2006: No more roughing it on the RTJ Trail

Florence, Ala.

Larry Bowser, the general manager of the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa that opened here in September, says his new boss from corporate headquarters recently called to introduce himself and learn more about Bowser’s property.

Bowser gave him the rundown: a hotel with 200 rooms, all with private balconies overlooking the Tennessee River; an adjacent, circular 22-story tower with a rotating restaurant that seats 90 for fine dining; a 30,000-square-foot conference center; a 6,000-square-foot spa; and an affiliation with two new courses on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.

Bowser says his surprised boss stopped him in mid-sentence: “Where’s that at?” he asked.

Florence, in the northwest corner of Alabama, isn’t the sort of place one would expect to find a hotel with expectations of a four-star rating.

Around the Shoals – which encompasses Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia – the Marriott offers a strikingly upscale counterpoint to the area’s usual fare of Best Westerns and Hampton Inns.

Along with the new Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa in Hoover, a Birmingham suburb, the Marriott Shoals represents the evolution of the Robert Trent Jones Trail, which was conceived and funded by David Bronner, chief executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, to elevate the state’s stature and attract tourists.

John Cannon, president of SunBelt Golf Corp., which operates the Trail’s 24 courses, describes the entire Trail project as nothing less than an “effort to change the entire state.”

“If we don’t bring more people into Alabama, we’re not successful,” Cannon says. “If they don’t do something other than play the Trail while they’re here, we’re not successful.”

As a tourist destination, Alabama always has played second fiddle to neighboring, coastal states to its east and south. There is, after all, a reason why the Florida Panhandle sometimes is referred

to as L.A., or Lower Alabama. But there are indications that the Trail, one of Alabama’s biggest tourist attractions, is capturing some of those out-of-state dollars. Since opening in 1992, the Trail’s courses have been lavishly praised, and from 1994 to 2000 the number of golfers playing the Trail tripled. In 2005, out-of-state players accounted for about 245,000 of the roughly 505,000 rounds played on the Trail, and the total economic impact approached $100 million, according to Cannon.

But the accommodations never kept pace with the courses. Golf tourists who weren’t willing to settle for budget hotels were likely to go elsewhere. So Bronner, who controls a pension fund with assets exceeding $25 billion, has followed his course-building binge by moving the state squarely into the luxury hotel business through its PCH Hotels & Resorts division.

The fact that PCH funded a new luxury hotel in Florence and another in Hoover reflects the business ethos that has guided the Trail’s development – a “build it and they will come” approach. Not inclined to hold your business conference in Florence? Well, the thinking goes, we’ll build a hotel and golf facility that’s so good, you’ll want to make the short drive from Nashville or Memphis or Atlanta.

Both hotels brim with the amenities – luxury suites, elaborate spas, fitness facilities, indoor/outdoor pools – that one would expect to find at upscale golf getaways in Scottsdale, Ariz., or Orlando, Fla. But it’s a concept that, at least in Florence, was foreign to the area’s work force.

“This is a community that isn’t accustomed to providing four-star service, so obviously we have to teach that,” Bowser says.

The Marriott Shoals is viewed as more than just a resort. The hope is that the hotel and Shoals courses will reinvigorate the economically depressed area. The convention center and tower restaurant each had floundered independently for more than a decade, and the hope is that the hotel will provide much-needed synergies. Work on a riverside park is under way next to the hotel. And there are efforts to lure a Bass Pro Shop to the site across the street, though that effort is meeting resistance from local merchants.

More immediately, Bowser wants to leverage the Shoals’ rich musical heritage, immortalized by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tribute to a local background band (“Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two”) in “Sweet Home Alabama.” The hotel’s Swampers bar pays tribute to some of the many acts – Paul Simon, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Bob Seger and Aretha Franklin among them – who have recorded in the area.

Bowser views golf and music as the cornerstones for marketing the Marriott Shoals. The one glaring flaw: The Shoals courses are located about nine miles from the hotel, creating a possible hurdle to recruiting business groups.

But visitors to the Shoals courses and Ross Bridge’s new track are likely to find they’re at least as good as, and probably better than, what they’ve come to expect from Trail stops. From the outset, Bronner has set high expectations.

“He wanted every (course) to be tough enough to host a U.S. Open,” says Roger Rulewich, a longtime Robert Trent Jones lieutenant who has overseen design of the Trail’s courses.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Trail courses is their length, reflecting the desire to keep up with golf equipment technology.

Six hundred acres were set aside just for the two Shoals courses, Fighting Joe and Schoolmaster, which measure 8,092 and 7,971 yards, respectively, from the tips. And Ross Bridge, located less than a mile from the Trail’s 54-hole Oxmoor Valley site, is billed as the third-longest course in the world.

“I know it says 8,191 on the card, but it doesn’t play a yard over 7,950,” Cannon jokes.

With some dramatic elevation swings and amphitheater-style design on many holes, Ross Bridge, which in May will host the Champions Tour’s Regions Charity Classic, has the makings of an entertaining tournament course. And the elevated tees do shorten some holes.

Ross Bridge and the Shoals courses represent a kinder, gentler Trail. The grading on the greens has been softened – an acknowledgment that some of the earlier designs were too penal – but Cannon says that, for tournament play, the greens still can be cut to run higher than 10 on the Stimpmeter. Rulewich thinks the Shoals greens might be the best example of this strategy.

The two Shoals courses hardly could be more different. Fighting Joe – named for local legend

Joe Wheeler, a general in the Confederate Army and later the U.S. Army – was created out of a

flat, nondescript pasture. Rulewich’s team built a ridge in the middle, adding variation and improving the drainage. The result will remind many players of the Senator Course at the Trail’s Prattville site near Montgomery, which has hosted the Nationwide Tour Championship in recent years.

By contrast, the Schoolmaster “really fit into the terrain,” Rulewich says. The Schoolmaster – honoring Woodrow Wilson, the Princeton president and later U.S. president for whom the dam to the west of the site is named – sits on rolling, wooded land, and like Fighting Joe, its fairways tend to be generous – an accommodation to their length. But there’s a premium on second shots on the Schoolmaster, particularly on several greens with shaved banks that funnel into ponds.

Set on the banks of Wilson Lake, the Shoals clubhouse occupies what Rulewich describes as one of the Trail’s most spectacular pieces of land.

Now the trick for Bowser and his counterparts here is to convince tourists to come see it.

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification