With 468 holes spread across 11 sites throughout Alabama, picking a "best of" list along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail remains a difficult proposition. Has anybody ever played every hole for a proper comparison?
There's really no bad choice where to play. Many of the clubhouses are similar and every spot but one -- Ross Bridge -- has at least 36 holes.
Since every course but one (Lakewood Golf Club in Point Clear) was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. or his associate architect Roger Rulewich, it's hard to differentiate architecturally from one track to the next. In many cases, the best RTJ stops are simply blessed with better land or a better setting. Other defining characteristics -- such as better lodging or a history of hosting top tournaments -- help break any ties.
Here's a quick breakdown of the top five stops along the trail:
Ross Bridge, Hoover
Comment: The Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa by Marriott is the trail's newest course, opening in 2005. Ross Bridge starts out penal before eventually settling into a good groove. At 8,191 yards, it is one of the longest courses in the world. Not even the Champions Tour players dared to go back to the tips during the Regions Charity Classic from 2006-10. Ten holes skirt two artificial lakes. An 80-foot water feature spills between the ninth and 18th greens from a grist mill built to celebrate the area's mining history. The four-star hotel's 248 guest rooms underwent a $5 million renovation last year. Golfers can easily hop over to Oxmoor Valley, a 54-hole RTJ stop in Birmingham carved from former mining land owned by U.S. Steel.
Capitol Hill, Prattville
Comment: This 54-hole complex 13 miles north of Montgomery is the only trail stop with three championship courses. Our national politics could be a mess, but these three government-named courses prove democracy works beautifully. The Judge Course follows the backwaters of the Alabama River for 14 holes. More than 160 pot bunkers and mountainous mounding give Capitol Hill's Senator Course a links theme. The Legislator Course at Capitol Hill is more traditional golf through pines and a cypress swamp. The Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel & Conference Center at Capitol Hill feels a bit like a corporate hotel, but it's convenient for golfers.
The Shoals, Muscle Shoals
Comment: Tucked in the remote northern corner of the state are the Schoolmaster and Fighting Joe Courses. The 7,971-yard Schoolmaster Course rides elevation changes through pristine natural forest. The Fighting Joe Course , opened in a year earlier in 2004, is one of the five longest courses in the world at 8,092 yards. Virtually treeless, Fighting Joe showcases water on 14 holes and long prairie grasses. Both finish with commanding views of the Tennessee River from the 18th green. Nearby, the Marriott Shoals Resort & Spa overlooks the river and the Wilson Dam. The 200-room resort features Alabama's only revolving restaurant and the Swamper's Bar and Grill, which celebrates the region's rich music tradition with weekly live performances.
Grand National, Auburn/Opelika
Comment: In the heart of Auburn War Eagle country, Grand National skirts the shores of Lake Saugahatchee near the Georgia border. The 7,149-yard Lake Course might be the most scenic course on the trail, while the 7,311-yard Links Course might be the toughest. Grand National's 18-hole short course plays like a hybrid of the two, beautiful but demanding. The nearby Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel & Conference Center at Grand National completes the A-list of amenities.
Magnolia Grove, Mobile
Comment: Magnolia Grove, just 14 miles west of downtown Mobile, regularly hosts the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic on its Crossings Course . Extensive multimillion-dollar remodeling jobs have upgraded both the Crossings and Falls Courses within the past five years. More than 5,000 trees have been removed from the Crossings Course. Green complexes were altered and mostly softened. New water features, like the pond fronting the par 3 at no. 14, add more drama. The Falls Course at Magnolia Grove holds the unique distinction of being the only par 71 on the entire trail. Several holes were entirely redone in 2010. Massive cloverleaf bunkers protect big rolling greens. Water comes into play on six different approach shots. A waterfall defends the par-5 10th hole. Golf Digest named the Short Course at Magnolia Grove -- which features new greens -- as the best par-3 course in America.