Green. That’s what you see as you look out over the twin 18-hole regulation golf courses at Grand National in Auburn-Opelika — lush and immaculate green fairways whose beauty belies a ferocity that will test the world’s best golfers this week at the PGA’s Barbasol Championship.
Another kind of green emanates from these courses — money from employment, tourism and housing spurred by one of the greatest construction efforts in American history.
That’s what author Mark Fagan set out to capture in his new book, “The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its History and Economic Impact,” published by NewSouth Books.
In 317 meticulously researched, beautifully photographed pages, Fagan lays out the story of how a plan to raise money for state pensions led to the world’s largest single golf construction project.
“More dirt was moved than when they built the Panama Canal,” said Fagan. “It was such a compelling story for a pension fund to invest in tourism infrastructure.”
That vision came largely from one man, David Bronner, since 1973 the head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), which manages the pensions of state employees and teachers.
“I wanted to improve Alabama and help ourselves so others would want to join us,” Bronner wrote in a foreword for the book. “I wanted something of which all Alabamians could be proud. I wanted something no other state had.”
He succeeded beyond expectation. Today the Robert Trent Jones (RTJ) Golf Trail encompasses 11 sites, from the Shoals in northwest Alabama to Magnolia Grove in Mobile. The 26 RTJ courses cover 5,700 acres of variable terrain, from mountains to rivers to coastal wetlands.
“There are 468 golf holes,” said Fagan. “You could play 36 holes a day for 13 days and never play the same hole twice.”
Accompanying the courses are eight Marriott/Renaissance Hotels and five spas, which host about 2,500 national and international meetings annually.
“Grand National has made a major economic impact to the Auburn-Opelika area,” said Lolly Steiner, president of the Auburn Chamber of Commerce. “The addition of the Marriott Hotel in 2002 completed the whole experience.”
Over 77,000 jobs were tied into the initial construction effort, which included hotels and adjacent housing and commercial space. Course construction was supervised by Robert Trent Jones Sr., a world-class golf course architect with over 60 years of experience, including designing a White House putting green for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Jones was especially fond of the Grand National, one of the first four courses built on the Trail. “Jones said it was one of the most natural sites and one of his favorites of some 400 courses he had worked on,” said Fagan.
On Thursday, professional golfers will tee off on the Grand National’s Lake Course. Twelve of its holes border 600-acre Lake Saugahatchee. Both the Lake and the Links courses have been ranked in the top 10 of Golf Digest’s “America’s Top 50 Affordable Courses.”
It’s par for the course for the RTJ Trail, which is known for its sterling quality and upkeep.
“Golfers from the Midwest, when their courses are frozen over, are coming to Alabama instead of going to Arizona or Florida,” said Fagan. “They can play a week here for what they can play a couple of days for in Arizona.”
Some of those tourists will arrive this week for the second annual Barbasol Championship, won last year by Scott Piercy. About 50,000 spectators are expected, bringing $25 million or more to the Opelika-Auburn area.
This economic boost is a significant benefit of the Trail. In 1990, before it was created, tourism in Alabama generated about $3 billion annually. Today, it approaches $13 billion.
“Every year, billions of dollars in taxes are coming in,” said Fagan, a professor emeritus at Jacksonville State University. “There are 54,000 more tourism jobs in Alabama today than in 1990.”
Even more impressive has been the long-term economic impact on communities. Bronner sought to use Alabama’s natural advantages — warm climate, low cost of living, outdoor recreation — to boost retirement, tourism and small businesses.
The RTJ Golf Trail has done just that.
“Over 8,000 houses have been developed around these properties,” said Fagan, “and over 5 million square feet of adjacent commercial space.”
It’s a delicious twist: new retirees moving to Alabama to keep the state’s retirees’ pensions solvent.