This past week, I had a work conference in Birmingham, Alabama, at the renowned Marriott Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort.
My wife, Kelly, worked in public relations for Porsche when she lived in Atlanta, and she was a tad envious when I told her the conference was at Ross Bridge. She had been to a number of events there and said it was a great resort with good food and excellent service. Her favorite story about the Ross Bridge involves Secret Service agents who were asking about Porsche and gave her an SS pin. She went in her closet and found the pin pretty quickly.
Our conference went well on Tuesday night, and I had the morning’s first tee time on Wednesday to make sure I could enjoy the course before my 3 pm flight home to Wisconsin. I expected it to be a well needed respite from the cold Wisconsin winter, but was actually able to get out on the courses around here beforehand to slap the ball around sans putting complexes.
I got new Mizuno JPX-850 forged irons during the off-season, and they feel phenomenal. I was really excited to hit in to actual greens with them, and I finally got my opportunity down in Birmingham.
The Ross Bridge course is the premier course on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. It is really easy to see why the second you arrive at the first tee.
Ross Bridge is the premier course on Alabama’s RTJ Trail, and it’s also the fifth longest golf course in the world (second longest in the United States). Tipping out at 8,191 yards, it’s a beast of a track with out-of-this-world contouring.
The course offers a very nice practice facility, including a range with sand traps and a couple of really nice practice greens. I don’t like to practice often, which is probably why my handicap rarely dips below a 9, but I did roll a few putts to get the speeds and recall a little of my muscle memory and short game instinct.
People say Robert Trent Jones built golf courses with “Heroic opportunities,” which is one of many things I enjoyed so much at Ross Bridge. The first tee reminded me of the opening drive at a home course called Morningstar – I could look out and know that the left side was dead, but from the on-board touch-screen GPS system knew anything over or right of the central sand trap would get a great kick forward down the fairway.
The entire fairway past that middle bunker kicks left toward the water, but my drive was perfectly fine and left me a carry of 200-plus yards over wetlands. This course isn’t that tough 😉
If the shear length of the par five first hole – 620 yards from the tips and 543 from the orange tees I was playing – isn’t enough of a challenge then surely the two green-side traps beneath the elevated green will catch your attention. This first hole is far from a friendly handshake, but one that’ll make you feel really good if you can card a four or five.
The previous day’s rain made for a cart path only situation on Wednesday morning, and I have to say that this is a fairly tough course to manage from the cart paths – it would probably have been more enjoyable to have just carried my bag. I enjoyed the hell out of the round, either way.
The Ross Bridge course hosted the Regions Charity Classic from 2006-2009, and I’m told was transitioned away partially because of the challenging walk. Being a tough course to walk may have been disheartening for veteran PGA Champions Tour players, but for me the dramatic changes in elevation that permeate the course were enthralling.
The first of those enthralling elevation changes is on the par four second hole.
I have seen a lot of golf holes playing from elevated tee boxes. The par three 17th at Hawks View Como Crossings in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for example, was at one time a ski hill. The 17th at TimberStone in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is probably the greatest elevated tee box I’ve ever seen.
The second tee at Ross Bridge isn’t quite as spectacular as those, but it’s close. Maybe most impressively, it’s probably not even the most dramatically elevated tee shot on the course.
The second hole plays downhill, giving golfers the impression they can maybe carry 300-plus yards over the sand traps that line the left side of the fairway. The green here is fairly small for the Ross Bridge course, and anything long will find the water past it. Anything left probably will, too, while anything short will find the beach.
Take a good look at the third hole from the first hole tee box. You probably won’t get a better look again.
The course’s starter, Houston, told me that morning that if I couldn’t see where I was going to aim well right, especially on three. I was a bit toey off the tee on three, leaving me right in the middle of the fairway and about 225 yards from the green. The green was completely blind, though, and the hillsides right of the fairway otherwise imply that hitting over them will lead to good fortunes. Not true – turns out you want to play the ball well right. I tried to hit well right and hit just right (in general) – I found my approach shot ten yards below the green complex and was happy in general that it didn’t roll further down the hill in to the water.
I found a second ball on that hillside: A MaxFli SoftFli that had been abandoned in the weeds.
The fourth hole is a terrific par three. From the orange tees I was playing, it was just 155 yards over water to an elevated green. The wind was slightly at my back, and with my new and inexperienced irons I guessed 7-iron. I pulled my first shot at it to the top of the hillside, then watched for ten seconds as it rolled slowly down the hill and in to the water hazard. I grabbed the SoftFli and hit the same 7-iron with a beautiful high draw to about five feet, pin high. I missed the putt and walked off with five.
While following the path toward the green, I came across the black tees that measure 227 yards from a completely different angle – all carry. I had to give it a shot and flushed a 3-hybrid that barely carried the water and elevated putting complex, and somehow didn’t fall back toward the water. It would have left a 75-foot putt, but I was happy with it.
The fifth is as straightforward of a par four as it gets at Ross Bridge. I was hitting my driver well, and felt like carrying the right-side sand traps wouldn’t be an issue. I hit the farthest one, and annoyed I hit my first bad drive of the day teed up another ball and hit the exact same one.
The hole plays uphill, and maybe that’s what got me, but it also has tall pines lining the entire left perimeter that abuts the resort area, which screamed at me “Stay right.”
The green is well elevated, and short from front to back with a cavernous collection area back-right. My sand shot was from around 120 yards, and I hit it well to the back of the green, spinning back slightly toward the middle and leaving me an easy two-putt par.
The sixth is a fantastic par three. The longest tees are elevated and offer an amazing vista of the surrounding area, burgeoning with dense fog amidst the surrounding forests. The orange tees, less elevated, were set up on the right side of a massive horizontal tee box complex that plays 185 yards from the left side and 160 from the right. The shot plays over a deep chasm and then well uphill, adding a club to the tee shot. The green runs hard from back to front.
The seventh hole at Ross Bridge is a par five with a blind tee shot. Keep in mind that all blind shots on the front nine should be played toward the left – while your view of the seventh fairway cuts off pretty quickly in to oblivion, just know that it falls sharply downhill and toward the right side.
Given a good drive, the second shot requires what any great par five should: A classic risk/reward scenario. From what I’ve read about RTJ golf courses, this is a prototypical Robert Trent Jones golf hole with heroic opportunities abounding. I hit a whale of a drive down the center of the fairway that rolled all the way to 220 yards out with an even lie – I had to go for this one. My cut three-hybrid uphill hit the right side of the green and backed up slightly, creeping off the green, leaving me a short chip and five-footer for birdie.
Let’s just say my season is still birdie-less as I lipped that putt out.
The eighth is a picturesque par four with another wide fairway and a menacing water hazard short-left of the green complex. Steep hills line the right side of the fairway, giving the impression that anyone aiming toward the left side of this fairway, which drops off toward the woods, would have to be crazy.
However, if playing a tee shot off the hill to carom back toward the playing surface is your best option then chances are the approach shot will be completely blind.
The green on eight runs hard from the front-right toward the back-left, so aim well right of the pin here.
The ninth is a beautiful finishing hole for the front nine. A central fairway bunker is a solid target for big hitters, and should be considered the farthest left point to fly if wanting to keep a tee shot in play. Anything left of this trap is likely to bound downhill and left toward the water that lines that side of the hole.
Right of the trap for shorter hitters will present a great angle in to the green, not to mention an even lie:
I hit a great drive on nine, resulting in a 40-yard pitch over sand with a severe downhill lie and a short-sided pin with a tight lie. Considering this was my first round of the year, I obviously hit it fat and found the trap, leaving another tight lie. I was fortunate to knock it close and escaped with another par.
Left of the ninth green is the Ross Bridge’s iconic waterfall that flows from the windmill just beyond the fourth green, resides on both sides of the tee boxes of the opening hole on Ross Bridge’s back nine, and separates the putting surfaces of the ninth and eighteenth greens. The waterfall descends down the hillside, propelled by a hydraulic wheel I assume powers their halfway house, and flows beneath the cart path that runs alongside the tenth hole tee boxes.
Both the Director of Golf (Chip) and starter (Houston) gave me early advice on this one: It looks like a dogleg left from the tees, but the tenth is a hard dogleg right. Aim well right and try to cut off as much of the approach area as possible.
I tried, but double-crossed myself resulting in a low draw that rolled to the left side of the elbow in the fairway. I cannot undersell how challenging of a hole the tenth is. Playing from 417 yards from the orange tees, the approach shot plays at least two clubs longer to account for a significant rise in elevation. The only safe miss is short-left as anything else will either be in a deep sand trap or played from ten to twenty feet below the putting surface while completely blind with a really tight lie.
I tried hitting 4-iron in from just under 200 yards out and got nowhere near. My third shot played from that recessed approach area front-right of the green. With the pin completely out of site, I had to hit about a 50-yard 52-degree wedge over sand to a hole location I knew to be about 30 yards on, back-left of the green complex. I pulled it off to some degree, but still took double before moving on to the par three eleventh.
This short par three plays over a ravine to an elevated green. While there are no sand or water hazards between the tees and green, the sharp incline of the hill will penalize anything short or wayward.
The twelfth is a deceptively challenging hole, with a fairway that runs left to right from the tees. I was hitting my driver well all day, which was awesome until I came to a hole that probably requires a bit more strategy than grip-and-rip. Rolling through the fairway and in to the woods, my second shot was played from the mud and around several trees. Hybrid or long iron is probably the right way to go on this hole.
Thirteen is a spectacular par five with a blind tee shot that bounds downhill, slightly left towards the lake. This is the longest hole on the course, stretching to 698 from the tips and 540 from the orange tees. A dramatic drop in elevation makes it play shorter.
Choose a tree from the hillside off in the distance as an aiming point, and know that the fairway will run out toward the left side. The front of this green is accessible, allowing for shots to be run on. The pin was on the back-left portion of the green, above a ridge that moved my chip shot swiftly from left to right, leaving a long uphill putt for birdie I left just short.
The fourteenth and fifteenth play in an alcove along the southernmost border of the Ross Bridge property, and bring in to play a whole lot of water. The tee shot on fifteen, in fact, is the photo opp suggested to me by three of the course’s staff members, and it did not disappoint!
The fourteenth plays downhill and over water. From 176 yards, there’s at least 160 of carry with water short and left. The green is really wide, and to stay away from trouble I aimed toward the right side of the green expecting a nice high draw. It stayed perfectly straight and would leave me about a 60-foot uphill putt.
Wanting to see something better, I grabbed the MaxFli 2 and hit the same club to three feet. “Player B.” “Second Team All-American.” “Same player, more experience.” Dang it, I’m still searching for my first birdie of the new season
As I mentioned earlier, the back tee boxes on fifteen is a must to visit with your camera. The highest point on the golf course, this par four tees up from tremendous elevation over water to a fairway that runs right to left at an angle. At just 458 yards from the tips, this is the second shortest par four on the course. 366 from the orange tees was much more manageable, and again I had a green-lit birdie putt that stayed on the lip.
Another long par five, the sixteenth has a tremendously wide driving zone with a hillside built in on the right to help errant drives back toward the fairway. I hit one of my best drives of the day and had just 225 in, uphill. I pulled my 5-wood and topped it, finding a fairway trap about 90 yards in front of the green. A smooth wedge shot left me on the fringe and an easy two-putt for par. I would have loved to get that second shot back!
The seventeenth reminds me of the sixteenth hole at Hazeltine National, with water right and an infinity green that abuts the lake. I thought I hit a solid tee shot, but caught one of the central fairway sand traps. I brought out club options (a “yard sale”), unsure of my sand game this early in the year. I was putting together a nice back nine, and initially brought out a pitching wedge planning on laying up rather than hitting in to this narrow green area. My lie and stance wasn’t awful, so I decided to channel my inner Zach Johnson (Zach taught media members how to hit fairway bunker shots at TPC Deere Run several years back) and go with the six-iron. It came out beautifully and found the front of the green, keeping my par streak going at seven in a row.
Eighteen is a tremendous finishing hole at Ross Bridge, and reminded me of the eighteenth at The Harvester in Rhodes, Iowa. Playing alongside the lake, the hole’s layout is crescent-shaped and forces the player to consider his angle when deciding where to aim off the tee. Obviously taking on more of the water can result in a shorter approach shot, but a bevy of sand traps litter the inner elbow of the target zone, and – trust me, I found out first-hand – can make for a challenging approach shot over water.
I’d hit some good bunker shots on the back nine, so decided to hit my 6-iron again. The stance was awkward, and my shot came out thin and sliced in to the water right of the green. I elected to hit from the same spot, and hit… You guessed it, the MaxFli SoftFli 2 with the same six-iron to eight feet left of the pin.
I had a chance for bogey to break 40 on the back nine, and knew the putt would be slippery. I gave it a good stroke, and watched as it bent left to right downhill, and slid right behind the cup for a tap-in double-bogey.
Bring your iPhone out on eighteen because there are beautiful panoramic photo opp’s everywhere. Here are a couple of my favorites:
I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed the experience of staying, working and playing at the Marriott Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort. The staff was friendly and accommodating, the rooms were nice (that bed was so comfortable!), the food was tremendous, and the golf was world-class.
When combining Ross Bridge with the other nine RTJ Golf Trail sites and the fabulous Gulf Shores area, I personally believe Alabama is a very under-appreciated golf destination. The golf is terrific, and especially when considering the pristine white sand beaches and sumptuous fresh seafood of the Gulf Shores / Orange Beach area, it’s a state that not many golf enthusiasts know much about, but should.
The RTJ Trail is at the top of my list for future golf trip destinations, and if the other courses are anywhere near the caliber of Ross Bridge, I think I’ll be in for a real treat.
Location: Hoover, AL
Yardage: Black-8191, Purple-7446, Orange-6783, White-6200, Teal-5312
Slope/Rating: Black-135/78.5, Purple-127/74.9, Orange-118/71.3, White-117/68.7, Teal-123/70.2
Weekend Rates: $125* (including cart)
* Rates are typically lower using the RTJ website’s reservations system, found here: http://rossbridge.play18.com/teetimes/searchmatrix