There’s plenty to like off the RTJ Trail in the Tennessee River valley
HUNTSVILLE. Ala. (Feb. 7, 2018) — Just about everything in North Alabama is defined by the impact of the Tennessee River and the lakes formed by the huge river’s dams as it dips down from Tennessee into the Yellowhammer State.
It’s an area lush with green valleys and verdant hills, a dichotomy of medium-sized cities nurtured by high-tech industry and tiny, remote towns on the edge of untamed wilderness. It’s upon this backdrop, and with attention paid to these parameters, that some of Alabama’s best golf courses – including some you may not have heard about – have been built and fostered.
On a recent trip to the area as guests of the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association, we teed it up on a handful of facilities that ran the gamut from state park tracks, municipal courses and resort routings to a quartet of much-ballyhooed courses on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Each course during the visit held its own charm and challenge.
After flying into Huntsville, the regional hub for the area, we drove west for an hour and a half in time to play the General Golf Course at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville.
The park encompasses 2,550 acres on two sides of Wheeler Lake, an impoundment of the Tennessee River, and includes a resort lodge, convention facilities, restaurant, campground, a 140-slip marina and 2.5-mile loop trail for hiking and biking.
All those were secondary for our purpose to the 18-hole golf course, designed by Earl Stone, who was the architect of choice for the majority of Alabama’s state park tracks.
The course, which opened in 1974, has a setting of rolling hills that tie in with the river. Its length is a definite challenge to golfers, but – when played from the correct set of tees – is a very fun course to play for the novice. Since the course is inside a game sanctuary, wildlife is abundant here, with deer part of the gallery on nearly every hole.
All the putting surfaces at The General have been restored to Stone’s original specifications and regressed with Tif-Dwarf Bermuda.
The General, which can stretch out to 7,251 yards, has some real tests. All four of the par-3s here play at 198 yards or more but the 450-yard 17th is by far the most difficult hole, turning hard left to right in the landing area to set up an approach that’s likely in the 200 yard range to a green elevated 30 feet above the surrounding run off areas.
Day two had us up bright and early and on to The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail at The Shoals, home to two 18-hole championship courses that lie between the Wheeler and Wilson dams on the Tennessee River.
Wheeler Dam, and the aforementioned Joe Wheeler State Park, is named in honor of General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, the only Confederate general to later attain the same rank in the United States Army.
The Fighting Joe course at The Shoals was the first RTJ Trail course to break 8,000 yards and was named one of the top new courses in America when it opened in 2004. The second course, the Schoolmaster (named for President Woodrow Wilson who was responsible for getting Wilson Dam built and was also known as “The Schoolmaster” of politics), opened in the Summer of 2005.
Fighting Joe is a parkland track that rides along the river and ends with a picture-book setting on a tough par-3. It’s long but all the obstacles and challenges are easily visible, so the challenge isn’t so much finding your way to the green as it is figuring out a way to get there without blowing your handicap.
The Schoolmaster (pictured above) isn’t exactly short at 7,971 yards and some say it’s tougher than Fighting Joe. Tree-lined fairways and rolling hills follow the natural topography of the many banks as they wind to a finish on a high bluff that overlooks the river.
As a one-two punch, the courses at The Shoals are tough to beat. You won’t lose a lot of golf balls here – move up a tee box (or two) and enjoy the routing and the atmosphere.
Next up was a trip back to east to the city of Decatur and the Point Mallard Golf Course. Set along the Tennessee River (you see the pattern here, right?), Point Mallard GC opened in 1969 and was revised by John LaFoy in 2004.
Spread across 200 acres of wooded flatlands in Point Mallard Park, the award-winning championship course was designed to follow the contour of the land, utilizing existing trees, small streams and ponds. The course was already long and testing before LaFoy got his hands on it, but he doubled the sand bunkers (it now has 28) and lengthened it to 7,064 yards from the back set of four tee boxes.
The real challenges at Point Mallard GC is its par-4s, four of which are 450 yards or more, including back to back heartbreakers at Nos. 5 (462 yards) and 6 (460). The back-nine begins with a brutal, tight 466-yard two-shotter and ends with a 450-yard tester over water.
There’s a lot more to Point Mallard than just a golf course. This family park includes a wooded campground, waterpark, an indoor ice skating rink, tennis courts, hiking, jogging and biking trails and the Strike Zone driving range and batting cages.
As if anyone would want to do anything but play golf (that’s not likely).
Day four of the visit had us enjoying a hearty breakfast in our cabins along Lake Guntersville in in Scottsboro (about an hour east of Huntsville) before a round at the Lake Course at the Goose Pond Colony Resort.
The 6,854-yard Lake course is a George Cobb design that opened in 1971 and sports views of the Tennessee River from every hole. The routing is a combination of tight, tree- or water-lined holes and wide fairways played to elevated putting surfaces.
One of the best conditioned track we played on our trip, the Lake course at Goose Pond Colony has been voted the “most fun course to play in north Alabama” and is listed in Golf Digest’s Best Places to Play and with four stars. The track’s challenge was verified by its role as host of the NJCAA Division II Men’s Golf Championship in 2015 and is a course enjoyed by pro and amateur alike.
Our final rounds on the trip to North Alabama has us back in Huntsville and the two 18-hole courses at Hampton Cove, another option on the RTJ Trail. This is the northernmost RTJ Trail facility and probably has the most difference between its courses of all the Trails facilities.
The Highlands course, a links-like track that’s set in an expansive and exclusive residential neighborhood, gets the most accolades here, but the River course, which was renovated in 2011, more than holds its own.
Considered one of the gems of the trail, the Highlands course was returned in 2008 to its original design with rolling fairways and long, waving grasses. At the signature fifth hole, an old mule barn adds to the picturesque appeal of the setting.
The River course is the only layout on the RTJ Trail without a single bunker and is a throwback to the way courses were built long ago, when dirt was merely pushed up to create the greens and tees, leaving all else, including massive oak trees, as is.
Playing golf in North Alabama showed us that variety is, indeed, the spice of life. It was a great way to spend five days and we’re hankering to get back.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in GolfOklahoma magazine.