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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I recently played Southland Golf Course in Stone Mountain/Lithonia, Georgia, and am providing this review to the readers of the PF.

At the PF, we strive to provide (when we can) a review of a course for the average Joe who just wants to get value out his Sunday round. Although a spectacular review, LG’s post about Pebble Beach (located here, if you want to check it out) is the exception for what we intend to review. As such, today’s review will not be in the clouds of playing a spectacular golf course, but rather will be giving the general reader an honest review of a course he or she might play this weekend. Without further ado, I review Southland.

A little background–I grew up not far from Southland. When I was in high school a friend landed a job there and often got me onto the course for little cost. Obviously, I’ve become familiar with the course over time and have an understanding of the layout that comes only with a sustained ability to play a course consistently.

In the 90s, Southland was a private club sustained by the neighborhood surrounding it. It opened its doors to the public around 2000 and was shortly thereafter bought by a group called “Eagle Greens.” Many in the Atlanta area will remember Eagle Greens for its buying and revitalizing of many courses in the area. The business model was to hire young, fresh-out-of-college superintendents so that the courses could pay them lower salaries and, thereby, become profitable. The business model must not have worked in the long run, because Eagle Greens is now defunct. During the height of Southland’s membership with Eagle Greens, the course was spectacular; in fantastic shape, manicured, with lots of perks and inexpensive. They had GPS on the carts (in the early and mid 2000s, when GPS was kind of chic), and the cost of a round was only in the $35-ish range (with cart on a weekend!).

However, long before Eagle Greens went away, the group sold Southland to Korean Air Lines. KAL has a habit of purchasing courses and running them into the ground. They make no attempt to maintain the courses, and they basically make profits off of the goodwill that the courses have had with players before until no one patronizes the course anymore. KAL killed the first course where I first broke 80 (Atlanta International, shooting 77). They ran Southland into the ground. I played it several years ago–2008 or 2009, probably–and was told by the pro shop that the course was in nice shape, only to find that every green had been aerated and was COVERED with sand. I vowed not to go back.

However, nostalgia go the best of me. A friend told me it was getting better, and–frankly–they had the earliest tee time this Sunday, so I decided to bite.

Because I grew up playing the (largely) wide-open public courses in the city of Atlanta, Southland is a course that bothers me. The heavily-wooded course contains a number of blind shots, dead spots, and traps (not sand, although it has those too). For my review, I tend to think that Southland over-penalizes mishits in many cases. A shot that is 10-yards offline could cost you 3 strokes trying to get out of the woods and back into play. Generally, the course is narrow, and the layout can be a little crazy. For example, the 8th hole (pictured above) is a 300+ yard straightaway hole from the white tees–pretty simple, just over water. From the blue tees, however, you actually have to hit down a hill to the area where the white tees are located and then hit from (basically right in front of) the white tees to the green, 260+ yards away. The shot from the blues to the white tees is about 180 yards. So, for me, I played a par 4 hitting 6-iron then 3-wood. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, no matter which course/hole you’re playing. This is but one example. Another would be the 11th hole, where a simply 340-yard par 4 can be a nightmare if you try to “go for it.” Playing a 3-iron off the tee is FAR better, as virtually any shot hit with the driver will be lost (for reasons that are difficult to explain). And the 15th includes a fairway bunker bounded by trees that is less than 100 yards from the green; thus, if you’re in that bunker, there is no way to get out without losing shots–unless you are incredibly skilled at hitting 70-yard cut and punched 5-irons out of bunkers. This kind of course bothers me, as my game is typically not defined by exacting precision, but is closer to a “bomb and gouge” style. If I bomb on Southland, there’s no way to gouge, unfortunately.

Such criticisms could be levied at some of the greatest courses in the world: Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Harbour Town, Bethpage, and Pinehurst could all be called “unfair” for the same or similar reasons; that’s just a gripe that my game is a square peg for the round hole that is this type of golf (I’m working on it, but the process is tedious).

However, KAL did some real damage to Southland. Although it is under new management that is trying to bring it back, it simply isn’t maintained to the level it needs to be. The greens were better than many places in Atlanta, considering many places lost their greens last year. Moreover, Southland doesn’t get much play since many of the patrons were completely turned off by KAL’s management that they wrote the course off completely (and now patronize nearby Mystery Valley, which I will review later). So those are some benefits. However, there is little or no sand in most of the bunkers. The bunker edges are not trimmed and, in fact, show signs of water erosion. There is pooling of water in fairways for no apparent reason. The course is muddy in places and baked in others. Months-old grass clippings are all over the fairways, piled in lines by rainwaters flowing down the fairways at some point. Many tee boxes are unlevel, lack grass, and have inordinate amounts of sand on them. Such maintenance issues make the course difficult and unenjoyable, as it’s nearly impossible to find a consistent lie, even in the best fairway. Also, although the pro shop has a collection of….let’s call them “vintage”….equipment for which you can haggel a deal, there is no food service in the pro shop, cart staff, beverage cart, food at the turn, etc.,etc. At $30 on a Sunday morning with a cart, it might be worth it if you were late trying to get a tee time, but if you’re able to play elsewhere, it’s probably be a better bet not to play Southland.

Greens: 8/10
Fairways: 3/10
Other course maintenance: 2/10
Cost: 7/10
Value: 5/10
Pace of Play: 9/10
Pro shop/clubhouse: 1/10

Overall: 4/10