MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala. — Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, says Lynyrd Skynyrd, but more to the point, it has the Fighting Joe.
So watch out. Joe will knock you on your behind.
Joe is the first stop on our tour of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a collection of 26 courses in 11 locations spread across Alabama, from Muscle Shoals in the northwest to Mobile, on the Gulf Coast. Eighteen were designed by the iconic Jones, but each of the 26 is a gem.
It's late March and the rattlers are still asleep for the winter, so we trudge fearlessly into the rough and bush to look for our errant shots. It's a long, links style layout that ends with two spectacular holes, the par-5 signature 17th and the beautiful par-three 18th on the cliffs overlooking Lake Wilson on the Tennessee River.
My playing partner is a friend from Toronto, nicknamed Flubber. He comes by the name honestly. Some years ago he was plowing his way down a fairway and finally snorted in disgust: "All I can do is flub it. I'm a &*#!@ flubber."
Joe beat the living daylights out of the two of us, but it was our first game in months and there was a lovely plantation-style clubhouse with wraparound verandas, replete with rocking chairs, where we could recover.
Folks up in Canada are shovelling snow and we're sippin' on whiskey and rocking in chairs in 22C sunshine. Just the ticket. Looking out on the river, sipping and rocking. Making excuses. Talking about what could have been -- what should have been, by gum.
It's only Day One. Tomorrow will be better.
The RTJ Trail concept was developed as part of a pension fund. The idea was to provide excellent, accessible courses for the public at very reasonable rates. And it might be the best golf deal in the world. Greens fees average $50, during peak season they top out at $64. These prices include a cart. Play a similar-calibre course in the Phoenix or Orlando areas in February and they'll extort you for three times that amount. All courses are with 20-minute drives of interstates. The Trail is associated with a hotel group that includes Marriott and Renaissance, with many of the hotels on-site.
Flubber and I played 10 courses in 7 days, not including arrival/departure days. That was a heavy load. But the hotels have spas, bars and great dining options, so it was as much fun to recover as it was to play.
It is most practical to fly into Birmingham and use Ross Bridge as your hub. A flight from Winnipeg will involve a stop, usually Chicago or Denver. Rent a car and away you go.
In Birmingham they love the governor, but hot damn if they don't love their golf even more.
The Ross Bridge monster bills itself as the third-longest course in the world, an agonizing 8,191 yards from the tips. Playing from the back comes highly un-reccomended and players need permission from the pro shop to embark on the trek. The Champions Tour makes a stop here every May and they don't even think about it.
But we did. Being golf journalists, Flubber and I were allowed to indulge our stupidity. The pressure was immediately on at the first tee when we told the starter that we were special and would be playing from the tips. He gave us the once-over then radioed the pro shop for confirmation.
The first hole was a par-5 of 620 yards. I went first and heeled it hard left into the swamp. Luckily a foursome had arrived at the tee and the suspicious starter was preoccupied. Flubber hadn't been watching either. "Where'd it go?" he asked.
"Ah," I replied with a vague wave. "It's out there."
Flubber lashed a low liner that passed muster and we were off. We got over a rise and I dropped a new ball. "Huh?" Flubber grunted.
"Never mind," I told him. "That first one never happened."
And so it went. Gorgeous golf course. But we had bitten off about 1,500 more yards than we could chew. Four par-4 holes at 500-plus. Thunder a drive, blast a 3-wood, pull out a nine-iron. Par-fives stretching to 698 yards. Driver, 3-wood, 6-iron. Chip. Putt. Putt. Putt. We stopped keeping score after the fifth hole.
Flubber was like a kid in the back seat of a car. "Are we there yet?" he'd ask halfway down every never-ending hole.
Finally, we finished. We had done it. It was a ridiculous undertaking, yet we were compelled do it. But never again. And you shouldn't either.
WHY GO NOW?
Consider it a reward for enduring our miserable excuse for a summer. Slogging around Manitoba golf courses this summer hasn't been a whole lot of fun. Bama will be in its prime, warm and accommodating for another two months at least.
Just a mile or so from Ross Bridge is a 54-hole setup, the Ridge, the Valley and an 18-hole short course. I preferred the Ridge, with its roller coaster fairways and 150-foot elevation changes, while Flubber scored better on and thus preferred the Valley, which features much more water.
Lovely country, Bama. Green, even in March. So many rivers and lakes. Flubber swears we drove past the very spot where Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Excellent roads. Conducive to high speeds. One day a trooper pulled our Hyundai rental over and gave us a ticket. We were in Talladega County, east of Birmingham. That's Talladega of speedway fame. The irony. The ticket instructed us to pay via Internet. Checking with the rental agency we learned that the fine could not be applied to a credit card through the agency. Internet huh? I forget who was at the wheel. But whoever it was hasn't paid yet. Likely ain't gonna.
All manner of bottled effluent in this state, the likes of which you will never find in Manitoba. Night Train and Thunderbird, imitation wines for $1.25 a quart. And worse. "For the poor people," we were told. A blinding corn hooch guaranteed to be no more than two weeks old.
There must be lots to see and do in Bama apart from golf. But we didn't come across much. The one drawback to staying at the golf course hotels is that they are out in suburbia, sometimes further, and getting into a metro area to take in some nightlife can be a hassle. You don't want to be drinking and driving and taxi fares will kill you. It might be a good idea to take a day off from the golf and do some exploring.
The folks are right friendly. They'll help you out.
About 70 minutes east of Birmingham, 27 holes aptly named Heartbreaker, Backbreaker and Mindbreaker, plus a short course. By now Flubber and I have moved up to the sissy-man tees and we're still taking a fierce beating from these damn Bama layouts. They're beautiful, but tough and treacherous. The greens on Backbreaker are huge, but very contoured and elevated. Miss by only a few feet with your approach and you'll roll 25 yards away.
Despite its unfortunate name, Prattville, just north of Montgomery, is a can't-miss 54-hole golf destination. The Judge, which offers stunning views through the backwaters of the Alabama River, was my favourite course on the Trail. The first tee lies 200 feet above the fairway overlooking the river and the Montgomery skyline is in clear view. It was the lushest course we played, though we didn't get down to the layouts near Mobile.
The Senator and the Legislator are brilliant.
The three courses here in Auburn/Opelika are considered by many the top destination on the Trail. It's tough to argue. The cornerstone of the complex is the 7,300 yard Links course, while 12 holes run along water on the Lakes course. Don't forget that this is Tiger country, as opposed to Muscle Shoals, which is Crimson Tide. You'll hear about it at both places (friendly jibes) if you even mention the other.
ALL IN ALL
Best golf trip I've ever been on. Hospitality, quality and number of courses, weather and accoms.
-- For details about the courses, hotels and directions go to www.rtjgolf.com
-- The Navistar LPGA Classic is being held at the Capitol Hill Senator Course Sept.29-Oct.4. For tickets visit www.navistarLPGAclassic.com