Ross Bridge Resort is a gem of the Robert Trent Jones Trail in Alabama

by Mac Lacy 31. October 2011 23:03

The stately Ross Bridge Resort, seen here from the first tee,  holds a commanding

place on the property and is visible from many holes on the golf course.

Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa is carved out of the Appalachian foothills just minutes from busy Birmingham, Alabama.  As soon as you drive onto this resort property that carries a Scottish theme for its namesake, you can feel yourself begin to relax just a bit.  We arrived here after breakfast at FarmLinks by way of a schedule change.  Due to a wet forecast for Friday, our hosts with the RTJ Trail set us up to play this resort's spectacular course a day early.

I've played this course a couple of times with the resort's general manager, Steve Miller, who is a pretty good player.  Steve had planned to play with us at Ross Bridge, but when we switched dates, he ended up playing with us the next day at the nearby RTJ Trail's Oxmoor Valley course.  I had the chance to play with Mike Gunn, a sales executive with the Greater Birmingham CVB, and a couple of fellow writers.  Ross Bridge is one of the longest golf courses in the world if you play it from the back tees.  Not only did we not do that, but I don't remember ever seeing anyone play from those tees in my rounds here.  It measures nearly 8,200 yards from the tips.

The first thing you notice about this course is that you almost always have a great view of the imposing Ross Bridge Resort from anywhere on the course.  This 259-room resort hotel sits on the property's highest point and is a focal point for any round here.  The golf shop is attached to the hotel, so guests walk from their rooms into the pro shop.  Each room has a balcony and the rates at Ross Bridge are very reasonable compared to most resorts of this caliber.  Miller told us at lunch the next day that $189 a night was a fairly good average rate here.  He also estimated that as many as a third of all guests in the resort played the course at least once during their stay.

Ross Bridge has some great holes and its greens are a bit less severe than some of the other RTJ Trail courses.  This is a resort course and if you play it from a reasonable tee based on your handicap, you can score here. 

After golf, I went to my room and opened the balcony doors overlooking the resort pool.  As I got out of the shower I heard the bagpiper.  A lone piper began on the first tee and walked a bit around the property, ending up on the poolside patio.  I listened for 20 minutes or so while I relaxed on the balcony.  This is an evening signature at Ross Bridge and it really drives home the resort's Scottish theme.  Bluegrass music has been described as a "high lonesome sound".  Bagpipe music?  For me it has always been ethereal and haunting. Something best heard from a distant hill.  This tradition makes a lasting impression for any visit to Ross Bridge Resort.


The finishing holes on each nine come in over this lake at Ross Bridge Resort.

The Ross Bridge course measures almost 8,200 yards from its back tees.

Players carry as much of the lake as they can with their drives on 18.  Their second shot will also carry

over water to this heavily bunkered green.

Tags: , ,

Golfing in Alabama

Grand National and FarmLinks in one gloriously long day

by Mac Lacy 31. October 2011 20:50

In early morning, mist off the lakes at Grand National gives golfers a memorable look at Alabama's scenery.

We started early on Wednesday, teeing off at 7:00 a.m. on the Lakes Course of the RTJ complex at Grand National in Auburn-Opelika.  Many consider this course to be among the most scenic in the entire RTJ system.  By starting early, we saw lots of holes draped in fog and mist rising from its large lakes.  Llke so many RTJ layouts, the greens on this course are large, sculpted and fast.  If you are above the hole on these greens, lagging a putt anywhere close to the hole is a challenge. 

There are two regulation size courses here, the Links and the Lakes Course, and a short course (18-hole par three).  This site is dominated by nearby 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee.  Of the 54 holes at Grand National, well over half have water on them from this lake system.  Twelve holes on the course we played were on the lake, including the par-three 15th, which is considered a signature hole for the entire RTJ Trail.  After grabbing lunch and a quick video interview with director of golf, Scott Gomberg, we headed for FarmLinks, about an hour away.

This is one of the great golf stories in Alabama.  FarmLinks at Pursell Farms was envisioned by David Pursell, an accomplished artist and golfer who grew up in the family's fertilizer business.  Pursell dreamed of building a demonstration golf course in tiny Sylacauga, Alabama and inviting golf course superintendants to fly in from across the country for training in turf management.  His vision became reality in 2003 with FarmLinks was completed, designed and built by Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry.  Pursell sold the family fertilizer business in 2006, but continues to oversee FarmLinks, which hosts corporate partners like Toro and ClubCar.  Hundreds of golf course superintendants have already been to FarmLinks, where they study turf management, play golf and enjoy the first-class amenities afforded at this golf resort, which was recently named #39 of Golf Digest's 75 Best Golf Resorts in North America.

The course itself was a contrast to the tight, tree-lined RTJ courses we had played the first two days.  FarmLinks is a great golf course with wide, sweeping fairways that allowed for a few errant drives without as much penalty.  The greens were impeccable, but less undulating and much easier to lag long putts on once you had the speed down.  The vistas on this golf course are farm vistas--broad expanses of wildflowers and fields with trees in shadows on the horizon.  The par-three 5th hole is a signature hole that drops maybe a couple of hundred feet depending on which tees you play.  The 18th, by contrast, is a long par-five that is carved from former cropland and seems to stretch forever back towards the clubhouse.  Pursell told us he loved the 18th because "we used 150 acres of farmland to create that hole."

Pursell joined us for dinner that evening at Parker Lodge, a rustic inn overlooking the 17th green and lake, that has eight guestrooms, a warm great room, complete kitchen facilities, and other amenities.  He spent an hour or so with us over steaks and detailed his vision for this family enterprise.  FarmLinks is about an hour from Birmingham and should be included in any golf trip to that part of Alabama.  Reservations are recommended and for $135 you can play all day with all beverages, range balls and lunch provided. Alcohol is not permitted on the course or sold on the facility.


Water down the left side guards the entire second hole on the Lakes Course at Grand National in Opelika.


The par three 5th hole is a signature at FarmLinks.


I shot this archway from Parkers Lodge overlooking the 17th hole after our overnight stay.


Owner David Pursell used "150 acres of farmland" to build the 18th hole at FarmLinks.

Golfers receive unlimited golf, range balls, lunch, and beverages on the course for one fee at FarmLinks.

Tags: , ,

Golfing in Alabama

A week of golf is outstanding in Alabama

by Mac Lacy 31. October 2011 20:02

The Senator is one of three championship courses at Prattville's Capitol Hill complex on the RTJ Trail.

Last week I joined a group of golf writers and Pam Shaheen of Crossroads Marketing Inc. for a week-long trip to play golf courses in Alabama. We played several of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses, plus a couple that are marketed as part of the Honours Golf collection. The RTJ Trail will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and has been a unqualified success in the mission set out for it by the state's retirement system. The system was built to highlight Alabama as a travel destination and as a prospective site for new economic development. Over the past two decades, golf groups in this country and abroad have found their way to Alabama as a result, and three major automobile plants have landed here. Mercedes Benz, Honda and Hyundai-Kia have all begun production here over that time period. Honours Golf manages golf courses in numerous southeastern states.

Due to flight delays, I missed the first round at Highland Park, a venerable old course in downtown Birmingham. However, I've played this course numerous times with Jim Smither of the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. This is an Honours course that is owned by the city of Birmingham and it was in great shape. Its heritage includes a tournament won there by Bobby Jones when he was a teenager. Bob Hope also played this course when he was in Birmingham years ago. We made our way that evening to Montgomery, where we dined as a group at Dreamland BBQ, an Alabama institution that began in Tuscaloosa. I had a great pork plate and their signature banana pudding for dessert. Several members of the Montgomery CVB and Alabama tourism office joined us at Dreamland.

The following morning, I played at Capitol Hill, an RTJ complex in nearby Prattville that includes three 18-hole regulation layouts. We played The Senator, a links-style course that hosts the LPGA's Navistar Classic golf tournament.  The Senator layout is immaculate and its greens are treacherously fast,  but I was also fascinated by the course's use of indiginous kudzu.  Several holes on the front that are framed by kudzu-draped forests. As a southerner, I'm familiar with this wild plant that overtakes entire sections of forests and creates eerie backdrops that are as beautiful as they are mysterious. Ravines and glens on some holes were covered by this vine and made for gorgeous canopies along the way. Director of Golf Mike Beverly joined my group and we had a great weather for golf.

That evening, we made our way to Auburn, where I stayed at the impressive Hotel at Auburn University. John Wild, president of the Auburn and Opelika Tourism Bureau, arranged to take us on a tour of Jordan-Hare Stadium, home to the 2010 national champion Auburn football team, and then hosted us at Brick Oven Pizza, a campus icon, for pizza, calzones and beer.


The Senator course at Capitol Hill is host to the LPGA's Navistar Classic each summer.


I loved the kudzu that framed several holes on the front nine.  This wild plant is prevalent in many parts of the American south.


We stopped for a moment to take in the wild foliage that thrived in this ravine on The Senator's front side.

Tags: , ,

Golfing in Alabama

Photos from the coast

by Brian Jewell 5. October 2009 20:35

It's the recurring dilema of the travel writer: When you spend a few days touring a destination, you always see and experience much more than you will actually be able to write about, or even to blog about.  So before I pack my bags and prepare to head to the airport tomorrow morning, here are some of my favorite photos from other parts of the trip that haven't appeared in the blog yet.

The outdoor pool at The Beach Club.


A riverside scene in the peaceful small community of Magnolia Springs.

One of several great shots from a dolphin-watching cruise in the Gulf.


Fort Morgan -- a Civil War-era fortress across the bay from Mobile.


The Wharf in Orange Beach has a large Ferris wheel, in addition to dozens of shops and restaurants.


Sunset at Gulf State Park, which features the longest pier on the Gulf Coast.


A glass-blowing demonstration in the Hot Shop at Orange Beach Arts Center.

Underwater citizens of the Gulf Coast

by Brian Jewell 5. October 2009 18:59

Seafood lovers are used to seeing shrimp, crab, fish and oysters on their dinner plates, but to see them alive in their own habitat is something else altogether. Today I encountered many of these creatures up-close with an Alabama Gulf Coast company called Sailaway Charters.

I joined Sailaway's owner Capt. Skip, as well as a handful of other visitors, on a nature cruise of the bays and bayous near Orange Beach, Alabama. During our hour-and-a-half cruise, Capt. Skip demonstrated many of the techniques used by commercial fisherman to harvest shrimp, crab, oysters and other fish in the area. We began by trawling for shrimp with a net cast behind our pontoon boat. After a few minutes, Capt. Skip hoisted the net on board, and emptied out its contents to show us all of the different creatures that had come up.

By my count, we saw at least 16 types of fish, mollusks, shrimp and other creatures. For each one, the captain would hold up a specimen and point out its distinguishing characteristics, such as the markings on the underside of a blue crab that indicate its sex. Then, he would toss all of the "by-catch" back out into the gulf, where dozesn of gulls and a pair of dolphins followed behind our boat to catch an easy meal.

The excursion also included looks at crab traps and oyster harvesting. I left with a deeper appreciation of the beauty of these sea animals, as well as the hard work that commercial fishermen go through to bring them to our tables.


A tiny white shrimp


Capt. Skip and a blue crab

A pair of stingrays got caught up in the shirmp net.


Freshly pulled from the Gulf, oysters are unattractive creatures.

Leaping lemurs!

by Brian Jewell 4. October 2009 08:03

Lemurs love cameras. And I don't mean that they enjoy being photographed -- these energetic, curious animals love to nibble on, lick and play with cameras and other expensive electronic equipment.

Today I visited the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, a small zoo where the staff encourages interactive experiences with wildlife. One of their most popular programs is Lemur Encounter, in which particpents sit in an enclosed tent with a quartet of juvenille lemurs. These exotic animals are members of the primate family, although they don't particularly look like monkies, and are native only to the island nation of Madagascar.

So I went into the tent, along with a handful of other visitors. When zoo director Patti Hall brought the four lemurs into the tent with us, they lept into a frenzie, playing a fast-paced game of follow-the-leader in circles around the tent. After a few minutes, though, they became curious about us, and began to jump into our laps, paw at our faces, and grab our cameras, sunglasses and anything else they could find to play with. By the end of the session, they had made friends with their visitors, snuggleing into our arms and letting us rub their bellies.

The lemur encounter is one of several programs like it at the zoo.  For next year, Hall hopes to have four such programs, including a playtime with young tiger cubs and an interactive reptile exhibit where guests can hold a baby alligator and albino python. If what I experienced today was any indication, the program is on its way to being a smash hit.

Alligator Alley

by Brian Jewell 3. October 2009 03:17


Many thousands of tourists come to Alabama's Gulf Coast every year, most to take advantage of its fine weather and beautiful beaches. But there is so much to see and do beyond the beach, and today I visited one of the area's most fascinating attractions, Alligator Alley.

Wesley Moore founded Alligator Alley in 2004, restoring sveral acres of natural cypress swampland that he owned back to its original purpose. Alligators have always been at home in this kind of habitat, and Moore decided to augment the gator population on his land with rescued alligators from other parts of the Southeast. Today there are some 170 gators at the farm, many of whom were brought to the sanctuary after being declared nuissances in populated areas.

I lost track of the number of gators I saw during my visit, which included a walk around the elevated boardwalk that Moore and friends built through the swamp. many of the are hidden just below the surface of the water, but I saw dozens sitting lazily on the higher ground as well. One gator at the site is particularly notorious: Nicknamed "Captain Crunch," this 13.5-foot, 900-pound reptile has the most forceful bite on record of any animal on earth. When his jaws snap down on a bit of prey or other piece of food, they exgert 2,982 pounds of force. (It takes 400-500 pounds of force to break a human's leg.)

But the highlight of a visit to Alligator Alley is feeding time -- three times a day, employees come out to do demonstration feedings with the alligators. My guide Evan crossed the safety fence and approached a riverbead full of hungry gators, armed with a long stick and cooler full of pork bits. To watch him feed these massive predators was both terrifying and amazing, as they would lunge out of the water with open jaws when he raised his arm with a fistfull of food. My favorite part was the satisfying "plunk" sound that the gator jaws made as the snapped shut around the hunks of meat.


Feeding time


"Captain Crunch"


Your correspondant wrestles a baby gator.

A gator ruminating in the cypress swamp.

This is what I call "Perks"

by Brian Jewell 2. October 2009 03:00


If you work in the tourism business, chances are that from time to time, you enjoy some perks on the job.  If you work as a travel journalist, those times tend to come more frequently. This week on Alabama's Gulf Coast, I'm enjoying the perks in spades.

I arrived today at my accomodations for the weekend.  I'm being hosted by the Alabama Gulf Coast CVB and partners at Turquoise Place, a beautiful high-rise condo development right on the beach. This building was complteed just last year, and features modern decor and luxurious appointments.

I was shocked when, after checking in at the front desk, I walked into my "room" -- turns out I'm spending the next four days in a 2,300-square-foot, three-bedroom condominium, outfitted with a full kitchen, three and a half baths, and a beautiful balcony looking out over the sugary sands and emerald waters of the Gulf Coast. This is the smallest unit in the development, but it's bigger than my house, and around every turn, there's a surprise -- the gas range and massive side-by-side refrigerator in the kitchen, the multi-jet shower in the master bathroom, and the gas grill and full-sized hot tub on the balcony overlooking the ocean.

It's feels somehow shameful that I'll be enjoying such a big place all by myself this weekend -- a condo like this would be a perfect place for a big family or group of friends to enjoy some quality time together. But the feeling will pass. The appointments and decorations are luxurious, and I plan to take advantage of as many as I can.  All that stands in the way is the list of things I'm slated to do and see during my stay here.


pandorapandora braceletspandora charmspandora jewelrypandora beadspandora necklace

Category list