Critics told Dr. David Bronner he was a little crazy when he proposed the idea of building golf courses to boost tourism and recruit new industry to the state of Alabama.
Today, Bronner is at the head of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail that boasts 26 courses at 11 sites across the state — including Silver Lakes on the Calhoun-Etowah county line. The courses he envisioned have become the leaders in a $10 billion state tourism industry and brought several major industries to the state. The footprint stretches from The Shoals to the Gulf Coast.
As a result of its success, there are nearly two dozen golf groups across the country today that have embraced the “Trail” concept.
Who’s reaching for the moon now?
“It’s always a compliment when anybody tries to copy you,” Bronner said as RTJ Trail officials gathered to celebrate the Trail’s 20th anniversary with a gala at Oxmoor Valley, the facility that started it all.
While Bronner’s vision is often imitated in name, it has never been duplicated in practice.
“I think you have to remember there are no golf trails like the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail but for one attempt in Tennessee (with course designs by Jack Nicklaus),” Bronner said. “But that failed because what (Nicklaus) did was basically put it in all state parks — where nobody’s at. You’ve got to have the local interest, the amenities to bring the tourists, then you can be successful.
“The other trails in the country … they are not a trail. All they are, basically, is a marketing gimmick where they use existing courses, existing products, all different, no staff coordination, no price coordination, no unanimity whatsoever. So there is a big difference.
“(The RTJ Trail) is something unique, something other states don’t have, and it has provided us the ability to not only expand tourism, but to really help me in recruiting industry.”
Trail officials didn’t just build one golf course to get the project off the ground. They had all original seven sites going at the same time.
Bronner wanted long, challenging courses typical of a U.S. Open venue and he’s gotten them — for anywhere from $49 to $69 per trip. The Trail opened at Oxmoor Valley, Hampton Cove (Huntsville), Grand National (Auburn/Opelika) and Magnolia Grove (Mobile), then cut the ribbon on Silver Lakes, Cambrian Ridge (Greenville) and Highland Oaks (Dothan).
It added Capitol Hill (Prattville) in 1999, Lakewood at Point Clear and The Shoals (Muscle Shoals) in 2004 and, finally, the Ross Bridge Resort in Hoover in 2005.
He may not have gotten the U.S. Open, but the LPGA Tour — and for a time the PGA Champions Tour — has embraced the Trail’s courses.
“We pushed the envelope here with golf,” said Roger Rulewich, the design mind behind the original construction.
“It was probably what every golf course architect would like to do but never gets a chance to. I’d say it was the greatest time of my life and it’s the greatest tribute to Jones. This was absolutely an incredible, incredible dream that somebody had.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.