Golf and meetings have always been complementary for me. Whether it’s an afternoon spent on the course with a client or a best-ball scramble with dozens of players, golf has been my go-to for building business relationships. The same can be said for many meeting planners across the country.
In June, I joined about a dozen golf writers traveling on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama. Meeting planners who have done business in Alabama know the story of this trail, which got its start in 1992. It was conceived by David G. Bronner to drive meeting and leisure business into the state to build wealth in the retirement system he manages for state employees.
Almost 30 years later, the Robert Trent Jones Trail has become perhaps Alabama’s best-known travel generator. As I discovered, it’s not just the golf courses that make an impression on visitors; it’s also the splendid resorts along the trail that accommodate golfers and nongolfers alike.
On our five-day trip, we visited courses and resorts in Huntsville, Florence and Auburn/Opelika and were able to enjoy other iconic Alabama destinations along the way. Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s storied recording capital; Pursell Farms, a family-owned golf and meetings resort in tiny Sylacauga; and downtown Auburn were all on our itinerary.
We began our golf at Hampton Cove’s River Course, one of three layouts on the site. This course is the only one of more than 30 courses on the trail with no bunkers, a tribute to early-day courses that had none. The multilevel clubhouse follows the design of all the trail clubhouses, with broad stairways on two or more sides leading up to the second-floor pro shop, bar and restaurant. I have played in or hosted best-ball events at three RTJ Trail courses, and the personnel in these clubhouses are adept at handling corporate outings.
I should note that these RTJ Trail courses are difficult for many players. They are characterized by elevated greens protected by deep bunkers that require very good iron play. Even from forward tees, hitting these greens consistently demands solid shot-making by a fairly good golfer.
We spent two nights at Florence’s Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River. The 199-room property features 40,000 square feet of meeting space, a highly rated spa and Alabama’s only rotating restaurant — 360 Degrees — which sits atop an adjacent tower. We were guests of Florence/Lauderdale Tourism and were treated to a meal at 360 Degrees on a clear summer evening. Recreational boaters were wrapping up their days on the lake beneath us.
We played the Fighting Joe course in Muscle Shoals, one of two courses on the property. I played with tourism bureau president Rob Carnegie, and we both had at least a few holes worth sharing a beer over. Most of the group went to the Marriott’s spa that afternoon, a 6,000-square-foot complex that offers four treatment rooms and seven stations for hair, manicure and pedicure services.
Selena Miller, the hotel’s sales and marketing director, had her shuttle run me into Florence to see the Rosenbaum House, a Frank Lloyd Wright home there. Jeff Ford, its director, greeted me and showed me the acclaimed yet affordable home Wright built for a young couple in 1939.
Later that afternoon, I crossed an item off my bucket list when we visited Fame Recording Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in legendary Muscle Shoals. We stood in or near rooms where musicians like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Rolling Stones recorded, and we finished off the evening with a spirited dinner on the terrace at Champy’s. I had fried everything — catfish, shrimp, you name it — in this local dining institution. For a music buff like me, this excursion was a must. I wouldn’t plan a meeting in Florence without offering a trip to Muscle Shoals.
Farm Links at Pursell Farms
Owner David Pursell greeted our group at his immaculate golf resort in tiny Sylacauga. I was paired with Pursell for our round, and we spent the day talking about this pristine property his family has created just an hour or so from Birmingham.
In addition to Farm Links, perennially rated as the best privately owned course in Alabama, the Pursell family has built numerous accommodations, including the 40-room Inn at Pursell Farms, where we stayed. This stately property offers elegant rooms, two restaurants and a pool room off the bar that is graced by the table once owned by family friend Jim Nabors, a Sylacauga native. Pursell shared with me how he and his wife visited Nabors’ home in Hawaii at his invitation, where he gave them artwork and the pool table for their resort.
Pursell took us to see two of his resort’s newest additions, Hamilton Place and The Barn, which create a venue for weddings that draws upscale clientele from Birmingham and beyond. The Spring House Spa sits nearby, and all are settled into a beautifully landscaped glen overlooking a small lake. Wedding parties typically make a weekend of it and plan a day of golf and spa activities before the ceremony.
After dinner in the resort’s Old Tom’s Pub, marketing director Tim Spanjer hosted a group of us outside at the inn’s large firepit. Bourbon and cigars were the vices of choice for most on a beautiful evening overlooking Farm Links’ 18th hole.
We drove over to Auburn and played the Lakes Course at Grand National, site of the LPGA’s Symetra Tour’s Zimmer Biomet Championship held in May. After golf, we were treated to a spa visit at the 221-room Auburn Marriott Opelika Resort and Spa at Grand National. The spa features eight treatment rooms and eight stations for hair, manicure and pedicure services.
We visited the Red Clay Brewery and the John Emerald Distillery in Opelika before joining the staff of the Auburn/Opelika CVB for dinner at The Hound, an iconic Auburn Tiger hangout. Auburn’s historic downtown features classic Southern architecture, and The Hound was buzzing, even though it was summer break.
We got up early and played Grand National’s Links Course on the last day of our trip. Grand National has three layouts and is one of the jewels of the RTJ Trail. And true to Bronner’s vision, many fans coming in for games against the Tigers arrive a day or two early to enjoy the resort and play its courses.