0

Alabama's prominent golf trail celebrates 20 years

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Signs and billboards across Alabama point to sites on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a near-ubiquitous complex of scenic courses that has helped make the state known for something besides college football and civil rights battles.

There's pretty good golf here, too. The 11-site, 26-course trail has become the best-known golf commodity in Alabama since it was born two decades ago as an investment and a lure for tourists and industry.

To David Bronner, it has succeeded in all three of those categories. It's been a nice swing at positive PR, too, for non-residents of the state that was still known partly for late Gov. George Wallace's stand in a schoolhouse door to block integration.

"When we started out the project, Gov. Wallace was still alive, and that's all they knew about Alabama," said Bronner, head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which funded the trail. "RTJ has given us the opportunity to talk about something else. It gave us the ability to recruit industry like Mercedes and Hyundai and Honda and Navistar.

"It's provided us an opportunity that we didn't have before."

Bronner spoke Wednesday at the tree-lined Oxmoor Valley Course, the first of four Robert Trent Jones-designed courses built in 1992, at an event to celebrate the trail's 20th birthday. They now range across the state from Huntsville's Hampton Cove to Lakewood in Point Clear near the Gulf Coast.

The courses have become big attractions for the state, ranking as the top tourist draw along with the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville with about 500,000 visitors a year, the Alabama Tourism Department said.

It seemed like a bit of an ambitious or outlandish project to some skeptics 20-plus years ago, enough so that Bronner said he has already entitled a summer editorial, "Thank you, critics."

It's unclear how strong an investment the trail has been for the state simply because the numbers are harder to quantify than returns on stocks or companies.

"We're going to give those numbers out at the end of the month," Bronner said. "I think it'll be extremely positive."

The trail has had a built-in outlet for self-promotion: The RSA controls Raycom Media, which owns 46 TV stations nationwide, and Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which has some 80 newspapers.

That explains why Birmingham native and former PGA Tour player Hubert Green saw a commercial when he was playing in the Hawaiian Open years ago.

"I thought, 'My gosh, I'm in Hawaii,'" said Green, a World Golf Hall of Famer. "You could have blown me over with a feather."

Bronner said a state official in Virginia had a different reaction to the frequent ads there.

"The lieutenant governor of Virginia said that if he heard another trail ad on our TV station in Virginia, that he would barf," the blunt-speaking Bronner said. "The little sisters of the poor in Virginia sent me a picture of him barfing. We have an ad there every day, and we will have as long as I live."

He also maintains no state has matched Alabama's trail.

Bronner said nearly 20 states from Montana to Mississippi now have golf trails and New York is working on one.

"But they are not a trail," he said, "all they are basically is a marketing gimmick."

The closest is the Tennessee Golf Trail, he said, which has nine courses at state parks, including some designed by Jack Nicklaus.

Bronner scoffs at having the courses at state parks, "where nobody's at."

"There are no trails like this but the one in Tennessee," he said. "The others are all marketing gimmicks, where they use existing courses, existing products, no staff coordination, no price coordination. No unanimity whatsoever. There's a big difference."

The Alabama trail has apparently been a hit with the LPGA, which has tournaments on Prattville's Capitol Hill and Mobile's Magnolia Grove.

"The reputation of the trail definitely preceded itself," LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said. "Anybody who's close to the golf business knows you've got great golf in Alabama. and when think of golf in Alabama, you think of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail."

Golf course designer Roger Rulewich, a longtime protege of the late Jones, said Bronner wanted long, challenging courses -- and few houses around the course beyond the clubhouses. Bronner hired Bobby Vaughan to assemble a design team, and Vaughan came up with a word that described the ambitious project.

"This was an incredible dream that somebody had," Rulewich said Wednesday at the event with Bronner. "I didn't find out until pretty much we were done with the project what Dr. Bronner was trying to describe. The word Bobby used was, 'We're going to build golf that's outrageous.' I didn't hear that in the beginning. I just heard that he wanted to play the U.S. Open on every golf course that we built on the Trail, or at least be able to.

"Outrageous sort of became the guiding light for us to build challenge and difficulty into this thing."