Tim McDonald tips his cap to some of the top golf resorts in Alabama, including the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa in Florence, the Stewart Lodge at Steelwood in Loxley, the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa just outside of Birmingham and Kiva Dunes in Gulf Shores.
When it comes to golf, Alabama is all about the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the wildly successful brainchild of the state's retirement system.
So, when you're talking about the best golf resorts in Alabama, you're necessarily talking about the RTJ Trail. But not all of the resorts listed here on our suggested golf resort list are RTJ stops.
The Marriott Shoals is in Florence, just minutes from The Shoals Golf Course, which lies between the Wheeler and Wilson dams on the Tennessee River.
The Shoals, which is part of the RTJ trail, includes two brutes, Fighting Joe and The Schoolmaster.
Fighting Joe, named after Confederate Gen. Fighting Joe Wheeler, is a whopping 8,092 yards from the back tees, including a 716-yard par-5. It's a links-style course in which the 18th overlooks Wilson Lake.
The Schoolmaster isn't exactly short at 7,971 yards, and some say it's rougher than Fighting Joe. Named for President Woodrow Wilson, it's a more traditional layout, with tree-lined fairways on rolling terrain that also plays along the Tennessee River.
The resort has 200 guest rooms and seven suites, and the Bronzeback Café is dedicated to the area's well-known bass fishing. There is also Swamper's Bar and Grill and, for upscale dining, there is the revolving, 360-degree tower restaurant with views of the Tennessee River.
The resort also has a 6,000-square-foot European spa and salon.
The Stewart Lodge is one of our non-RTJ selections. Those staying at the lodge have playing privileges at the private Steelwood Country Club in Loxley, one of the best golf courses in Alabama. The beautiful layout was designed by Jerry Pate, with six holes bordering the 400-acre, stocked lake.
The country club is in a 1,400-acre gated community, and the fully furnished lodge has a big fireplace, private rooms, baths and a large-screen movie theater with a library of movies.
It also has a putting green and driving range, conference room and activities like clay pigeon shooting, jogging trails, a fitness center and tennis courts.
The Ross Bridge RTJ facility is in Hoover, just outside of Birmingham.
The Ross Bridge course is the third-longest golf course in the world at 8,194 yards. Sprawling on more than 330 acres, it's a traditional, parkland course with 10 holes playing along the banks of a man-made lake connected by a waterfall; the terrain drops about 90 feet between the ninth and 18th greens.
Built on an old mining site, a grist mill still remains. The course has large greens and considerable elevation changes, and the 18th could be the toughest closing hole on the trail.
The Scottish-influenced resort has a swimming pool with waterfalls and a fountain, with sweeping views of the surrounding foothills.
It has 259 rooms, including 11 suites, a 12,000-square-foot spa and more than 20,000 square feet of meeting space.
Kiva Dunes is located on the narrow Gulf Shores peninsula on the extreme southern edge of Alabama, a bit out of the way from the RTJ Trail courses.
The course, which sits 100 yards from the Gulf of Mexico, is a treat, according to TravelGolf.com reviewer Derek Duncan.
"Kiva Dunes is pure, coastal golf - it's built among existing dunes, patches of roughed-up coastal vegetation, and the refreshing maritime winds that blow constantly across the property," Duncan wrote in a review. "In fact, the omnipresent wind gives the golf at Kiva Dunes its most distinctive quality."
The facility is a West Indian-style resort with Spanish, North African and Southeastern American influences, with Mobile Bay to the north and the Gulf to the south.
The resort has access to more than 3,000 feet of private beaches, and you can watch the shrimp boats returning from the Gulf from Kiva Dunes restaurant.
The Senator is a Scottish-style layout with more than 150 pot bunkers and mounds up to 40 feet. It also has bentgrass greens.
The Legislator is more traditional, playing though pines along a bluff with excellent views, and the Judge - probably the best - plays along the Alabama River; the first tee is 200 feet above the fairway overlooking the river, and 14 holes adjoin the water.
The resort has 90 guest rooms and two, eight-bedroom executive villas with pool tables and flat-screen TVs.
Grand National is in Opelika, 10 minutes from Auburn University, sporting two 18-hole courses and a short course.
Grand National's Links course is not a links course in any traditional sense of the golf vocabulary, but it is still one terrific golf course that exploits Mother Nature, like the 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee and the hilly terrain that reveals views of the surrounding countryside - with nary a house or condo or backyard barbecue grill to spoil a good walk.
The Lakes course at Grand National is the little brother to the Links course, which hogs most of the publicity. It is a beautiful course, as far as the scenery. No less than 12 holes hug the lake, and the result is golf with no distractions. The Lake isn't short at 7,149 yards long, though it frequently asks you to mind your Southern manners and back off with a long iron or fairway wood off the tee.
The resort sits on 2,000 acres, with lakes and streams, though the focal point is the big lake. Activities include fishing, hiking and kayaking.
The two courses at the Lakewood Golf Club sit right across the street from the Grand Hotel in Point Clear. A little cemetery lays in the peaceful shade near the 18th tee box on the Azalea course.
The Dogwood course, at 7,620 yards, opened back up for business after a renovation in 2004 - actually pre-Hurricane Katrina - and the 7,500-yard Azalea has also reopened after a $7 million renovation.
Both courses are part of the RTJ Trail. The Dogwood is probably the more difficult of the two.
"It's tighter off the tee, especially on the back nine," said Head Professional Jason Polk. "The greens on Azalea are a lot smaller but not as undulating. These have a lot more undulation to them. A lot of the holes on this front (of the Dogwood) are target golf. It's more challenging off the tee, and for the most part, there's no running it up to the green."
If you like the classic designs of Robert Trent Jones, you'll like both of these courses. The two courses both have a nice, open feel and complement each other, the Azalea being more of an inland course and the Dogwood affording a few brief glimpses of Mobile Bay.
The resort has that tucked-away, semi-isolated feel. It's located along the Eastern Shores, down a long, scenic road away from bigger small towns like Fairhope. The hotel overlooks the bay, and most guests are right above a small marina, with sailboats bobbing in the bay winds.
The hotel has 200 rooms.
January 8, 2008