate Highway System.")

The ambitious project was undeniably a success. It celebrates its twentieth anniversary and 10 millionth round in this year. Bronner is hailed as a "visionary," and the RTJ Trail is widely credited for dramatically improving the state's haul of tourism dollars. In a promotional publication available at any of the pro shops along the trail, Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (not a golfer himself, but father of two golfing sons) writes: "By visiting Alabama, you become not only our honored guests, but a critical component of our economy. Tourism is a growing industry in Alabama, as travelers spent an estimated $9 billion in our state in 2010 [up from $2 billion twenty years ago]." He proceeds to invite tourists to relax on the beautiful Gulf Coast beaches, experience championship college football in Auburn or Tuscaloosa, or take in a show at the world-class Alabama Shakespeare Festival after they have their fill of "chasing that little white ball." If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Trail should be proud. Both Louisiana and Tennessee mimicked the plan with the Jack Nicklaus-designed Bear Trace and The Audubon Golf Trail, respectively.

In addition to tourist dollars, the RTJ Trail takes partial credit for attracting business from abroad. "In the last two decades, our state has landed a Mercedes plant and hundreds of Asian manufacturers. The list is a mile long," Bronner told Executive Golf. "As our industry base has expanded, the average wage of our citizens has ticked up. These are good paying jobs we are attracting." Hyperbole for sure, but the courses are something that separates Alabama from the rest of the south. Its existence is a calling card for the state, a place for executives to take their clients (and a counterweight to those pesky immigration laws).

The creation of RTJ succeeded in helping to diversify the pension fund as well. The Retirement Services of Alabama—which also runs Manhattan's 55 Water Street, the largest privately owned office building in the city under the lesser-known "if you buy it, they will rent it" corollary—rakes in greens fees. Although the Trail prides itself on being a great value (it is), the 550,000 rounds a year cost between $46 and $136. And then there is the revenue from hotels and associated development properties that line some of the courses. (All the land for the courses was donated, some of it by developers who hoped, accurately, that their adjacent property would increase in value.)

The courses, by and large, are beautiful. In an effort to encourage people to play during the off-season, the Trent Jones Trail offers an all-you-can-play, three-day package for $135 (plus cart fees). Three friends and I hit six courses over a recent long weekend. We played thirty-six holes a day, spending one day each at Oxmoor Valley, Capitol Hill, and Grand National. Trent Jones, or rather, Rulewich, built the courses into the topography of the land. Holes run over the rivers and through the Alabama woods. (One cart attendant told us they spent $4 million building bridges at Capitol Hill's "Judge" course alone. The figure seems high, but after spending a full 30 seconds driving up a bridge that winds around a hill back to the elevated clubhouse, not outrageously so. He also told us the course was "hard as balls," an assessment that proved completely accurate.) Many courses feature dramatic elevation changes, lush vegetation, and, occasionally, passing trains. The fairways were impressively green for late February and the greens were, well, green, too.

It is not a perfect experience. The food, standard throughout the restaurants in the clubhouses, could be better—the undercooked Famous Robert Trent Jones Trail Dog, a grilled quarter-pound, all-beef frank served with chili, cheese, and onions for $5.50, is standard fare—and the coffee is not nearly strong enough for an 8 a.m. tee time. But these are mostly extraneous details. The employees are unfailingly nice, offering a mix of southern hospitality and talking points that must be reiterated during orientation. They all said how excited they were to see customers during "this time of year" as they steeled themselves against the 50-degree weather. They also frequently quoted the number of rounds played the previous day. "We had 300 rounds yesterday," one starter said, as if this figure possessed some significance to four bleary eyed guys from New York. We smiled, nodded with equal significance, and teed off into the far green yonder.

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