Alabama is full of unexpected joys, from the musical history of Muscle Shoals to a renowned botanical garden and thriving craft beer scene in Birmingham. But one of the state’s biggest draws is the quality of its golf courses along the state’s famed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Meandering from the Appalachians in the north down to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, the trail is punctuated by 26 world-class courses across 11 sites — and 12 million rounds of golf have been played on the trail in just over a quarter century.
The opportunity to develop the trail inspired golf course designer Robert Trent Jones Sr. to come out of retirement nearly 30 years ago and take on the enormous construction project. The result? A series of public courses that are regularly ranked among the nation’s best and cater to everyone from beginning golfers to PGA Tour and LPGA professionals.
Thinking of chipping your way through Alabama? Here are a few must-hit links (and a few ideas on things to do and what to eat after you’ve sunk your last putt).
Start things off in the rolling hills of the Shannon Valley at the fifth-longest course in the world. Ross Bridge pays homage to golf’s Scottish roots, with nightly bagpipe players, and would make the game’s forbearers proud.
The course spans some 8,191 yards, and 10 of the holes follow the banks of two lakes separated by a breathtaking waterfall. The course caters to golfers of all skill levels, and even non-golfers will enjoy a visit to the lush, picturesque grounds. Prices start at $120 per round.
If you have time to explore after 18 holes, the aforementioned craft beer scene is red hot; sip a cold pale ale from Birmingham’s own Good People Brewing Company or the Pillar to Post Rye Brown from TrimTab Brewing. If you’re seeking a quiet respite, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens are renowned around the Southeast.
For dinner, head to the much-lauded Highlands Bar and Grill, which the prestigious James Beard Foundation recently named the most outstanding restaurant in America. Highlands had been a finalist for the award for the previous nine years.
Plenty of other Beard honorees call the Birmingham area home. In 2012, Chris Hastings, chef and co-owner of Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club, won a James Beard Award for best chef in the South. And The Bright Star in Bessemer was named an “America’s Classic” in 2010.
Next, head to the center of the state at the spot Robert Trent Jones Sr. described as the single greatest site for a golf complex he’d ever seen. The legendary golfer so loved the area along Lake Saugahatchee that he built three courses there — and called the 600-acre complex Grand National. Any of the three courses will have scenic shots and ample challenges, but the Lake and Links courses are the two favorites among pros.
Lake takes you around Saugahatchee, meaning the view is always breathtaking. Links has one of the most widely adored 18th holes in the country. The public course is open year-round, and prices start at $65.
Don’t leave the area without exploring Auburn University. If you time the visit right, you’ll get to see one of Auburn’s War Eagles in person at the Southeastern Raptor Center and grab a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade at Toomer’s Corner.
And should the Tigers win a game when you’re in town, you’ll get to see one of college sports’ greatest traditions: Thousands of fans head to Toomer’s Corner to roll toilet tissue around every tree and lamppost in sight. (Auburn is the only city in the country with a line item in its budget for removing toilet tissue.)
Pop over to nearby Auburn on the way out of town and grab a bite at Acre restaurant, which breathes new life into Deep South classics, resulting in a fresh, modern look at cuisine. Fruits, veggies and herbs are grown in Acre’s own gardens and orchards, and the seafood is sourced from the Gulf Coast. Try to get a table on the shaded front porch in the summer or near the hearth-style fireplace in the winter.
From Opelika, head 76 miles west, just past the state capitol of Montgomery, to the town of Prattville. There you’ll find Capitol Hill, another Jones-designed compound that spans 1,500 acres and offers three 18-hole courses.
Each course has very different layouts and styles. Try to play the Judge course, which (like Grand National) has stunning views. Hole one, the signature hole, will be one of the most breathtaking tees you’ve ever stood on, looking down on the course and lake, with lush, green land as far as the eye can see. Other highlights include the Senator, a links-style course, and the Legislator, a traditional Southern golf course. Prices start at $65.
When you’ve called it a day, head back to Montgomery (about 13 miles away) to explore that city’s rich history. The Hank Williams Museum is a must-stop for music lovers, and the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Rosa Parks Museum and Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church tell the story of the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
Don’t leave town hungry, either. Consider Central, widely acknowledged as one of Montgomery’s most innovative eateries. Tucked into the downtown Entertainment District, Central brings a Southern twist to international flavors and features locally sourced ingredients on its seasonal menu. Though dishes rotate, favorites include the sweet tea–brined pork chop and the rabbit and ramp spaetzle.
Celebrate Alabama’s 200th birthday in 2019 during the ALABAMA 200 bicentennial festivities. From the Shoals to the shores, ALABAMA 200 will present educational programs, community activities and statewide initiatives aimed at teaching, inspiring and entertaining visitors and locals alike.