The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail…468 golf holes, 26 courses, scattered across 11 sites in Alabama. The New York Times called the Trail “Some of the Best Public Golf on Earth”. Dr. David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, had a dream. Invest pension funds and build 26 world class golf courses that would challenge people enough so that “they would want to come back and try again”. He lured the legendary Robert Trent Jones, Sr. out of retirement and the rest is history. The development of The Trail moved more dirt than the Panama Canal. Bronner thought the courses would attract tourism to Alabama. He was correct.
My first visit to The Trail was at Capitol Hill in Prattville, just north of Montgomery (the Alabama Capital City). Capitol Hill features three 18-hole championship courses – Judge, Legislator and Senator. With over 1,500 acres of golf and nature, the pure magnitude of this facility is amazing and allows each course to be drastically different from the others.
You know you are in for something special when you arrive at Capitol Hill. The driving range alone is enough to attract any golfer that wants to work on their game. With plenty of practice greens and dozens of bunkers, the full grass range is one of the best in the country.
Courses at Capitol Hill
Judge offers stunning vistas alongside the glistening backwaters of the Alabama River. The Judge is magnificent with 14 holes adjoining the water and a stunning bulkhead island green.
Legislator, a more traditional course, plays in and out of pine trees and along a bluff. The view riding down the “Sky Bridge” for holes in a native cypress swamp is impressive.
Senator, a Scottish-Links style course with beautifully manicured Champion greens, holds over 160 pot-hole bunkers and mounds 20 to 40 feet in height to create a secluded setting for each hole.
I only had time to play one and I chose the Judge. I think I chose wisely.
The opening tee shot is one of golf’s most dramatic opening holes, hovering 200 feet above the fairway overlooking the river and visible in the distance, the Montgomery skyline. It is by far the most photographed hole on the RTJ Trail, considered by many to be the signature hole of the entire trail. It’s stunning – you have to see it to believe it. A well-struck tee shot seems to drift forever and will create a visual memory that will last for a lifetime, begging you to come back to play it again.
Golf Magazine has called Judge one of the 10 public courses in America worthy of hosting the U.S. Open and the Zagat Survey of America’s Top Golf Courses ranked it among the top 50 courses in America.
After the breathtaking start, the course never lets up. Judge will test every aspect of your game by challenging you with forced carries, fast greens, and shots of all lengths. Water from the Alabama River comes into play on over half of the holes and a nice combination of pine trees and hardwoods on other holes makes this is one of the most scenic courses in the United States.
A narrow course with forced carries ( typical of Robert Trent Jones, Sr. designs), no two holes are the same. Each has a unique character. Tees, fairways and greens are lush and well-manicured. The first cut rough is perfect and easy to extract. However, errant shots in thicker rough are easily lost. Mildly undulating greens with occasional ridges are fast.
Like all of the Robert Trent Jones Trail courses, Judge is an incredible golfing experience for everyone. The unique placement of multiple tee boxes will challenge the best golfers in the world, yet at the same time allow for an enjoyable round for the high handicapper or beginning golfer.
The Holes to Come Back For – (all yardages are from the orange tees).
#1 Par 4 379 Yards
Take in the scenery before you begin your round on the Judge. Some feel that Hole No. 1 is the signature hole of the entire Trail. This difficult par-4 is straight downhill off the tee. A bunker protects the front of the green and water lines the right side. Take advantage of the drop and play down the left side for your best chance for par (or birdie).
# 6 Par 3 148 Yards
The intimidating tee shot to the par-3 sixth hole is all carry. There is no place to bailout on this island green, which is also the largest green on the course. Trust the yardage, but do not forget to factor in the wind as it will wreak havoc with your tee shot. Play the yardage and ignore the water, and your tee shot should find the large green for a chance of a two putt.
# 7 Par 5 589 Yards
A three-shot hole to reach the green. Tee shot over water, must avoid a bunker to the left and water shot and right to find the fairway. The lay-up to a very narrow landing area must be accurate to leave a short approach to a wide and shallow green. Enjoy the hole, play conservatively down the left side to eliminate most of the trouble, and par is obtainable.
#12 Par 3 179 Yards
Another Par-3 that is all carry over water with no room for error off the tee. A bridge at the edge of the swamp connects the tees to the green, giving you a good view of the natural beauty of the backwaters of the Alabama River. Safe play is to go up a club…leave it short and you will be wet.
#15 Par 5 500 Yards
A reachable par-5 for long hitters. A good drive will leave a fairway wood to a shallow, well-protected green. Those who lay up should avoid the tall grass to the right of the fairway. An extra club is required on the approach to reach the elevated green.
#18 Par 4 321 Yards
Hole No 18 is all about precision. A drive to the left side of the fairway on this uphill dogleg right will open the green to a relatively easy approach. Extra club is needed to find the elevated green protected by bunkers and water. A great finishing hole, with a scenic cascading waterfall protecting the right side of the green. Don’t get too aggressive off the tee; a long iron or fairway wood up the left side is plenty to open up the angle to the green, giving you the green light to go flag hunting.
Judge may well be the finest overall test of all the RTJ Trail courses. A classic golf experience that will never go out of style. It’s worth playing to experience the first hole. A definite #MUSTPLAY course.