Gulf Coast Trip, Day 5: A Grand Adventure

Today was another 36-hole day on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Trail, though I’ll be reviewing three courses. I got into Auburn early yesterday afternoon and wanted to take advantage of the good weather, so I headed over to Grand National in neighboring Opelika to get a headstart…

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail – Grand National • Opelika, AL • 4/29/14-4/30/14

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I ended up playing the Short Course there yesterday, which is a beautiful 18-hole par-3 track. I’ll review that last, though, since the real focus at Grand National is two really spectacular championship designs, Lake and Links.

I got there early this morning. Another night of heavy rains soaked the courses pretty good, but I was ready to play starting at 7:00. The Grand National golf complex was constructed along the shores of small Lake Saugahatchee, which came to be after a dam was built nearby and they began developing this prime piece of property. According to their marketing, Robert Trent Jones Sr. himself said it was the best piece of golf property he’d ever seen when he first laid his eyes upon it.

All three courses feature a mix of holes. Some run right along the water’s edge with kind of a marshy feel. Others go up into the hills and remind me very much of courses on the Monterey Peninsula. Poppy Hills comes most to my mind.

Unlike Capitol Hill from yesterday, the courses at Grand National have a very similar look, design and feel. It’s no complaint because it’s 54 holes of greatness in a truly “grand” setting for golf.

Lake Course

I started today on the Lake Course, teeing off first by myself. There wasn’t anyone on the tee sheet for at least another hour behind me, so I had it all to myself. Well, me an the maintenance workers. Because it was so soggy, they were running as cart-path-only. From a visual perspective, it’s nice that they keep the paths well away from the playing areas. It looks prettier for sure, but man it sucks playing cart-path-only trudging through the mud as a single player!

I’m not sure which course here is considered to the main “star,” but if I had to pick I would go with Lake for one simple reason: the 15th hole. This is the signature hole of Grand National—a par-3 over the water to a natural island green (meaning the little piece of land appeared there magically when the lake was formed). Technically it’s a peninsula because it’s connected by a little path from the mainland, but in most golf circles outside of Coeur d’Alene (I’m looking at you Sawgrass) it’s still considered an “island.”

From the tips, this hole plays at 230 yards of all carry. I played the orange tees and it was still pretty intimidating at around 170.

Even if you take that hole away, Lake is still a beautiful, fun and challenging layout that will put your game to the test. The fairways are wide and generous, but the greens are well protected and generally elevated to put a premium on coming in high rather than trying to run anything up from below.

Despite the wetness, the courses were in great shape and definitely the “greenest” looking ones I’ve played yet. The greens on the Short course were a little bumpy, but the main courses had excellent greens. Like Capitol Hill, the storms did some major damage to the bunkers, which is unfortunate. However, the workers were already adding in some new sand and starting to work on them as I was playing.

Some pictures from Grand National (Lake): (4/30/14):

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Links Course

I played the Links course second, teeing off a little after 10:00. I did run into some groups on the course, but the pace was still decent as I finished around 1:30. Even though the weather has put a real damper on this trip (literally and figuratively), it’s actually worked in my favor when it comes to pace. With people staying away, I’ve been able to zip around quickly and move on to my next destinations earlier than expected.

I didn’t think I would have time to write the blog tonight after having to drive 3.5 hours to Mobile, but here I am with plenty of time to do my thing.

Anyway, there’s not much to say about the Links course that I haven’t already stated. It offers all the same excellent features, scenery and design elements as Lake. In its own right, it’s an amazing course that I can only say good things about.

The “Links” name made me expect a more throwback linksy design like Senator yesterday, but this really isn’t in that mold. Some really anal reviewers might point out some subtle design differences (like a few extra mounds and bunkers evocative of links courses), but I think you’re splitting hairs at that point.

Probably the stand-out hole of Links is the finisher. The 18th of this course blows away the 18th on Lake, which is probably the weakest hole on either course. Number 18 on Links finds you flirting with the lake along the left side for your tee shot. Then you still have a fairly long shot in over a strip of water to an elevated green sitting atop a wall of big rocks. The neat clubhouse is up on the hill behind it.

In other words, if you visit Grand National, play both (make that all three) courses and you will not be disappointed at any point.

Some pictures from Grand National (Links) (4/30/14):

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Short Course

A few of the RTJ Trail sites have these “short” courses for a little bonus play. They are legit 18-hole courses with only par-3s, but far from your ordinary “pitch and putt” track. They are as professionally designed and maintained as their big brothers.

Such is the case with the Short Course at Grand National. Originally, I was hoping to squeeze it in as a third round today as part of my unlimited play day here, but with the long drive to Mobile on my mind and nothing to do yesterday afternoon, I decided to play it a day early. It cost an extra $31 out of pocket to just pay for that round, but it was worth it for the overall timing of things.

Depending on which tees you play, this can either be a very fun, leisurely little “challenge” round with your buddies, or it can be a stern test of every one of your golf skills. I played the orange tees, which had a great mix of hole lengths ranging from 108 up to 185 yards. Most are in the 140-160 range, though. If you want to beef up the challenge, you can play the back purple tees. 138 yards is the shortest distance here with several holes playing at over 200, including the tough 9th, which is 250 over a ravine/creek. There are also white and teal tees forward for novice players or people who just want to fire at the pins.

There are a couple holes that have you hitting directly over the lake, which is fun and intimidating. Several others play right along the water’s edge. I found myself a little underwhelmed early on, but things really kick into gear on the 8th, which is the first (and best) one playing directly over the water. After that, you have an excellent stretch that lasts up until the final few holes as you head back toward the clubhouse.

Whatever your excuse to play the Short Course at Grand National, it’s well worth the visit. It’s regarded as one of the best par-3 tracks in the country and I can understand why. Some people might not be able to take par-3 courses seriously, but they’d be missing out on this one. It’s not quite as nicely maintained as the big courses here, but still very nice by any standards.

Some pictures from Grand National (Short) (4/29/14):

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This ungrateful little guy was not happy when I moved him off the middle of the cart path:

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

Day 6: Magnolia Grove (Crossings, Falls & Short) [Alabama]

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