RTJ Golf Trail at Grand National (Lake) – Alabama – Best in State Golf Course

After several drinks I posed the following question to a friend on a golf trip on the Robert Trent Jones trail: “who designed the Lake course on the RTJ trail?” He answered, “Rees Jones?”

The RTJ trail is the best value for good public non-resort golf in the USA. I apologize to those who favor their public golf to occur at Myrtle Beach where one can get a hotel room for six nights, six rounds of golf with a cart, a breakfast and lunch for less than $900 a person. Yet at Myrtle Beach there are only a handful of decent golf courses.

I have played at three locations on the RTJ trail at Oxmoor Valley, Grand National and Magnolia Grove. I would like to go to Capitol Hill, but there are about 400 courses ahead of it. Of these three, Grand National is easily my favorite as both courses are good and the scenery is outstanding due to the 600 acre Lake Saugahatchee.

I prefer the Links to the Lake. If one includes the short course at Grand National, I actually rate that the best course to play due to the sensible bunkering and greens along with a wide variety of yardage.

However, the Lake is a very fine golf course moving in all directions with challenges everywhere. Although the marketing says that twelve holes are on the lake, I do not count holes where it is only the tee on the water with the rest of the hole heading inland. By my count, there are actually only eight holes on the lake, although two others (one and six) share a green and a pond. Although the water holes, particularly the par 3’s are beautiful, the more interesting golf is inland where there is both higher ground and more variety in the terrain. These inland holes are tree lined with adequate width although there is a common design flaw to many of the holes.

The difficulty in the course lies in the water, the trees, and the bunkers. The bunkers are large and often hidden depending on which side of the hole you are on. The first critique I have is that there are too many holes with bunkers that are inside the fairway line such as cross bunkers on the fifth, a center-line bunker on one, ten, and fourteen, and bunkers narrowing the fairway too much on holes two, four, six, seven, nine, thirteen, and eighteen. A second critique is that the greens are sometimes the wrong shape or size. Those would be small complaints on a private course where most golfers know the course, but on a public course that attracts players across the country, it often leads to slow play for players who do not have adequate experience to get out of a bunker.

The one awkward part of the course is the long cart ride or walk from the ninth over the bridge to the tenth tee and then back again to seventeen.

From the tees we played which were 6488 yards, it is a nice test. The back tees near 7300 yards.

One does not need driver off the tee on several of the par 4’s or par 5’s. Perhaps that is another limitation of the course. The first hole is a prime example, as the 390/364 dogleg left makes one reach for a hybrid or 5 iron as the land falls away to the left and can result in a downhill lie to a tiered green on the other side of a pond with a bunker left and two smaller pot bunkers in front. A longer tee shot also risks going into the centerline large bunker. I simply do not like a non-par 3 starting hole that takes driver out of the hands of too many players. This large green is shared with the sixth hole. I did not like the hole.

The second is a par 4 of 428/381 playing with the lake on the left and trees and bunkers on the right pinching into the fairway. It is hard to see the depth of the second bunker. The green is a semi-island green with water on three sides with the green narrowing on the left. I did not like the hole.

Three is a par 3 of 197/178 with the lake to the left and a small, but deep pot bunker on the right. I thought the hole to be unnecessarily hard although a miss to the right of the bunker can lead to a chance of recovery, but it is an okay hole.

Four is the first par 5 of 527/480 with an uphill approach shot to an undulating green. This has adequate width to the fairway although the trees are dense on the left. I felt the bunker on the left corner should have been more visible from the tee. I liked the hole.

Five is a nice par 4 of 431/396 to a well defended green with a spine running through the middle. This plays from an elevated tee and one must either carry or go left before the cross bunkers off the tee. This is the best hole on the front nine.

Six is a par 4 of 455/381. It is a much better hole from the back tee. The large fairway bunker on the right throws one towards the pond which is hidden from the tee. Its best not to take a driver. The green is long and narrow with a bunker fronting either side. I thought it to be an average hole because of the fairway bunker which detracts from the hole as it takes away a risk-reward element from the forward tee.

Seven is my favorite hole on the front nine as a par 5 of 557/521 playing with the lake on the right for the second and third shots. There is a large fairway bunker on the right corner that again comes into the fairway a bit too much. But after that the hole is really good with the scattered bunkers to the green and two small bunkers fronting a nicely contoured green.

The prettiest hole is next as a par 3 of 213/182 to a green that has two tiers. The green is shaped like a triangle with a large fronting bunker on the right for the faders of the ball. I liked the hole.

The front nine finishes with a par 4 of 430/379 playing uphill with a green running front to back. The green is angled right to left with a large bunker on the left and two on the back right. Again, I felt the two fairway bunkers on the left come into the fairway just a bit too much because the trees come in from the right as well. For shorter hitters the fairway is wide enough. It is an okay hole.

Ten is my favorite inland par 4 on the course at 434/397 playing as a slight dogleg left from an elevated tee to an elevated green with a large centerline bunker that looks as though it is right at the front of the green but is fifty yards short. The green has a substantial false front with no bunkers. However, I did wish you could see a bit more of the fairway from the tee.

Eleven is a par 4 of 445/387 playing downhill then up to another green with a false front and two bunkers right of the green. The green is sloped back to front.

Twelve is my favorite par 5 on the course at 522/493 with the tee shot needed to carry a bit of the lake and then avoid two bunkers on the left while not being too conservative to enter the trees on the right. The lake continues down the left to the green where a marshy area pinches in to make the front of the green narrow. There is a bunker short left of the marshy area which I would remove as it saves too many players taking on the risk-reward. Another bunker is on the front right. I played the hole poorly both times yet still like it a lot.

Thirteen is a par 4 of 470/388 playing uphill to the green. This hole is too long for me from the back tee as it plays closer to 500 yards. The fairway drops to the right yet there is a fairway bunker protruding into the fairway from the left that make the hole overly penal. There is another bunker right of the green which is tiered and bent around the bunker. Others liked the hole but I thought it to be too difficult.

The final par 5 is fourteen with a silly large centerline bunker. It plays at 545/510 slightly uphill. The green is too small for the hole. I did not like any part of the hole as it is intentionally tricky.

Fifteen is the long par 3 of 230/182 and is known as the signature hole. The hole plays to an island green. This is the opposite of a fun hole. From the 182 tees it is slightly better. There is a back bunker but it does not stretch the length of the back. There is nothing interesting about the hole other than a nice view.

Sixteen is a quirky, funky sharp dogleg right. This is another risk-reward hole as a par 4 of 334/297 with water fronting the green and marsh to the left. There is a bunker right and left of the green which slopes towards the water. It’s an okay hole. Bigger hitters do try for the green from either tee as it plays about 40 yards shorter.

Seventeen is a par 3 back across the long bridge with the water down the entire left and a bunker on the left. This hole is 205/174 and the land and green slopes towards the water. It is a nice par 3 but needs a more interesting green surround.

The inward nine ends with a nice par 4 that epitomizes the golf course. It is 476/398 ending with the second- best contoured green on the golf course. There is a bunker left that comes in too far although big hitters will clear it and then a long bunker short right of the green. It is an okay hole but could be better if it were more playable off the tee.

The Lake course is a good golf course offering beauty due to the lake views and some very good inland holes. However, many of the holes are lessened by hidden bunkers or bunkers that impede too much on the fairway. The par 3’s are the highlight of the course although I did not care for the “signature” fifteenth hole. In my opinion, it is not as good as the Short course nor the Links, but combined with those two it makes the best combination of golf on the RTJ trail.

May 04, 2020