ROBERT TRENT JONES GOLF TRAIL, ALABAMA
IF YOU HAVEN’T visited the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, it is safe to say that millions of golfers have beaten you to the punch. Not only that, you have been missing out on what The New York Times has called “some of the best public golf on earth.” A study in the late 1980s revealed that roughly 75 percent of those who drove into Alabama were just passing through. Since 1992, though, a lot more visitors have been sticking around, and they’ve taken to gripping golf clubs instead of steering wheels.
The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (800-949-4444, rtjgolf.com) is the vision of David Bronner, the CEO of Retirement Systems of Alabama. In the late 1980s, Bronner was mulling an investment of the funds he managed in a new public golf project, and when word of that venture got out, he was inundated with calls seeking partnerships across the state. Ground was broken at five sites in January 1990, and the first courses debuted in May 1992. By the time the largest golf-construction project in history was completed in 2005, it encompassed 26 courses at 11 locations crisscrossing Alabama. The golf trail will welcome its 10 millionth player sometime this year, in conjunction with its 20-year anniversary.
“The trail was an incredible idea and an incredible risk,” says Joe Passov, a senior editor at Golf Magazine. “What they have provided are big-time top 100 golf courses that are accessible to the masses. Instead of charging $225 or $250 to play a great course, they are charging $65.”
The trail bears the name of golf architect Robert Trent Jones, though nearly all of the design work was done by Jones’s associate, Roger Rulewich. Jones died in 2000 at age 93, and Rulewich now operates his own firm, Rulewich & Fleury Golf Design, out of Bernardston, Massachusetts.
Players can leapfrog locales — all are within a two-hour drive of at least one other site — but Passov recommends concentrating on one or two. “The good news is that many of the sites have 36 or 54 holes, while others have 27 holes, plus a fun, challenging par-3 course,” Passov says.
A typical four-night, four-round package costs $560 per player plus tax, double occupancy, through May 13, and includes lodging, golf with carts, and lunch. Higher rates apply at the flagship Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa in Birmingham, the site of a PGA Champions Tour event from 2006 to 2010. The typical package price on the trail drops by nearly $80 per player from May 14 through the end of August because of the heat and humidity. Those who plan accordingly can take advantage of an anniversary promotion: On the 20th day of each month this year, most trail courses are offering $20 greens fees.
THIS CITY HAS long been known for hosting the World Long Drive Championship each October, in which competitors routinely launch tee shots in the neighborhood of 400 yards. Indeed, most of the courses in the stable of Golf Mesquite (866-720-7111, golfmesquitenevada.com) are not much farther apart than that.
Mesquite feels a bit sleepy, especially if you’ve left Las Vegas for the 80-mile drive up Interstate 15, but it boasts three casino resort hotels (including the recently renovated Eureka) and seven often stunningly scenic courses, with three other courses within an hour’s drive. One of those is Coral Canyon in St. George, Utah, which winds its way through red rocks amid dramatic elevation changes.
One of the Golf Mesquite courses, Coyote Springs Golf Club, is strategically located en route to Las Vegas and can serve as the first or the getaway round of your trip. Conestoga, which opened in 2010, is a must-play, as is Wolf Creek (866-252-4653, golfwolfcreek.com), which is not affiliated with Golf Mesquite but is the most renowned course in town.
Four-night, four-round Golf Mesquite packages start at $383 per person plus tax, double occupancy, till April 30.
UPPER PENINSULA, MICHIGAN
THE UPPER PENINSULA (golfmichigan.net/up) borders three Great Lakes, and it has long attracted outdoor enthusiasts. Thanks in part to three newer courses that are rated among the top 25 in the state by Golf Magazine, golf is a major draw.
Most golfers would be best served by flying into Detroit, Chicago, or Milwaukee, then taking a regional flight into Marquette, Iron Mountain, or Escanaba. Marquette is a former fishing village that is home to Northern Michigan University. Its Marquette Golf Club offers two courses, including Greywalls, which opened to acclaim in 2005. TimberStone Golf Course in Iron Mountain (part of the Pine Mountain Resort) opened in 1997 and was named one of the top 100 resort courses in the United States for 2012 by Golfweek. Sweetgrass Golf Club in Harris, about a 15-minute drive from Escanaba, is part of the Island Resort and Casino. Opened in 2008, it became the host to an LPGA Futures Tour event in 2011.
The Island Resort (877-475-4733, sweetgrassgolfclub.com/packages/) provides the lodging for a package billed as the “Perfect Foursome”: Greywalls, TimberStone, Sweetgrass, and you. In the spring, two-night, three-round combinations start at $184 per person, double occupancy, and include lodging, golf, cart, taxes, and resort credits.
WORLD WOODS, BROOKSVILLE, FLORIDA
THIS 48-HOLE COMPLEX boasts what renowned course designer Tom Fazio has called his “best work,” the Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks golf courses (352-796-5500, worldwoods.com), along with what is generally acknowledged as the premier practice facility of any public golf complex in the country. Pine Barrens is often likened to Pine Valley (the exclusive New Jersey course frequently rated number one in the world), and the greens at Rolling Oaks were renovated in 2010.
“I have gone on record as calling this the best bargain in the US,” says Passov. “The quality of the two courses and the practice facility is second to none. It’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere, but if you are prepared for that, you can’t beat it.”
World Woods is an hour’s drive from Tampa International Airport and two hours from Orlando. Several restaurants are nearby. Two- and three-bedroom villas are available for rent 6 miles from the courses, and players can stay four nights and play four rounds, including cart, for $397.21 per player through April 30, based on quad occupancy. The four-day rate drops by more than $75 per person from May 1 through October 31.
POCONO MOUNTAINS, PENNSYLVANIA
PREVIOUSLY KNOWN for honeymoons, the Poconos began marketing its outdoor recreational offerings (poconosgolf.com) in the past decade. Its courses offer designs by A.W. Tillinghast (his first project), Donald Ross, and Jack Nicklaus, and its history includes associations with legends such as Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer.
The region is just under 300 miles from Boston, and its Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort (800-742-9633, shawneeinn.com) has 27 holes, 24 of which are on Shawnee Island in the Delaware River. The course, a Tillinghast design, was built in 1911. The resort also recently opened the nine-hole, par-3 Tillinghast Approach Course, which replicates the approach shots on courses he designed. It is lighted for night play and is free for inn guests. The inn’s play-golf-free special runs through April 26, includes lodging, breakfast, cart, taxes, and fees, and allows unlimited play for $69 per person per night midweek, $109 on the weekend, double occupancy.
The upscale Woodloch Springs (800-966-3562, woodloch.com) in Hawley offers 18 dramatic holes, including a tee shot over a gorge. Through May 25, its stay-and-play package includes lodging, dinner, one round of golf with cart, use of the practice facilities, and discounted breakfast and lunch for $159 per person per night, double occupancy, during the week and as little as $172 on weekends.