Our final 18 holes of our two-day whirlwind trip along the Alabama Robert Trent Jones Trail was the Links Course at Grand National in Opelika, Alabama on a Tuesday afternoon. We basically had the course to ourselves, as no one else was dumb enough to play golf in 95-plus degree heat with 90% humidity in Alabama in July.
Described as the “cornerstone” of the entire Grand National complex, the brutish Links Course is links in name only, as the course contains lots of elevation change and is carved from the forest.
With 10 holes abutting water of one kind or another, the Links Course is just as deserving as the Lake Course of a riparian nameplate. I suspect they settled on the “Links” moniker because they didn’t want to call it the “Other” course.
After comparing scorecards, I was a little surprised to learn that the Links Course actually rates (and plays) more difficult than the more famous Lake Course, which hosts the PGA’s Barbasol Championship.
The Links Course’s Orange tees, which we played from, measure 6,574 yards and plays to a slope and course rating of 72.3/129, while the championship Purple tees play to 7,311 yards with a slope and course rating of 75.1/135.
The most obvious difference our morning round on the Lake Course and the Links Course were the greens. While the Lake Course had nearly perfect dwarf Bermuda grass greens, the Links Course’s bent grass greens were really suffering under the sweltering summer heat.
We were advised by the pro shop staff that they’d mowed the Links Course’s greens significantly longer than any of the other greens we’d played in Alabama, in an attempt to keep the cool-weather bent grass alive. It was noticeable on the very first green, as all of us left our putts embarrassingly short of the hole on our first attempts.
It took several holes to adjust to the slow speeds and the amount of moisture that had been put on the green complexes as compared to the 54 holes we’d just played over the prior day and a half.
Truth be told, the Links Course is probably in immaculate condition during the other three seasons of the year. However, even in the transition zone of central Kentucky, our superintendents sometimes struggle to keep bent grass in prime condition during the summer, so it must be a monumental task in southern Alabama.
Conditioning of the greens and tee boxes aside, the Links Course is a very tough, fun challenge. As one would expect from a Jones Sr. layout, there are lots of uncomfortable tee shots, owing to acute use of angles, well placed bunkers, and strategy-altering contouring of the fairways.
On what felt like half the holes, there was a significant amount of elevation change from the tee to green. I also felt that, despite some of the tough tee shots, the Links Course is essentially a second shot golf course.
Multiple hazards usually guard the greens: bunkers, mounding, elevation changes, marshes, lakes, and native grass areas are among the many effective defenders of par.
For as long as the course is, to score effectively a golfer certainly must think his way around the Links Course. With all the doglegs and risk/reward decisions from the tee, it’s definitely not a bomber’s paradise.
Owing partly to the way the greens were angled in relation to the fairway, we found the greens to be slightly smallish, by Robert Trent Jones Sr. standards anyway. The course definitely fits within the famous Jones mantra of “difficult par, easy bogey,” though I found double bogey even easier than regular bogeys.
The front side was fine, with the super short par 4 No. 8 being the most memorable hole for me: a short dogleg right par four on which driver would reach the lake and bunkers and mature trees prevented cutting the corner to an elevated green with trouble on all sides.
The rest of the front side is a collection of strong holes that required more skill and mental fortitude than our group could muster for the fourth round in two days.
For my money, most of the truly great and memorable holes were on the back nine at the Links Course. The short par 4 13th hole requires a particularly uncomfortable tee shot, with woods to the left, a lagoon to the right, and bunkers disrupting the middle of the fairway.
The lengthy par 4 14th hole requires a long approach into elevated green to an offset angled green with a lake ready to swallow the miss long or left. The 14th hole provides a fantastic view of the lake and the Grand National Resort, which eases the mental burden of such a challenging hole.
No. 17 lets you get any pent-up aggression out on the medium length downhill par 4 from an elevated tee, as a well struck drive will remain in the air for what feels like an eternity.
Without question, the star of the Links Course is the incredibly challenging par four finishing hole. The tee shot requires a risk/reward calculation and precise execution, as the lake short of the fairway tests the steadiest of nerves, while a series of bunkers will punish those who bomb their drive too far through the fairway.
An approach to an elevated green that is three times as wide as it is deep on the far side of a steep-walled lake cove is perhaps the most challenging approach shot at all of Grand National.
The Links Courses’ 18th hole is without a doubt the best finishing hole I’ve played on the Robert Trent Jones Trail, with several opportunities to be punished for less than perfect execution.
The quality of golf we played on the Links Course did not match the quality of the course, as physical and mental exhaustion overwhelmed our skill levels. However, the course did produce two memorable anecdotes that I’ll be fond of for years to come.
First, on the first hole, Bryan’s drive went awry, way to the right, under a canopy of the trees near where the maintenance crew was mowing the rough. We’d almost made it back to our carts from the tee to head to our drives when, “BLAM!”
We heard what I recognized as the unmistakable sound of mowing blade meeting golf ball at full speed, and we knew that there wouldn’t be anything to find after that, as that poor Slazenger met a fate worse than it deserved.
Luckily, we were playing a shamble and had other options near the fairway from which to play. It is the first time I can remember hearing a golf course mower actually destroy a ball in play.
Then, on the 7th hole, Bryan and my two punch outs from a horrible drive were within a few yards of each other. For my approach, I hit the worst shank of the entire trip, a fatigue-induced hosel rocket dead right, at almost a 45° angle to the right out of a downhill, sidehill lie. It was a terrible shot.
As I heard Bryan snickering and poking fun at my plight, I saw the ball bounce off of a couple of trees and remain in play. The ball was nowhere near the green, but it was still in play. Then instant karma smote Bryan immediately!
If my shank was at an unbelievably bad 45° angle, Bryan’s subsequent shank was at an impossible 20° angle even further to the right. Hot, weary, and emotionally drained with my brain’s filter on empty, instead of silently enjoying my competitor’s comeuppance, I immediately let out an inappropriately loud “HA,” of amusement and satisfaction, which, thankfully, drew outright laughter from Bryan and Matt.
By his snickering and delight in my shank, Bryan had indeed angered the golf gods and their vengeance upon him was swift and just. My reaction was completely inappropriate 99 out of 100 times, but somehow still feels justified on that occasion in retrospect.
Finally, a quick word on the fantastic service we received at the Grand National clubhouse. We were allowed to take full advantage of the locker room facilities after our rounds, which meant we were able to get a quick shower before loading up for the drive back to the Atlanta airport for the flights home.Washing up after a long day on the course made a huge difference in our comfort levels (and those of the people in close proximity to us).
I’ll look forward to the playing the Links Course the next time Kentucky travels to play Auburn in football, as the fall weather would be much more kind to the bent grass greens and tee boxes, several of which were pretty gnarly as well, suffering from the same overheating that plagued the green complexes.