In yet another joint post, LG and I review a place near and dear to both our hearts, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail–specifically, the course at Oxmoor Valley. Nearly two years ago now (Summer 2010), LG and I visited the RTJ Golf Trail for a 3-day trip through Alabama to play three sites of one of the most fun golf experiences in the Southeast, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (see www.rtjgolf.com) (Note: given that this was our second trip, the photos below will show the course at two different times). Although there are a number of trips in the Southeast that I am looking forward to taking some day (Pinehurst and Sawgrass to name a few), the RTJ golf trail is both reasonably priced and easily accessible (relatively) for both LG (who has relatives in Mississippi) and me (Atlanta)–in particular, the courses in Birmingham, AL.

Oxmoor Valley is one of two RTJ sites in Birmingham, the other being the Ross Bridge course. However, we have not played the Ross Bridge course because it is easily 3x the cost of playing the Oxmoor Valley, and, although we’re fanatical about golf, unnecessary cost doesn’t equate to greater value.

As previously mentioned, LG and I have visited multiple RTJ sites. For the price, there is little that is comparable to RTJ courses. For those that don’t know, Robert Trent Jones designed golf courses are typically long, undulating, and punshing while maintaining an understated elegance and natural beauty. 430+ yard par 4s and 3-teired greens are just some of the common elements of an RTJ course. But when he gets a hold of an excellent piece of real estate–as he’s done throughout Alabama–RTJ manages to produce excellent golf. And the courses are well-maintained, even in the winter and the dog days of summer.

What’s more, most RTJ sites include multiple golf courses in one site. Oxmoor Valley includes 36 holes of full-length golf and a par-3 “short course” that provides an excellent challenge. When LG and I visited the RTJ course several years ago, we opted to play the Ridge course and the Valley course in the same day. Halfway through the Valley course, we left and went back to the Ridge.

I have played about 130 holes of RTJ Trail golf (27 at Silver Lakes, 45 at Capitol Hill, 27 at Oxmoor, and 30-ish at Grand National, not counting short courses), and the Ridge course at Oxmoor Valley may be my favorite of all.

First, the clubhouses at all RTJ Courses are large and inviting lodge-type atmospheres, complete with full restaurants that serve very good meals to hungry patrons. The structures are adorned with memoirs of the great times one has playing golf and reminders of the history of the game.

A view from the first green back toward the tee at the Ridge course gives a great idea of what lies ahead. Rolling hills, meandering tree lines, green fairways, and precise layouts make shotmaking in critical demand for a good score. The visual obstructions often make tee shots intimidating experiences, seeing how many places one can miss the fairway. Still, little matches the natural beauty of a well-planned golf course, and RTJ has plenty of that.

Yet another indicator of the beauty of this course is seen at the par 5 3rd hole. A brave driver can place his ball in the fairway between the water.

Even if you manage to hit a career drive, RTJ leaves very little payoff. The uphill second shot to a pedestal green is an unlikely reach, even for the longest and most precise hitter.

What might be the signature hole of this course, the par 3 8th, is downhill and all carry over water. A nicely hit 7 or 8 iron (depending on pin location) will put you in a good spot for a birdie.  A quick story from LG here:  We have had two chances to play this hole in our time.  During our first trip, the pin was located in the back right section of this green, and during our second, it was located in the front left location.  During both trips, JK somehow managed to stick his ball in a position to have the longest putt imaginable on this green.  I think he would have had about 5 feet of putts total left had the pins been swapped.  I, on the other hand, have played this hole in even par for my career thanks to two nicely placed shots that left me a grand total of about 25 feet of putts on this green in two rounds.  The closeup of the green below allows you to see this for yourself.  Now back to JK.

As my memory serves, I don’t recall thinking this course was very long. Yet, at over 7,000 yards from the tips, no one can call it a short course. I suppose I was too focused on other features of the course to worry about the length.

Although I haven’t seemed to play well, I can’t blame the course at all for that.

Quick aside from LG:  JK might not be able to blame the course, but I’ll definitely throw in a complaint.  RTJ designs a hard golf course.  I love them and would love to have one be my home course some day, but man, they can kick your tail.  A quick example is the dastardly par-4 6th below.

The dogleg left hole measures 447 yards from the tips and requires a massive carry over a ravine.  The more that I think about this behemoth, the less terrible I feel about making a quadruple bogey 8 on it during our last outing.  The carry must be long and precise.  The fairway slopes left toward the ravine and it is impossible to tell from the tee where the fairway comes out to save an errant ball.  Moreover, the ravine cuts across the hole and makes any approach from the right rough a tall order.  Oh, and even if you hit that monster drive, heaven help you if you have anything longer than a 7 iron in because this three tiered green demands a high, soft shot to get within range.  Missing the green on any side, long, or short will provide a daunting up and down.  My advice:  play this hole as a par 5, or hope that your karma is better than mine.  In two rounds, I am collectively 7 over on this hole alone.  Now back to JK.

The drawbacks–it’s hard to say. The courses are not really walkable not only because of undulation but also because there is a lot of distance between greens and tees. They are typically out in the middle of nowhere, but Birmingham wasn’t bad at all. Not to mention, when you’re golfing, you typically don’t want to be in an urban center. The service is great. The cost is reasonable ($52/18 holes with cart).

One thing, you may want to check and ensure that maintenance is not being done during your trip. LG and I had planned to play one RTJ course during our 3-day visit that we skipped because it was being aerated during our visit. Thankfully, we checked when we called ahead–not sure they would’ve told us if we hadn’t asked.

All in all, though, it’s a great place to play golf.

Value: 8/10
Condition/Maintenance: 8/10
Price: 8/10
Layout: 9/10
Challenge: 8/10

Overall: 8/10

PS, LG and I also STRONGLY recommend a trip to Saw’s BBQ after the round. Unbelievably good, if you like good BBQ: 1008 Oxmoor Rd, Birmingham, AL | (205) 879-1937 | sawsbbq.com

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Today’s post focuses on a course near and dear to my heart, Mystery Valley.

Mystery Valley is a municipal golf course in Lithonia, GA–very close to Stone Mountain and to Southland Golf course, the subject of a prior PF review (see https://thepowerfade.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/course-review-southland-atlanta-ga/). The course, nestled between majestic pine trees, plays 6700 yards around several lakes. Although not the longest test, Mystery Valley presents a fair challenge that rewards good shots and punishes bad ones.

Along with nearby Sugar Creek, Mystery Valley is the municipal golf course of DeKalb County, GA. The course opened in 1966 and has remained largely unchanged since Then. Although some landscape is different since when I started playing there in the early 90s, the layout is basically the same. The brother of famed Atlanta golfer Charlie Yates was the first head pro at the course. It is even rumored that Bobby Jones walked the grounds at one time.

However, none of this history is apparent when arriving at and playing the course. A long, winding drive previews the front 9 to the player as he drives into the course. A modest clubhouse with a chipping green, putting green, and substandard driving range greet the player.

At first glance, the course doesn’t look like much. However, it’s layout–meandering through the natural hills and elevation changes–provides a great test to the average golfer and some great opportunities for the advanced one. There are a good number of risk/reward shots for the long hitters as well as a number of bailouts for the average players. The fairways usually have nice green grass and are mostly wide and inviting.

Although not terribly fast, Mystery Valley is one of the few municipal golf courses in Atlanta that has not converted to bermuda greens. The bent grass is usually well-maintained but can become a little shaggy on certain days and after rains. And despite the work required for maintaining the greens, an average player can still walk on weekend mornings for under $30–plus, the course is especially easy to walk since it was built before carts were mainstream and is set up with tees in close proximity to greens.

Like all courses–and especially municipals–Mystery Valley has its drawbacks. There are several holes that border on unfair. For example, the par-3 second hole includes a green that is so severely sloped that certain pin placements are virtually unreachable. Bunkers typically lack sand and are very inconsistent if sand is included. Because it is a muni, weekends are typically packed, and 4.5-hour rounds should be expected; note, however, the course management takes their jobs very seriously, and only in very strange situations will a 5-hour round occur.

As stated, this course is very near and dear to my heart, as it is the place that I learned to play. If it were a private course located in the center of Atlanta–and if it had a little more length–it would be a likely spot for a tournament or at least a desired track. The enjoyment of the layout is comparable or superior to Druid Hills, East Lake, and Dunwoody Country Club, just to name a few. However, because it is municipal, it gets little credit for the true gem that it is.

There are many drawbacks to Mystery Valley–certainly. However, it is the course that I continually return to because 1) it is a fair course and 2) it is a fair price.

Layout: 9/10
Maintenance: 7/10
Greens: 8/10
Cost: 9/10
Value: 9/10
Practice Facility: 5/10
Proximity to Atlanta: 6/10

Overall: 8/10

NOTE: At the current time (July 2011), Mystery Valley is undergoing construction to repair drainage systems. Please be sure to call the proshop at (404) 469-6913 to ensure that construction is complete before your round.

One of the best things about having a golf blog is having the opportunity to do a write-up of great golf courses. In line with others, this week I review Cobblestone Golf Course in Acworth, GA.

I have been playing Cobblestone off and on for the last 15 or so years. Every time I go back, I am reminded that it is one of the more fun layouts near the city of Atlanta.

Cobblestone is, oddly, a municipal golf course maintained by Cobb county. Unlike many munis, however, it’s not a golf course that was just clear cut out of some trees and plopped in place. Serious earth was moved to put this course in place. The result is a layout that intrigues.

Cobblestone is placed at the very southern tip of Lake Acworth. 8 of the 18 holes play on, over, or around the lake, giving many picturesque vistas. The 11th hole (shown below–that tree is actually growing out of the marsh at the southern tip of the lake), a 436-yard par 4, plays to a wide fairway some 250-yards out, but necks down after that to only about 20 yards across. The green on the 11th sits less than 2 paces from an embankment to the lake, making for a very tough approach shot with a long iron.

At 6700 yards from the back tees, it’s not terribly long. However, the 73.5 rating (on a par-71 course) shows that it has some bite. 12 of 18 holes include hazards noted on the scorecard, and several others include treacherous shots.

The appeal of Cobblestone is not only that it is challenging, but also that it includes a good mix of golf holes. At par 71, the course includes four par 5’s that are all reachable–two that are flat that play under 530 from the back tees, and two that are well-downhill at 542 and 570. I had a 3-iron into the 570-yard par 5 9th when I played it recently. Although I’m a “big hitter,” we are talking about reaching par 5s, which short hitters would not consider. The course has a good amount of elevation change as well, which is rare for courses this close to water. Part of this can be seen from the views of the par 3 16th below.

Moreover, Cobblestone includes a good mix of holes. There are doglegs in both directions. There are holes that play over water and holes that play through the trees. There are some wide fairways and some narrow fairways. Some long par 4s (the 2nd, for example, at 472 yards, and the 14th at 461) and some driveable par 4s (the 17th, at 316 and about 60 feet downhill, and 4th at 313, shown below). Some long par 3s (the 8th at 240), and some short ones (the 16th at 133 over water). Cobblestone tests all parts of your game and gives a great opportunity to see how you play all your shots.

Cobblestone is a surprising muni, both for its quality and its beauty. The course is truly a gem of a layout.

There are always drawbacks, however. The condition of the course the last few times I’ve been out has been less than ideal. Far less. There was a temporary green on the 1st hole (which the staff did not warn us about). This comes less than 10 months after a full renovation where the course was converted from bent greens to bermuda (which I dislike anyway), leading me to wonder if they are capable of maintaining the course. The fairways were in good shape in many places but also had a good amount baked and dry spots as well as muddy puddles–in other words, it was very inconsistent, even when in the fairway. I guess the staff have never heard of bagging mowers, because they were still dragging the fairways to pick up the grass clippings when we teed off–not something you want to see (see the picture of the fairway at the 11th, above). Bermuda greens–I guess that’s all I have to say about that. At $56/round, I would have expected more. And it’s not exactly close to Atlanta. I guess there’s a reason why all the courses worth playing aren’t built anywhere near the city of Atlanta, but I’m starting to get sick of driving 45-minutes outside of the perimeter just to play a course worth playing. While the course is fun to play, there’s a reason why I don’t get out there but once every other golf season or so. Still, it’s always enjoyable, and I love a good layout.

Layout: 10/10
Greens: 7/10
Fairways: 7/10
Other Maintenance/Upkeep: 6/10
Cost: 5/10
Value: 6/10
Location: 7/10
Staff: 8/10

Overall: 7/10

Today, I review Bridgemill Athletic Club.

I recently had the opportunity to play Bridgemill for the first time. The course in Canton, GA, used to be a fully private club but has recently moved to semi-private.

Having never played the course before, my first impressions are always lasting. Typically, I find something to complain about on the layout–either that it is unfair or did not give enough cues as to where to hit the ball or whatnot. Bridgemill, I must say, was extremely fair. There are no truly blind shots, no unknown landing areas, no unfair drops. The closest thing to “unfair” was a hole (I believe #6) where the fairway sloped severely to the right once you got over a hill, but the ball would not be lost just because it was hit there.

At over 7,000 yards from the tips, one would guess that the course played very long. However, I did not get the feeling that the course was out of reach. Many of the par 4’s are under 420 yards. The longer they are, typically the more open they become. I hit a good number of fairway woods from par 4 tee boxes, even from the back tees. Where the course makes up yardage is on the par 5’s. No par 5 is less than 545 yards, and the par 5 9th hole is over 600. The par 3’s are also no joke. Although one is downhill at 173 yards, the others range from about 190 up to 237! The 237-yard 5th is all carry to a large green. Thankfully, there is a bailout right. The signature 199-yard 16th hole, however, has no bailout, being an island green.

Also, the greens were in the best shape of greens I have seen this year. Rolling fast and true, they had no signs of aeration. There were a number of slopes and undulations, including multiple 2-tiered greens, which I enjoy. Moreover, they were bent grass, where so many of the local courses have chosen to go the bermuda route (which I cannot stand).

The clubhouse is very nice, and the practice facility at Bridgemill is top notch. Two practice greens, a nice range, and a bunkered chipping/pitching area were all in fantastic shape, ready for players. Moreover, at $55 on a Thursday morning, the price wasn’t terrible either, at least for the experience. And it isn’t a bad place to hang around–the homes that line the course, simply put, beautiful.

As always, The Bads: The course is a ways from Atlanta. Although it is in a beautiful part–with mountain vistas on the drive in–the drive in was a long one. The staff were a little prickly, as well, pairing us up with a single when there was no apparent reason to do so, as well as “forgetting” to tell us that a shotgun tournament was going to hold us up, and restricting us from going to the first tee before our tee time because “maintenance won’t be done yet.” Still, the course was a great one, and I enjoyed it very much. Although it had rained just the night before, I also must note that the course was pretty soggy.

Layout: 9/10
Greens: 10/10
Fairways: 9/10
Other Maintenance/Upkeep: 10/10
Cost: 6/10
Value: 8/10
Location: 6/10
Staff: 4/10

Overall: 8/10

For more photos of Bridgemill Athletic Club, visit http://www.atlantagolfpics.com/BridgeMill/bridgemill1.htm