Growing up in this area when people of color were not allowed to play on public golf courses does not lessens the beauty and value of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail that all can enjoy today.
by Herschel Caldwell
Growing up as a child on a farm in Northeast Alabama’s cotton and Corn Belt, life was relegated to playing in the nearest swimming hole, climbing the backyard walnut tree, swinging on a muscadine vine and being overtaken by the smell of my mama’s pork chops cooking on the wood-burning stove.
To many of our readers, this may be a strange opening to a golf travel story but its relevancy will become readily apparent. Read on.
I was born in the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor, just outside the small farming town of Piedmont, Alabama, now located a very short drive from three of the nation’s premier courses along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: The Shoals, Hampton Grove, and Silver Lake.
Life in rural 40’s, wartime Alabama was very difficult, especially for African American families like mine. I need not go into the unique social and economic hardships minorities faced in the deep South at that time in our history, but I can tell you that golf was probably the furtherest thing from our minds. It was a rich (white) man’s sport and we were Black and poor. In all honesty, “poor” was a relative term back then. I never experienced hunger, child abuse or an overly dysfunctional home life. My childhood abundantly overflowed with joy, love and the richest of experiences one could imagine with playmates-both black and white–sharing countless hours of play and adventure. We were also “rich” in swimming ponds and countless trails used by hunters and loggers winding their way through dense foliage and heavily wooded hills of central and northern Alabama. Flat areas were filled with acre upon acre of beautifully nurtured cornfields, along with mile-after-mile of snowy-white, fine Alabama cotton.
From my childhood to my early adulthood, the game of golf was never, ever mentioned. And what would it have mattered, anyway? A small-town, Black Country boy from the sticks wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance of seeing the game played-let alone play on some of the finest courses south of the Mason-Dixon line. .
25 years later and 450 miles to the north, I began my life-long love affair with golf, playing the United Golfers Association (UGA) circuit and traveling all over the country to various courses throughout major U.S. cities. During this same time great minority golfers like Charlie Sifford and Pete Brown were struggling to gain equality in the PGA professional ranks. At that time Black caddies could be seen now and then but none of us was welcome anywhere in the South to actually play the game.
Fast-forward to this past October and my trip back to Alabama. My emotions were in an upheaval. I was visibly nervous as I landed at the Birmingham airport and rented a car. Talk about a time warp! It had been nearly 40 years since I last stepped foot in what was at that time the seat of segregation. Now I was home by invitation.
From Birmingham (arguably the largest city in Alabama and a logical starting point for a tour) I drove north on Interstate 59 to Gadsden. This afforded me a feel of the drive time between the three most northern Robert Trent Jones Golf trail courses and for Birmingham. Entering Gadsden’s city limits and realizing my old homestead was only a little more than a half-hour drive away I acquiesced to the “pull” and set out for Piedmont. Wave after wave of emotions and memories began to flood my mind. I was a nine year-old kid again…. albeit five decades removed. Approaching Piedmont from the west I drove down a few streets, along my old Grit newspaper route. I saw myself on an early Saturday summer morning, peddling my nickel papers for a two-cent profit. Hey…don’t knock it…a three-dollar profit would last this country boy a whole month!
Four miles later, I arrived at the homestead, sitting on a neatly kept, gravel road that was entry to the land my parents and grandparents nurtured and cultivated for generations. Standing where I played as a boy, I could see the remnants of the place where my birth home stood many years ago. Although the cornfields are gone and the cotton crop is no longer that area’s product of choice, the memories are rich, ongoing and unerased by the passage of time.
Coming home was more of an adventure than anyone could imagine. New homes, new businesses and an ever-emerging diverse culture are now the outgrowth of visions held by men of adventure and courage who years ago saw that the South held treasures yet to be seen. Agriculture will always be a major player on the Alabama landscape of time; however, the State of Alabama, through projects like the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, provides an opportunity for the rest of the country to see and experience the “old” South with “new” eyes.
And what an incredible experience!
Funded by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was constructed to help expand tourism, recruit business and industry and attract retirees to the area. It was wisely felt that such a venture would strengthen the state’s economy and add to the quality of life for all Alabamians. It is the largest golf course construction project in U.S. history. Initial construction, which began in the later 1980’s, was for 324 holes. Since then, more than 100 miles of courses have been constructed, with each beautifully landscaped track ranging from 4,500 to 8,191 yards.
According to a recent Golf Digest survey, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is a total of 464 holes in 11 locations across Alabama. The Trail stretches from the rolling hills of northern and central parts of the state, to the wetlands and woods near the Gulf Coast. Each of the eight stops on the Trail is within a two-hour drive of the closest Trail course and each is within 15 minutes of a major interstate. The diversity of design and ultra high quality of playing conditions provides any professional or amateur player the challenge he or she desires to improve their level of play and confidence.
Over the past 40 years I have played hundreds of courses in hundreds of places all over the world. Let me tell you, it doesn’t get any better than this. Ranked among the top eight locations in the world for quality golf, the Trail’s artfully designed and beautifully landscaped courses, says the The New York Times, “are some of the best public golf on earth.” The Wall Street Journal reports that the Trail “may be the best bargain in the country.” The Boston Globe reported, “In Alabama, a genius in course design created 18 (now 26) jewels for everyone to enjoy at one-third the rate of comparable facilities.” The Atlanta Constitution called the Trail “the finest public courses in the country.”
Although the Trail is about golf, it is not just for golfers only. In addition to male and female golf packages for golf purists, there are web sites (see below) where you can research and design a package to uniquely fit any need. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is also about families and what everyone else can do while mom and dad are playing golf.
Each course along the Trail offers a unique and memorable golf experience for all levels…those who are just beginning to those of us who have spent the better part of our lives developing a competitive game.
In the second installment of this two-part series on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, I will take you to several of the courses – we will play them together as I detail my personal experience as a professional golfer and writer.
For details about the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, read part two in February 2015 at www.minoritygolfmag.com in the meantime you can find information on the courses, resort hotels and directions at www.rtjgolf.com