The course returns to the SKCC fold this year after missing last year’s event recovering from the April 27, 2011, tornado that devastated the area.
Tournament officials and most players have expressed excitement about having the Trail facility back in the rotation.
“They’ve done an excellent job,” Classic chairman Jimmy Flowers said. “The whole county was affected by the tornadoes and to see that course come back is a good thing. It’s going to be a very hard test of golf, but I’m very pleased to have them back.”
Course officials are just as glad to be included again.
Silver Lakes director of golf Jason Callan got to experience the Classic from a player’s perspective for the first time last year while his course was undergoing its renovations, and while he said it was fun, all things considered, he’d much rather have had his facility open and catering to the other 400 players in the field.
“First of all, we’re fortunate enough to have the golf course, really, with what we’ve been through,” Callan said. “We knew after last year’s Sunny King we were going to have the golf course. We’re thrilled the committee and everyone associated with the Sunny King wanted to come back here and I would have hoped to only assume the players wanted that also.
“I’ll say it again, again and again: If you’re in Calhoun County, in Northeast Alabama, and you’re not part of the Sunny King, I think you’re missing out. It’s a wonderful event for the whole area. We’re excited to be back involved with it.”
The storm damage to the course and renovations have been well documented. The course lost hundreds of trees, which opened up sight
lines and brought the wind into play. The maintenance facility and equipment within were completely destroyed. Several holes were revamped, including Nos. 1 and 7 Heartbreaker and Nos. 3 and 5 on the Mindbreaker.
The downtime also allowed crews to replace the bentgrass greens with Champion Ultra Dwarf Bermuda.
Once the course reopened in September, it didn’t take long for Classic officials to bring it back into the rotation. Silver Lakes embraced its inclusion by offering unlimited practice rounds to tournament participants. Given the work done to the course, the players took advantage of the opportunity.
There weren’t formal figures available, but Callan estimated they had more practice rounds this year than two years ago. The presumption was the two most popular places for practice rounds was Anniston Country Club and the new-look Silver Lakes, where successfully negotiating their fast greens will be the key to winning.
“It’s a different golf course,” Callan said. “I think everybody wants to look at the golf course, feel the golf course and see what the golf course is like.”
Players got an extra opportunity to play the course under tournament conditions during last week’s RTJ Silver Lakes Championship that was part of the Calhoun County Golf Tour. They only played on one of the two nines that will be used for the tournament -- the Mindbreaker, because the Heartbreaker 9 greens were still coming back from aerification (they’ll be fine for the weekend) -- but they did get to experience the consistently firm and fast conditions they’re likely to encounter throughout the course during the Classic.
“I’m so glad they’re back in it,” five-time Classic champion Randy Reaves said. “Nothing against any of the other courses we play, but the quality of this course is just something that’s unmatchable. The hospitality they show us, allowing us to play the practice rounds, that’s something that’s hard to come by.
“The tournament needs Silver Lakes. It means a lot. It’s just been great being out here every year. It’s a challenge, but it’s enjoyable.”
With fast fairways, firm greens and the major loss of trees, the course is expected to play a bit more difficult than it has in the past and playing to full-shot approaches will be important to hold the greens. While the length and hole locations are expected to promote birdie opportunities, defending champions Jeremy McGatha and Jaylon Ellison are among the players who don’t believe scores will be as low in the scramble at Silver Lakes as they were in the format last year at Pine Hill Country Club. After all, the mantra of RTJ Trail golf is hard par, easy bogey.
“I think Silver Lakes in the past gave you opportunities to make birdies, but I’m not sure this year with the new greens,” Ellison said. “I think they’ll deflate the scores just a bit on Friday (when the Championship Flight plays there).”
Every one of the 31 players from the Calhoun County Tour who played last weekend -- many of whom will be playing in the Classic -- had at least one three-putt during the weekend. The group’s average was two per player.
“I think it’s a more difficult course now than before especially if you get any wind blowing,” Reaves said. “I really think this will be the telling course that we play. I don’t know how many shots harder it is than what it used to be, but it’s definitely a more difficult course now than before the storm.”
The course may look different, but the strategy to play hasn’t changed that much. The wind could be a factor on the par-5 Heartbreaker 7, where the left-side hazard has been replaced by three ponds, but players still must find the same landing area as before that is just as ample as ever. Some players try to take their drive down No. 1 Heartbreaker, but that option will be out of bounds for the tournament.
And Heartbreaker 1 will look different. That hole was defined by a tree-topped mound that split the fairway, but the tornado took the trees and the mound was subsequently eliminated in the renovation, replaced by a yawning bunker down the right side.
“I know it’s changed considerably,” said Marc Jones, a long-time Classic veteran from Anniston. “I haven’t been out there since we were there (in 2010), but I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing it one more time.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.