The best known, or most visited, public golf courses in Alabama reside on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. It’s been 30 years since the first four sites, and 216 holes, opened for play; the final 18 was added in 2005 when Ross Bridge, all 8,191 yards of it, made it 11 sites—26 courses spanning 468 holes.
Alabama’s original made golf trails a thing, of course, and it continues to provide tens of thousands of golfers memorable and affordable golf every year. The golf has a distinctly Southern flavor and was built on a grand scale—big features with plenty of room and huge greens allowing you to improve your fairways-found and GIR stats, if not your final score necessarily.
You can play the excellent par-3 courses for as little as $18, and 18-hole green fees on the regulation-length layouts start at $86 for non-card holders—tremendous value for courses kept in condition this good. The standard rate for 18 is $108, though a trip round Ross Bridge, which hosted the Champions Tour’s Regions Charity Classic from 2006–10, will cost you $162.
You’ll see a lot of variation among regular players’ top Trail courses and, having visited every site (without playing every course, yet) some of the Trail’s best holes are at The Shoals in the far north of the state, where the Fighting Joe and Schoolmaster courses both end on the bluffs above the Tennessee River; Silver Lakes, which made a remarkable recovery following a 2011 tornado that took out around 40,000 trees; Ross Bridge, where yours-truly deeply regrets having played from all 18 back tees in 2005; and the Lakewood Club at Point Clear, whose original 18 was designed by Perry Maxwell and Joe Lee and opened in 1948. At Lakewood Club, a second course was added (Azalea) and the nines mixed up, and while all 36 are worthy of a visit, especially while staying at the nearby Grand Hotel on Mobile Bay, it’s the original Maxwell holes that really shine.
Elsewhere in the state, you’ll find the excellent George Cobb-designed Lake Course at Goose Pond Colony Resort, which opened in 1971. A couple of very enjoyable Arnold Palmer designs make up the 36 holes at Craft Farms. Then there’s the trio of Jerry Pate-designed beauties—linksy Kiva Dunes, heavily wooded Timberline, and Limestone Springs, which quickly became one of the state’s top-ranked public courses after opening in 1999. After falling into a state of disrepair within 20 years, Limestone is keen to return to its place among the state’s best following the completion of a major restoration project in 2022.
It will have to go some to overtake Kiva Dunes and the best of the RTJ Trail courses though, and it really would be something if it could ever supplant FarmLinks, which tops most golf publications’ “Best in State” lists.
Designed by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, FarmLinks opened in 2003 on the 3,200-acre Pursell Farms resort about an hour southeast of Birmingham. Its most recognizable hole is surely the par-three 5th; it may not have been photographed quite as often as the 16th at Cypress Point, say, but a shot of “Hang Time” is still an arresting image. The green sits 172 feet below the “Longhorn” back tee, making it likely the shortest 210-yard shot visitors will ever hit.
In their original routing plan, Hurdzan and Fry had the hole running alongside the mountain. It was David Pursell, the first GM of the family-owned fertilizer company formed in 1914 which evolved into Pursell Technologies, that suggested going up the mountain. Pursell instructed Hurdzan to build the hole and let him figure out the rest. “And he did,” says Hurdzan, “which enabled us to include one of the South’s most famous and scenic holes in the routing.”
And what a routing it is, taking the golfer on a fascinating journey through a number of topography types—meadows, forests, mountains, wetlands, and more. Besides its impressive variety of holes, FarmLinks is notable for the history of the ground on which it sits. In the trees to the right of what is now the 9th hole, you can see remains of the camp built in 1540 by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, likely the first European to cross the Mississippi, when he passed through here in search of gold and a passage to China. And the woods next to the par-five 6th was a popular spot with prohibition bootleggers whose now-rusted whiskey stills can still be seen.
Established as a turf-testing laboratory which more than 10,000 superintendents visited during its formative years, FarmLinks once featured 21 varieties of turfgrass. Its newest is the fine-bladed, deep green Zorro Zoyzia which now covers the bunker faces following Tripp Davis and Associates’ extensive bunker renovation completed in April 2022. The existing sand was replaced with Tour Angle White and slopes were softened to make the bunkers easier to get in and out of, and significantly easier to maintain.
Davis’s sensible and sensitive renovation compliments Hurdzan and Fry’s original design perfectly, making FarmLinks a delightful round of golf with a number of really good driving holes that certainly allow you to open your shoulders without ever being careless.
After the golf, indulge in fine steaks or scallops in the refined Arrington restaurant or keep it casual in Old Tom’s Pub where the delicious fried pickled okra, Grammie’s pimento cheese, Cajun fries, po’ boys, and Gulf shrimp remind you where you are. Sleep in the Inn, a cabin, or cottage and try some shooting, hunting, axe-throwing, or any of numerous other activities.
And then play golf again, because one round on FarmLinks certainly won’t be enough.
What is your favorite public golf course in Alabama?