Gulf Coast Trip, Day 3: Let the Trail Begin!

After a very scary drive away from Arkansas yesterday, the weather was not an issue here today in Alabama. The big storm is expected to roll in late tonight and may disrupt golf tomorrow and Wednesday, but we’ll have to see how it looks in the morning and play the next two days by ear.

Today, though, the weather cooperated fine enough and I was able to get my first taste of the famed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. The Trail consists of 11 sites and all but one of those locations features at least two courses, so there’s much more golf here than I’ll be able to play during this visit. To not get too much into detail about this history of this unique golf trail, I found this article here that explains it pretty darn well.

My first stop was that one location with only one 18-hole course, but boy, it was a real treat…

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail – Ross Bridge • Hoover, AL4/28/14

Whereas most of the trail locations are featuring a $99 unlimited play special this spring, Ross Bridge charges a little more. Still, at $129, it’s worth a splurge.

Originally, I had a 10:50 tee time here, but with the storm on its way, I called over this morning and they were able to move me up to an 8:00 time. I was paired with another twosome. It was also their first time visiting Ross Bridge, though they were telling me about some of their other favorite RTJ Trail courses they’ve been playing in the past couple years.

There were plenty of folks out this morning and other than a little drizzle here and there along with gloomy skies throughout the round, the weather was just fine for us. We finished in about 4 hours, 15 minutes, so a decent pace behind several other groups.

The golf course at Ross Bridge is connected to the Renaissance Resort within the very nice Ross Bridge community. There are lots of neat brick houses around, but not many along the course.

One thing I can say about this course is that it never gets boring. Every hole is different and presents a unique set of challenges. Water comes into play on a majority of holes and one water hazard (right in between the beautiful holes of 9 and 18) is quite massive.

The fairways are pretty generous, but most holes present some risk/reward angles that tempt you to bite off as much as you can. The more you can bite off the better, because this is a pretty long course and the greens are difficult to get at.

I say “long” because from the tips, this is the 4th longest course in the world (according to the starter anyway) at 8,191 yards. The purple tees are the next ones up at a robust 7,446. We played the oranges, which were more than enough for me at 6,783, made even longer by the soggy conditions.

The layout is very hilly and flat lies can be hard to find. There are a lot of false edges lining any edge of any fairway near a water hazard (steer clear as much as you can or your ball will trundle down the hill) and collection areas around the gigantic greens, as well. The greens here are quite large. They do not have a lot of crazy undulation, but getting up and down from off the green or just trying to walk away with a two-putt aren’t always easy feats.

To me, there were elements of Spyglass Hill (speaking of RTJ Sr.) mixed with what I imagine some of Augusta National looks like in person. Numerous parts of the course felt more Augusta-like than any other course I’ve personally played, from the tall pines and beds of pine needles underneath to the rolling hills and natural undulations of the terrain.

Other parts of the course were wholly different and quite varied. It’s an interesting design in a beautiful setting and it’s a whole lot of fun to play. I thought it was quite challenging, but the workers there didn’t seem to think it was anything too tough. I was surprised when I saw the rating/slope from the oranges was 71.3/118. Of course, from the tips it’s 78.5/135. Either way, Ross Bridge kicked my butt today.

The course was in good overall shape. The tee boxes, fairways and greens were good for the most part (some fairways a bit shaggy and soggy where they couldn’t mow yet) and that’s what counts. The rough still had a lot of brown in it, so it was kind of a semi-dormant look, but it mostly played fine. The bunkers were damp, but the sand was good. Overall, it was maybe a little rough around the edges at this time of year.

Ross Bridge lived up to the hype as the more high-end course on the RTJ Trail, and it set the standards high for the rest of my trip. I would recommend it in a heartbeat!

Some pictures from Ross Bridge (4/28/14):

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Now, tell me the picture below doesn’t look a tiny bit Augusta-esque…

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The plan was to only play Ross Bridge today and casually make my way down to Montgomery in the afternoon. But with the sketchy weather forecasts for the next couple of days, I made an executive (or should I say “legislative”) decision…

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail – Capitol Hill (Judge) • Prattville, AL4/28/14

This is the course I had lined up for tomorrow morning. There are actually three regulation 18-hole courses at the Capitol Hill facility: Judge, Senator and Legislator. By all accounts, the Judge is the centerpiece and is one of the courses I have been most looking forward to playing while visiting the RTJ Trail. I would have really been bummed if I got washed out tomorrow, so I ended up playing it this evening instead.

I decided to stop by the course on the way into town, just to get a preview of what things looked like and feel out what my options would be if tomorrow didn’t work out with the weather. I could see it wasn’t super busy in the late afternoon and the weather was nice (warm, overcast and very muggy, but no storm clouds in sight).

The $99 unlimited play rate was a pre-paid deal, so they let me know I would get a rain check or pro shop credit if tomorrow is a bust. It sucks, but that’s the way things go. Either way, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to play the Judge course, so I just paid a $43 twilight rate and hit the course immediately. I finished in a little under three hours, a good chunk of that on the final four holes when I finally ran into some groups. I am still slated to play Senator and Legislator tomorrow if the weather holds. It may end up costing a little more out of pocket, but it was worth the gamble and also saves me from attempting a 54-hole day tomorrow.

I am really glad I made this decision because the Judge course is awesome. As of right now, I have a hard time saying if I liked it more than Ross Bridge, but I think that might just be the case.

The Judge starts off with one of the coolest opening holes ever, with a huge drop-off to a narrow fairway. Swampy junk on the left, lake on the right and a good tee shot definitely required.

After that, there’s not really any significant elevation changes on Judge. The 18th has an elevated green (guarded by a cool waterfall feature), but that’s about it.

This course embraces its swamp/marsh setting and like Ross Bridge, features a ton of water in play. There’s a good mix of holes. Some relatively simple ones and others that are much more intimidating and tight.

Probably the stand-out element of Judge is the collection of excellent par-3 holes. The 3rd isn’t anything too memorable, but the rest are outstanding.

The 6th features a large island green complex. Again, I played the orange tees, which are only supposed to be 148 on this hole, but they had those closed and moved back to the purple box (190 yards). Definitely intimidating, but I hit the green and got a par!

The 12th is a real ode to the southern swamp setting. The tee shot is directly over a big marsh to a green set way back in the woods. It’s a very cool and unique-looking hole.

The 16th is also great, with water along the right and a very well-protected green.

As you’ll see in the pictures, they used a lot of wood planking around many of the water hazards and there are some rustic wooden bridges connecting holes throughout the course. The coolest one is after you finish 18 and head back up to the clubhouse on a bridge that feels like something out of Disneyland, but much sturdier feeling than the one back home at Mt. Woodson.

Depending on which tees you play, Judge will also test you a heck of a lot. The blacks are 7,813 yards, the purples are 7,082 and the oranges are a more manageable 6,517. Drier conditions compared to my morning round also helped.

“Dry” is probably the best description for the conditions. There was good playability with consistent surfaces throughout, but it was a little firmer and drier in the fairways and rough. The greens were probably more receptive than Ross Bridge, but rolling a little slower. The sand here was excellent.

I’m really glad I got to experience the Judge course. Now that I know what I would have been missing, it was worth a few extra bucks and a few extra hours to play it this afternoon instead of risking it tomorrow. Hopefully I will still get to play the other two courses as planned, but we’ll see.

Some pictures from Capitol Hill (Judge) (4/28/14):

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The strangest story of the day happened when I noticed someone had left their wedge behind by the 9th green. I picked it up and noticed the club had a very appropriate name. I gave it to the marshal, but he later told me he never found who it belonged to. The ghost of the judge must have left it there for me to find. Eerie stuff!

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On the food front, I checked out some more regional chains. Lunch was a quick bite at Zaxby’s. Good menu of chicken-based items, but the food was just okay. Dinner was at a restaurant/sports bar here in Montgomery called Baumhower’s. I guess it’s a southern chain. I got some hot wings that were so/so and then the waiter talked me into a tasty dessert. Basically a big fried pastry chimichanga thing filled with bananas and pudding and topped with powdered sugar, caramel and whipped cream. It was huge and could have been a meal by itself, but it was really good.

Day 1 (No Golf Day 2): Mountain Ranch [Arkansas]

Day 4: Capitol Hill (Legislator and Senator) [Alabama]

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