For the Saturday half of our golf trip, we traveled 87 miles up the highway from Hoover to the greater Anniston/Gadsden, AL area to play the RTJ Trail at Silver Lakes. Silver Lakes has three full nine hole courses, aptly named the Heartbreaker Mindbreaker, and Backbreaker. The Silver Lakes property is beautiful, sprawling across the hills of the southern Appalachian foothills surrounded by forests. The staff was friendly and helpful, getting us out onto the course in short order, and our starter was able to provide a little course history for us as we waited a few brief moments at the first tee.
The starter told us that Silver Lakes had been severely damaged by an EF-4 tornado, which was one of the many deadly and devastating storms that permanently scarred Alabama one fateful day in April 2011. Prior to the storm, Silver Lakes had been neatly carved out of the majestic forests, protected from the wind with tree-lined golf holes and a secluded feel across the individual holes. After the tornado, in which more than 40,000 trees were lost and countless more damaged at Silver Lakes, the course more resembles a links course that grew onto a series of rolling hills. Without the cover of the forest, the ever present wind now rivals the elevation changes and undulations as the dominant influences on the golf course.
We started the morning playing the Backbreaker and Mindbreaker courses. This course combination played to 6,397 yards with a slope and course rating of 71.8/137. The Backbreaker punched us in the mouth right out of the gate with an impossible, uphill 406 yard par 4. The dominant feature of this front nine was that five of the greens were extremely elevated, and in retrospect, it felt as if every green was heavily guarded by mounds and/or bunkers. Once on the green, the ball seemed to roll perfectly on the manicured greens.
After a quick breakfast snack at the turn, we headed out to tackle the Mindbreaker course. I think this was the most interesting of the three Silver Lakes nines because I felt that there were more strategic decision making opportunities. It seemed that the risk and reward features of the individual holes were balanced, as evidenced by the two birdies I was able to card on this nine, wedged among the 4 triple bogeys (or worse) recorded on the same nine. I think this was because there was marginally less uphill elevation change in play, or maybe the rust of our golf swings was finally starting to chip and fall away. All things being equal, I felt pretty good about the 101 I carded on an immensely challenging golf course.
We were able to grab some pretty decent cheeseburgers and assorted snacks at the turn before heading out for our final 18 of the trip. Unfortunately, a winter of inactivity and general lack of physical prowess began to take its toll on our collective backs by the time we left the pro shop for the final time.
In the afternoon, we played the Heartbreaker and Backbreaker courses. The Heartbreaker begins with a short, but uphill, Par 5 with a three-tiered green that I would swear was almost 100 yards long that I would have felt fortunate to 3-putt. The next five holes were pretty benign if you were hitting good golf shots, which I wasn’t. The real fun begins on the Heartbreaker’s 7th hole.
The 7th hole had been completely reworked after being significantly impacted by the tornado’s tree damage. At 506 yards downhill, this was the ultimate risk/reward par 5, with three ponds guarding the fairway from the tee and an elevated green guarded by two bunkers. By the time we reached the 7th, the afternoon wind was howling right to left, right towards the ponds, so my snaphook off the tee had no trouble finding the upper pond off the tee. Triple bogey.
The par 3 8th hole was a fairly straightforward hole that required a forced carry into the wind into a deep, undulating green. At 165 yards, accurate club selection and crisp contact were all that were required to get out with a decent score. I was able to scramble for a double bogey.
The par 4 9th hole was an interesting challenge. The entire hole is guarded by a large lake on the left, with the landing area narrowing the further you hit your drive and the now violently whipping wind pushing any shot towards the water hazard. I should have laid back with a 3-iron to the widest part of the fairway, but at 16 over par after 8 holes, Driver was the only choice. By some miracle I was able to split the fairway, pure my 7-iron into the green, and make the putt for my last birdie of the weekend.
I am a little ashamed to admit it, but the final nine holes of the weekend spent replaying the Backbreaker course are a complete blur. The wet conditions mandated another day of cart path only golf, and when combined with the fact we had probably each made 350+ golf swings over the previous 36 hours, our entire group was simply exhausted during the last two hours of play. The mental fatigue was evident in the 57 I recorded for the second time around the Backbreaker.
I have had the opportunity to play some remarkable and tremendously difficult golf courses, including Cog Hill #4 outside Chicago and Triple Crown in Union, KY. And I may change my mind at some point, but to date, Silver Lakes is the toughest golf course I have ever played. The combination of length, elevation changes, wind, elevated greens, bunkering, and water left our group physically and mentally battered by the end of our first 18 holes, and that was only halfway through the second day.
Perhaps the highlight of the golf day, other than the random assorted birdies, was the way it ended. We were starving on the way back to the interstate from Silver Lakes and ended up cruising the strip (US Route 411) in Gadsden until we found Pruett’s Bar-B-Que. This was a family restaurant in every since of the word, and was as southern as it was charming and delicious. The place was packed, but we were able to a table for four within 5 minutes. My pulled pork was perfect, all the sides and the toast were fantastic, and my cavity-inducing sweet tea came in 32 ounce increments.
As Kyle loaded up from Pruett’s to head back to Atlanta (he was only 2 hours from home at this point) and the rest of us headed back to the Marriott’s Ross Bridge Resort in Hoover, I felt perfectly contented that it had been a successful trip. I’m not sure anybody broke 100 that weekend, but it didn’t matter. We had finally done it, we had planned and executed the “Mythical Guys Golf Trip” that we had talked about for years. I got to play four excellent golf courses with three of my best friends in the world. It’s no wonder I started scheming and planning for the next golf trip before I had even made it back to Lexington.