Of all the factors an architect must juggle in designing a championship caliber golf course, the balance between creating a fun playing experience for the “average” golfer and producing a course that will challenge the best golfers is probably the most delicate.
One of the most visually spectacular courses of the Robert Trent Jones Alabama Golf Trail, the Judge Course is also one of the most difficult courses on the Trail.
Opened to public play in 2000, the Judge plays to a course rating and slope of 71.7 and 131 from the Orange tees, which play to 6,517 yards. Our Guys’ Getaway Weekend golf crew wanted nothing to do with the championship (Black) set of tees, which stretch to 7,813 yards and a rating and slope of 78.5 / 147.
Appropriately enough, golfers get a solid dose of both splendor and intimidation on the first tee, with one of the most scenic vistas and scariest first shots of any round I can remember playing anywhere.
Sure, Kapalua’s Plantation Course seduces a golfer with a fantastic view of the ocean and Hawaiian Islands from the first tee. And the Club at Olde Stone demands top-of-your-game precision and execution to avoid double or triple bogey on the first shot.
However, I don’t remember such a fantastic combination of awe and “Oh Lord” as is created in the golfer on the first tee of the Judge.
It sets an almost perfect tone for the round to follow right out of the Chute, literally in this case, as the picturesque Gun Island Chute of the Alabama River abuts the entire right side of the first fairway and green.
The friendly starter warned us that 14 of the 18 holes had some form of water in play. However, what he didn’t tell us and what he couldn’t possibly convey in words, is the cumulative, almost compounding, effect that many water hazards would have on our group psychologically as we traversed from the first tee to the eighteenth green.
On almost every hole of the Judge, there is an obvious dead area that screams, “Don’t hit it over here!” Sometimes that danger is a lake or lagoon, sometimes it’s the beginning of a tree line.
Other times it’s a bunker or series of bunkers that will exact at least a one-stroke penalty, if not more. Yet still it may be a dogleg that one isn’t quite comfortable with where to aim or how much shaping is enough to keep it in the fairway.
Part of what makes the course so difficult is that in addition to these obvious hazards are the more subtle, less obvious trouble spots that are almost laying in wait for the unsuspecting or imprecise golfer.
A hilly contour of the fairway here, a bunker unseen from the tee there, a pin tucked behind a mogul over there that the scorecard and GPS app don’t account for neatly.
It all adds to the genius and fun of the Judge Course.
Despite the 200-foot drop from the first tee box to the first fairway below, and the uphill climb to the 18th green from the fairway below, the Judge has very little in the way of serious elevation change.
That isn’t much of a surprise, given how the course is carved and framed by the Alabama River’s Gun Island Chute, and the various pools, ponds, and lagoons.
However, what little elevation change the Judge course contains is strategically important, in that subtle contouring of the fairways and green complexes produces an abundance of semi-blind approach shots. Commonly, you can see the flag, but only see part of the flag stick.
In other words, only a portion of each putting surface is readily visible from the fairway (and perhaps less so from the rough). This is quite the architectural accomplishment and strategically important design feature.
And then there are the greens; those gigantic, multi-leveled, multi-contoured, well-protected Robert Trent Jones Sr. greens.
All of the stunning scenery and visual intimidation from the tee boxes are all just beautiful red herrings. Perfect distractions from the reality that the Judge is very much a second (or third) shot golf course if you want to have any chance at scoring well.
Put in other terms, while bogey or worse is a likely outcome with a poor or errant tee shot, birdie was absolutely out of the question if the approach shot did not end up on the correct tier or portion of the green.
Every green, many of them clover-leafed, with separate, segregated areas had the following landing areas or quadrants: the great shot, the good miss, the that’s-going-to-be-tough, the guaranteed three-putt, and the impossible up-and-down.
Once on the proper tier or section of the firm, fast greens, we were free to make a free, aggressive stroke at the hole, as the greens were in perfect condition, rolling straight and true across generally gentle slopes. Kudos to the greens staff for having sensible pin positions (i.e., holes were in the middle of a section rather than on the crest of a contour).
As for indelible impressions, the Judge Course leaves several. The afore-mentioned first hole is a visual stunner committed to the memory bank of every golfer that plays the course.
The three hole stretch of numbers five, six, and seven abutting a large pool of the Gun Island Chute is the marquee real estate at the Judge.
The par 5th hole is a great medium length risk/reward par four that requires a forced carry over a lake and, maybe, a bunker. The more aggressive line off the tee means a longer carry, but also leaves one with a wedge in hand to a slightly elevated green.
The island green complex of the par 3 6th hole is a massive and scary hole protected by water and an enormous, high-faced bunker on the front of the green. Interestingly, instead of using Pete Dye signature wooden piers, the 6th green complex is held up by what appear to be freshwater steel metal piers (not unlike those my dad and I used to fish for crappie around at the barge repair dock on Kentucky Lake).
The long, double forced carry par 5 7th hole is the stuff golf nightmares are made of. With a forced carry over water guarding the front of the fairway, water down the entire right side of the fairway, and jutting in between the end of the fairway and the green, precision and courage are the initial requirements just to survive the hole on a single golf ball.
While the stars of the course are found on the front nine, the back nine holes at the Judge are just as challenging and striking, if more subtle than their superstar cousins earlier in the round.
Instead of massive lakes and a river, the second nine at the Judge is littered with pools and ponds, which while less optically impressive, are just as dangerous to a poorly executed golf shot.
One natural beauty-themed highlight of the round occurred on the tee at the par 5 15th hole. At the top of Matt’s backswing, a hungry Great Blue Heron decided to pluck an unsuspecting catfish from the lagoon just several yards away from us.
To Matt’s credit, he had the discipline to stop and back off the shot, allowing him to regroup for a decent tee shot, and allowing the bird time to secure its fresh catch and fly off to share the bounty with its family back at the swampy homestead, and a good laugh was had by all.
The Judge Course finishes with two short, attackable par four holes. It’s almost as if Jones and Rulewich pity those golfers that actually survived all the way to the 18th hole, and ease off the accelerator, allowing a bit of aggressive play to settle the bets at the end of the round.
The super short dogleg right uphill 18th hole has an almost drivable, large elevated green that allows the golfer to claim a small victory, if only truly Pyrrhic in nature.
The Judge is a hard test set against the beautiful Alabama River lowlands that combines perhaps all the best elements of Robert Trent Jones’ signature design features. The course was in immaculate condition, even in the sweltering late July Alabama heat.
The staff at Capitol Hill was fantastic: professional, welcoming, friendly. As part of the RTJ Trail, they rely in large part on traveling golf enthusiasts for a significant chunk of their business, and to their credit, they know it, and comport themselves accordingly.
Even after posting an 18-hole score in triple digits, I don’t have anything negative to say about the Judge Course. My scorecard wounds were self-inflicted on what I found to be a tough but fair course that was an awful lot of fun to play. I know slogs and miserable rounds on hard golf courses (see my Dubsdread experience), and this wasn’t it.
If you have the opportunity to play at Capitol Hill, make sure the Judge is on your itinerary.