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In Alabama, taking on golf's green monsters

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama is one of the game's great deals
$2,200 covers airfare, lodging and 14 rounds of golf at these classic Alabama courses

Our destination was the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Alabama's collection of 468 often-spectacular holes at 11 locations from Muscle Shoals in the north to Point Clear at the southern tip of the state.

For golf junkies  like us — three journalists and an oil refinery worker — this trip is as good as it gets.

Extraordinary golf courses, plenty of interesting restaurants, good accommodations, hospitality that you read about but almost never actually experience and, perhaps best of all, a price tag that journalists and oil-refinery workers can easily afford.

We made this trip in early June, just after the lower summer rates went into effect , for about $2,200 apiece. That covered plane fare on Southwest ($399), 14 rounds of golf over 6½ days ($797), lodging ($462), a minivan ($92) and food, including wine and beer ($450).

By comparison, I recently received an offer from Pebble Beach for a round of golf at Pebble and one at the Links at Spanish Bay, plus two nights at the Inn at Spanish Bay.

That package started at $2,125, and, of course, did not include travel, food or caddie fees.

Sure, Pebble Beach is Pebble Beach, but you get the idea about the value of this Alabama trip, and the courses throughout the trail stand up to most resorts anywhere.

As always, our plan was simple. After flying from L.A. to Birmingham, we would play three days at Grand National near the lively college town of Auburn, then drive back up to Birmingham to play three more full days, plus a half day the final Saturday before flying out that afternoon.  

Thirty-six holes a day for six days, unless anyone had the energy to play a third round. (Doug and I did once, adding a trip around the marvelous short course at Grand National. Sam and Steve were pretty gassed at that point and elected to ride around in a cart and act as the gallery.)

Sam, who generally considers one round of golf a full day, had a description for our obsession with hitting golf balls during most of our waking hours: "This is like jogging around the block for two Sundays, then going out and running a half-marathon."

It’s difficult to overstate the pedigree of the golf at these sites. Grand National has two championship-quality long courses — the Lake and the Links — plus the par-three Short Course, which is one of the delights of the golf world.

The courses encircle the 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee, and water comes into play on so many holes that you need to make sure you’ve stocked up on golf balls before hitting your first tee shot.

The long courses are both spectacular and spectacularly challenging, the kind of layouts that make low handicappers want to hit from the front tees and make high handicappers want to take up bowling.

A tip: Don’t try to be a hero. Play conservatively and you’ll keep your stress level at a manageable level.

We’ve played at seven of the 11 sites, and these two are the consensus favorites.

But the two courses at Muscle Shoals and three at Capitol Hill near Montgomery are also really muscular tracks, with all the vistas and challenges of the layouts in Birmingham and Auburn/Opelika.

We’ve yet to try the four southernmost locations. There’s time for that.

Our routine didn’t vary much; we relied on the locals to direct us to the best places for dinner. You’ll get plenty of help from just about anyone you meet.

Our favorite dinner discovery in Auburn was The Hound, an inauspicious-looking haunt that at first glance looked like a glorified college bar. It’s much more.

It has more than 100 whiskeys, an enormous tap room of craft beers and a menu that won’t quit. I had Mama Kate’s meatloaf, with smashed potatoes and a side of collard greens that might have been the best vegetable dish I’ve ever had.

Plus, with beers such as Oskar Blues Deviant Dale’s Nitro IPA and Evil Twin Lil’ B porter, how can you go wrong? We tried the samplers, with four beers ranging from moderately light to dark. Delicious.

We stayed at the Marriott Grand National, which has expanded significantly since our last trip about three years ago. It’s now a full-service resort with expansive pools, including waterfalls and outdoor bar, tennis courts and, my favorite feature, a never-ending supply of gourmet jelly beans on the reception-desk counter.

In Birmingham, there are two golf locations: Oxmoor Valley with two championship courses — the Valley and the Ridge, a rolling collection of dramatic elevation changes — plus another terrific par-three layout.

A couple of miles away is the trail’s newest course, Ross Bridge, a monster that can play as long as 8,191 yards from the back tees. A PGA Champions Tour event was held at the course — but certainly not from those tees.

It’s another beautiful layout on more than 300 acres, enough area for two courses.

We stayed at a Courtyard Marriott in Birmingham, but the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa at the course is a great option, though a bit pricier.  

One thing to remember: We’ve never been to a restaurant on our Alabama trips that balked at providing separate checks. That includes what might be our favorite dinner spot on the Trail: the Bright Star restaurant in Bessemer, just outside Birmingham.

It’s the oldest family-owned restaurant in the state, opened in 1907, and has photos of the folks who have come here for the world-class gumbo or the beef voted best steak in Alabama: Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, Elvis Presley, Sandra Bullock, and your travelers from L.A.

By the way, if you make this trip, don’t identify yourself as from L.A. That means Lower Alabama around these parts.

Info: RTJ golf trail

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