The Senator Course at Capitol Hill on the Alabama Robert Trent Jones might be the most unique, and unexpectedly great, course in the southern United States not on the Atlantic Coast.
Unique in that it’s a fantastic links style course, with only one tree and one water hazard in play, giant, rolling greens, and an amazing intra-hole seclusion that provides a truly singular experience.
Unexpectedly great experience because the Senator Course sits on the high ground atop of the river carved plains of Prattville, Alabama, some 170 miles from the Gulf Coast, yet provides a true links-feel golf experience.
Built by Robert Trent Jones and Roger Rulewich in 1999, the Senator Course was one of the last constructed along the Alabama RTJ trail. There apparently are some advantages to bringing up the rear, as the Senator has a different feel and presentation than any other course I’ve played on the trail, or frankly, ever seen that isn’t located on the Atlantic Coast.
The course has played host of the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic since 2007 (which as formerly known as the Navistar LPGA Classic). What a treat playing the course must be for the ladies, to be able to compete on a course so completely different from most that the LPGA Tour visits.
Our round on the Senator Course was on a beautiful, hot, sunny afternoon after a morning spent on Capitol Hill’s popular and grueling Judge Course.
It’s amazing that the two courses share a common clubhouse and property boundary, as the courses literally could not be more different.
Fortunately for us, the wind had laid down for the afternoon, providing only a minimal, intermittent breeze. Upon reflection, the course would be brutal, and truly more links-ish if the wind were howling. But as it was our second 18 on the day, we were grateful the weather and golfing gods were taking pity on us.
We played a modified alternate shot/Wolf hybrid game where the Wolf was pitted against the remaining two players, who alternated their shots. The game succeeded in breaking up the monotony of pure stroke play and saved our bodies a little additional wear and tear.
We played from the Orange Tees, which are the middle set of tees on all the Capitol Hill courses. From there, the Senator plays to 6,440 yards and a slope and course rating of 71.1/126.
For comparison, the Black (Championship) tees play to 7,724 yards, with slope and course rating of 77.7/133, which for us would require a lot of 3-woods and well struck hybrids, which would have sapped most of the fun out of the course.
The Senator presents quite a contrast within its own boundary, almost to the dismay of the golfer. From high atop the mounds framing and dividing the holes, the course provides amazing views of beautiful, rolling central Alabama plains.
In contrast, we felt totally secluded when in the fairway between the ridges of mounding, blind and deaf to the rest of the course (and world) around us.
It occurred to me halfway through the round that the Senator Course is what Belterra Golf Course should aspire to be. Belterra had a ridge on one side of each hole; the Senator had tunnels of fairway between ridges on both sides.
I remember thinking the course was a series of giant grass-covered “half-pipes” that would be a skateboarder’s dream. Rather than springy asphalt, the tall grass on the mounds meant the ball might bounce, but would not roll, off the hills.
Fairways are between and bend around enormous mounds that frame the playing area. There is not a ton of elevation change tee to green, if the ball is kept in fairway. However, the mounds turn wayward shots into incredibly awkward lies for the approach shot.
Some of the immaculately kept tees were slightly elevated above the fairway, providing at least a partial view of the target landing area. In keeping with its links styling, I don’t recall any elevated fairways, though there were several sneakily uphill approach shots.
As is true of most of Jones’ courses on the Trail, all of the green was not visible from any given point of a given hole, through the use of contours, mounding, and bunkering.
It’s a nice visual deception and intimidation design feature that I’m learning to appreciate more on my journey, and Jones and Rulewich have done a nice job of making the effect fit the terrain without any notion of intentional contrivance.
Bunkers are everywhere on the Senator Course, 160 of them in all, including a lot of pot bunkers not easily visible from the tee or fairway. As one would expect on a links layout, many of the bunkers had extremely high faces that exacted a stiff penalty for entry.
As for the content of the bunkers, they were full of flawless, fluffy sand, but were surprisingly firm underneath.
As mentioned previously, there was only one water hazard on the entire course, which was barely in play (from 17th tee) depending on the target line off the tee.
Also, there were only a couple of trees in play, not including those marking the property boundary with the adjacent, but well hidden, housing development.
Though a little shade would have been appreciated given that we were in Alabama in late July, the lack of trees was kind of nice, if for no other reason than we got a brief reprieve from the creepy Masked Face Fox Squirrel. Encountering these little devils was perhaps the most “Alabama” thing we experience the entire trip.
Until looking up on Google in preparation for this column, I thought was some crazy mutant hybrid from squirrel and raccoon interbreeding that still haunts my dreams.
The greens on the Senator Course were crispy and incredibly firm, even with the LPGA event still a month away. Despite the extreme contouring, the greens were rolling nearly as fast as the lightning quick greens of the Judge Course.
Nonetheless, they were a ton of fun to putt on because they were perfectly true and consistent. And, the greens provided several instances of unintentional comedy.
I missed a 25-foot putt on the 3rd hole by at least 20 feet long and left, to much laughter and the chagrin of my partner, but learned my lesson thereafter. There were at lot of 3-putts and a few four-putts within the group, owed primarily to the speed that we just couldn’t collectively believe given the shape of the surfaces.
Short game creativity was key on the Senator, and playing the low chip proved much more useful than the aerial game. The Senator proved a fun driving course, though there were a few occasions where hitting less than driver off the tee was the prudent play.
Looking back, the Senator provides lots of memorable holes, though I’m not sure any of them qualify as a true “signature” hole. Instead, I remember the greater feel and ambiance of the course, and they’re all wonderful recollections.
It’s a course I heartily recommend and won’t hesitate to revisit should I ever find a reason to be in the greater Montgomery area. There was nothing natural about the extensive mounding and the tons of earth that were moved to create the Senator.
However, the wonderfully unique visual and competitive experiences presented by the layout make it probably my favorite Robert Trent Jones creation that I’ve played to date.