A friend and I had been wanting to play on the Robert Trent Jones (RTJ) Golf Trail for a few years now. We had plans to meet up last year but that didn’t work out so we decided to give it another try! He flew into Atlanta, where I picked him up and we were on our way. Because there are so many courses on the trail we couldn’t get to them all, but tried to pick out those that would somewhat minimize our travel throughout Alabama. I’ll list our itinerary below and then post some collective thoughts about the trail in the Hampton Cove post.
- Thursday 04/28/16: Grand National
- Friday 04/29/16: Capitol Hill
- Saturday 04/30/16: Oxmoor Valley
- Sunday 05/01/16: Limestone Springs (which is not on the trail)
- Monday 05/02/16: Hampton Cove
- Tuesday 05/03/16: Bradshaw Farms in Georgia on the way back to the airport
Our first stop was at Grand National where there are three courses. The two regulation courses are the Lake and the Links and then there is a short course. We didn’t bother with any of the short courses on our trip so I cannot comment on those. We were scheduled for both regulation courses on Thursday and started out on the Lake course. This was my first RTJ Trail course that I’ve played and almost immediately I noticed how great the property is that the facility occupies! If you stand on the clubhouse balcony you’ll see a lake, some pines, and gentle rolling hills. The 1st hole drops down from the pines towards the lake which starts to come into play on the next few holes. That confirmed what I thought when I checked in, the area is spectacular for golf! In case you are curious, the lake is named “Lake Saugahatchee”. Good luck pronouncing that one! I could go on and on about how nice of a setting it is for golf! As an added bonus for our day, we got to enjoy a tour quality course. The Lake Course is the stop for the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship!
As you can imagine based on the name of the course, the Lake course has plenty of water in play! Many holes hug the shoreline so you could drop a ball in the lake on half of the holes, easily. Plus, there is a pond that affects play on a couple other holes so make sure to bring your “A” game! Many fairways and greens border the lake and there are views of it on quite a few other shots. The holes that aren’t around the lake are carved through the trees with a playable amount of elevation change. There are a couple jaw dropping holes which I will highlight a little later in the review. Unfortunately, because I’ve got so many reviews to post I don’t have the time to do hole by hole comments. But, I took plenty of pictures so be sure to enjoy those!
We played the Orange tees which are 70.6/122/6488 on the scorecard. I have no idea how the slope and rating aren’t higher by at least two and ten strokes, respectively! My friend and I joined a single who explained that when he posted his scores at some other trail courses, it appears some were re-rated. No matter what, the Lake course is a beast with lots of trouble! Besides the water, which was hidden at times, you should expect every shot to be involved. The course is heavily bunkered off the tee and the fairways are tiny in the landing areas! Unfortunately, I had to challenge all the bunkers on my drives because the holes aren’t short enough for me to lay back. Most of the par 4’s are mid-length and with all the bunkers, it didn’t seem like there was much strategy off the tee. It seemed like my options on the tee shots were either, hit a good drive or struggle. There wasn’t much in-between.
It wasn’t much different from the fairways either. If you manage to find the fairways then you are going to have to deal with some slope in them and greens that have a bunch of break. Even as a 6 handicap, the slope made it difficult for me to control the distance and shape of my shots and I found myself trying to play to the fat parts of the greens. That seemed like a good plan until I realized that just about every putt and chip over 20 feet went over a ridge and back downhill to the pin. There were numerous occasions where I couldn’t stop a chip, even if I didn’t short side it. There are some deep fall-offs around the greens, sometimes into water and other times into chipping areas.
I’m not trying to type this review or any other in an attempt to bash a course! I approach a review from a few different angles and playability is one them. I’m not afraid to say that I like to get away with some garbage shots throughout the round. You cannot do that here! I’ve played some other Robert Trent Jones courses and the Lake Course is consistent with the those in terms of difficulty. So, if you like his work you’ll probably love the course! In the back of my mind, I had hoped that the courses on the RTJ Golf Trail would be more player friendly because of all the tourist golf that the trail courses were designed to attract. The Lake Course didn’t get that hope off to a good start, that’s for sure!
I don’t want the above paragraphs to overshadow just how beautiful the holes are laid out on the shoreline! On the front nine, the 2nd and 7th are the standout holes to me. The 2nd is a 381 yard par 4 (#1 handicap) that hugs the shoreline. There are two bunkers right of the fairway and water on the left which make it a great driving hole. An edge of the green sticks out into the lake which can gobble up approaches that are just a little off the mark. The 7th sits across from the 2nd and is a mid-length par 5 that could be reached in two. The water shouldn’t be in play until the shot into the green, but you might have plenty of options on the second shot. On the back nine, the 12th is another risk/reward par 5 where I ended up with tap in birdie after nearly having eagle putt. The drive over the lake is one of those where you can bite off as much as much as you can chew, setting up a chance to reach in two. The 15th, a 182 yard par 3 with an island green, has to be the signature hole. It almost looks a little like the 12th at Augusta, playing over the water to a narrow green! It is one of those “do or die” shots.
We encountered quite a few storms on the trip and on the drive over to Opelika it rained pretty much the whole way. As you’d guess, it was cart path only and soft. However, the course design and the maintenance crew handled all the rain with ease. The course drained well and everything looked like it should be during peak season. The fairways were full and cut so that I could clip the ball and the greens were on the firm side. I’m not sure if the greens here are a different grass than the other courses, but for whatever reason I had some putts wiggle. The only flaw with their looks were some sanded edges and remnants of old cup cuts. The greens were a tad slower than they looked, but with all the slopes in them I think that’s just fine! The bunkers were packed down because of the rain but consistent. I was expecting them to be filled with water, but they must have a great drainage system.
There are a couple things that I’m going to remember about the Lake Course. First, I’m going to remember the 15th. I sent that picture to a friend and he commented that it looked like something from a postcard! I loved the thrill of standing over my 6 iron with the wind swirling knowing that I needed to hit a great shot. I knocked it in the bunker, but that will probably be one of my favorite par 3’s that I’ll play all year! The second thing I’ll remember about the course is how much every shot demanded. If you can shoot your handicap here, you’ve done an A+ job.
#1 (364 yard par 4):
#2 (381 yard par 4):
#3 (178 yard par 3):
#4 (480 yard par 5):
#5 (396 yard par 4):
#6 (381 yard par 4):
#7 (521 yard par 5):
#8 (182 yard par 3):
#9 (379 yard par 4):
#10 (397 yard par 4):
#11 (387 yard par 4):
#12 (493 yard par 5):
#13 (388 yard par 4):
#14 (510 yard par 5):
#15 (182 yard par 3):
#16 (297 yard par 4):
#17 (174 yard par 3):
#18 (398 yard par 4):