On the Trail of Excellence

Written by Alex Watson
Photography by Michael Clemmer

Like a strategic golfer about to tee off, John Cannon likes to take the wide-angle view of the courses and hospitality amenities that make up the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. 

The value of the trail, says Cannon, president and CEO of Sunbelt Golf Corporation that develops and manages the trail for the Retirement Systems of Alabama, lies not just in the direct economic impact it brings to the state, but also in an intangible that is just
as important.

“We know we have had billions of dollars of direct economic impact, but just as importantly we have enhanced the image of our state in countless ways,” he says. “The trail means more than happy golfers.”

Hampton Cove, Huntsville, Al

Hampton Cove, Huntsville, Al

“When you say the name Alabama to people who know the trail, the word has a whole different meaning than it had 25 years ago. Now, they know there is a progressive economic engine here. I recently met people from San Francisco at our Auburn course. It was their third or fourth visit to the trail. They love coming here and interacting with our people. It is just so gratifying to hear that.”

A quarter century is a milestone under any definition. For Cannon the anniversary makes even clearer the trail’s commitment to constantly improving its product. “Renovation and improvement is very important,” he says. “A guest who visited us 10 years ago must know the experience will only get better over time. What we accomplished we can continue to build upon by insuring our quality is always improving.

“We are a world-class destination from the top of the state to the bottom.” Cannon, who has been with the trail for 18 of its 25 years, intends to keep it that way.

Hampton Cove, Huntsville, AL. Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

Hampton Cove, Huntsville, AL. Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail

More than a quarter century ago, golf course architect Robert Trent Jones saw the group of public courses he designed in Alabama as his version of Michelangelo’s masterful artwork in the Sistine Chapel. Between 1992 and 2005, 26 courses became the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a total of 468 holes at 11 locations across the state. The trail’s long list of accolades includes recognition as the best value in the country as a golf destination, according to a recent Golf Digest survey, and golfers in the same survey put the trail among the top eight in the nation for quality of golf. Golf World readers named the sites in Opelika and Prattville as the top two public golf sites in the country. Mobile ranked number 32. 

Funded by the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was built to help expand tourism, recruit industry, and attract retirees, strengthening the state’s economy while adding to the quality of life for all Alabamians. The concept for the Trail came from Dr. David G. Bronner, who, as chief executive officer, shaped the RSA into one of the nation’s best-performing pension funds. RSA has investments in Raycom Media, PCH Hotels, 55 Water Street in New York City, Community Newspapers Incorporated, and other interests.

Highland Oaks, Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Dothan, AL

Highland Oaks, Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Dothan, AL

Part of Dr. Bronner’s investment philosophy hits home in its rationale for funding the trail: “The stronger the Retirement Systems can make Alabama, the stronger the Retirement Systems of Alabama will be.” The trail has been a strong contributor to Alabama’s economy. In the past 10 years, Alabama’s tourism dollars have increased from less than $2.5 billion to roughly $9.3 billion.

The trail stretches from the rolling hills of northern and central Alabama to the wetlands and woods near the Gulf Coast. Courses are located in or near Anniston, Auburn, Birmingham,
Dothan, Greenville, Huntsville, Mobile, Point Clear, Prattville (near Montgomery), Hoover, and Muscle Shoals/Florence. At all these locations, the trail’s vision remains the same.

“Our mission is bigger than golf,” Cannon says. “We are here to grow the opportunities for all residents of the state whether they play golf or not. My greatest pride in the trail is that we continue to do that on a daily basis.”

For details about the trail, the courses, resort hotels and directions, visit rtjgolf.com.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Oxmoor Valley, Ridge Course, Number 18

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, Oxmoor Valley, Ridge Course, Number 18


•Cambrian Ridge, Greenville: three 9-hole courses.

•Capitol Hill, Prattville/Montgomery: three 18-hole courses. The site includes the Montgomery Marriott Prattville Hotel and Conference Center at Capitol Hill, a 90-room hotel with one- and two-room suites as well as two eight-bedroom luxury villas. Capitol Hill is the home of the Yokohama LPGA Classic.

•Grand National, Auburn/Opelika: three 18-hole courses. Home of the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship July 13-19, 2015. Named the best public golf in the country by Golf Worldreaders. Hotel accommodations include The Auburn Marriott Opelika Hotel and Conference Center at Grand National, which has 129 rooms and 15 suites, which all face the course. The Marriott at Grand National was named a top Marriott golf hotel in 2007.

•Hampton Cove, Huntsville: three 18-hole courses.

•Highland Oaks, Dothan: four 9-hole courses.

•Magnolia Grove, Mobile: three 18-hole courses. Magnolia Grove has hosted several LPGA tournaments in the past.

•Lakewood Golf Club, Point Clear: Built in 1847, the historic Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa hosts its Lakewood Golf Club. The Grand Hotel sits on 550 acres along Mobile Bay and has 405 rooms, 23 meeting rooms, a European-style spa, multiple beaches, and feature pools. This resort consistently ranks as one of Marriott’s best hotels in North America for guest satisfaction.

•Ross Bridge, Birmingham: At 8,191 yards from the back tees, Ross Bridge is the third longest golf course in the world. The Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa is consistently ranked as one of the top Renaissance hotels in the world for guest satisfaction and style.

•Oxmoor Valley, Birmingham: three 18-hole courses. These courses are located adjacent to Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa.

•Silver Lakes, Anniston/Gadsden: four 9-hole courses.

•Shoals, Florence: Two 18-hole courses. The nearby Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa has 200 rooms overlooking the Tennessee River and was ranked one of Marriott’s top hotels for guest satisfaction and golf in 2006 and 2007.