Alabama’s Golf Trail, Grand Hotel Celebrate Milestones With Renovations
POINT CLEAR, Ala. — Craning their necks, a half-dozen workmen in hardhats studied the massive brick and stone fireplace that soared past the ornate second-floor wood balcony in the center of the circular atrium.
The smell of history hung in the air — the sawdust of several fresh-cut century-old boards and the lingering smoke of long-ago fires in the fireplaces.
I had to wear a hardhat, too, to witness this moment in the Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa’s 170 years of history — the restoration of the historic main building. Originally constructed in 1847, the hotel is celebrating its big birthday with a $32-million renovation that is expected to be completed by May.
Meanwhile, life goes on at the Grand, perched on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay: Sailboats and fishing boats cruise into the resort’s marina from Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, guests watch sunsets from wicker chairs on the beach and golf carts head to the beautiful courses.
Over on the resort’s Dogwood golf course, another renovation and celebration is underway. The course is one of two in the resort’s Lakewood Golf Club, the southernmost layouts on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a legendary string of 26 courses and eight luxury hotel-resorts, which celebrated its 25th birthday last year.
Owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the golf trail had a higher purpose than mere recreation — it would showcase the state’s natural beauty, attract sophisticated travelers who would spend money in small towns that needed it, promote economic development, create jobs and increase tax revenue.
It was a daring and courageous investment by a public employee pension fund, organizations not known for fearless imagination. But the retirement system’s CEO David G. Bronner was a bold visionary, who was tired of people driving through Alabama on their way to play golf and spend money in Florida.
He hired Robert Trent Jones Sr. to build the courses on the trail (with the exception of Lakewood, which needed renovation), which was the largest golf construction project in the world. Since work began in the late 1980s, more than 100 miles of courses have been built on 11 different sites stretching from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the north to Point Clear’s coastline in the south.
“It has changed the state of Alabama,” said Niall Fraser, director of golf at Lakewood Club, over lunch in the historic clubhouse, which was built in 1947. A fire roared in the fireplace on the cold January day, but hardy golfers still played on the Azalea Course outside. “Fifty percent of golfers come from outside the state.”
Fraser, a Canadian from Alberta, thought the 45-degree weather was balmy as did many of the players visiting from the Northeast.
Fraser worked closely with Jones for 20 years overseeing construction of the Trail. “RTJ was 84 years old when he started the Trail. Azalea was his last course.”
Jones died in 2000 at the age of 93, and Fraser said Jones considered the trail of public but beautiful and challenging courses his greatest accomplishment.
“Other places have attempted to start golf trails, but couldn’t do it,” Fraser said.
Jones was arguably the most influential golf course architect of his generation. And unlike many designers, he built a collection of public courses in Alabama that made the sport accessible and affordable, carving a space beyond country clubs.
Golf Digest has consistently rated the trail’s courses among the nation’s top affordable choices for players of all skill levels. For less than $100, a golfer can play a round on a championship-caliber layout that compares favorably with those on the professional tours.
The courses in places called Anniston, Huntsville, Prattville and Point Clear may not ring with the lore of Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills or Augusta National, but they have become known as golf destinations for players throughout the world.