Robert Trent Jones and the Ones That Got Away

Robert Trent Jones and the Ones That Got Away

The question was straightforward. It came after a dinner out, late. Bottles of wine, as in multiples, had been served.

“How long do you think it would take to build 20 golf courses?”

Pause. This is where all their discussions had led, to this one essential question. He thought about it, tried to come up with an answer beneficial to both of them.

“Two years,” he said.

Dr. David Bronner’s Montgomery office is more or less what you’d expect one of the most powerful men in Alabama’s office of to look like: Top floor; corner; spacious and naturally bright with polished marble floors and rich wood accents. A view up the block to the state capital. Outside the office there’s an anteroom with dozens of framed ink caricatures depicting Bronner, often alongside a variety of notable public figures.

As CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, Bronner manages the state’s $43 billion pension fund that supports over 350,000 public employees. While that’s his most important responsibility — he decides how that money is managed and invested — he’s better known as the visionary/gadfly behind the Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a statewide network of multi-course golf complexes totaling 378 championship holes (plus another few dozen par-3 holes) that he financed using pension fund dollars, a once outlandish idea that’s matured into, arguably, American’s best known golf collective.

Relaxing in a high-backed leather chair behind a broad desk, Bronner is telling me about the responses he received when he solicited some of golf’s best-known architects to build the Trail courses in the late 1980s, before Robert Trent Jones signed on.

The Senator course at Capitol Hill

One rejection came via a form letter, he says. One insisted Bronner couldn’t afford their top-quality signature work but suggested a lesser design package. Another letter informed him he probably didn’t actually intend to build a trail but rather a resort complex using different designers, similar to what was happening elsewhere in the country.

“In other words, they were telling me what my idea was,” Bronner says, leaning back and savoring the aroma of a sharply clipped Cohiba, drawing it back and forth slowly under his nose. “So I said, ‘Screw you.’”

I’d come to Montgomery to learn about the Trail’s origins, to hopefully get behind the marketing boilerplate and to ask, specifically, how in 1989 Robert Trent Jones — well into his eighties with almost no current work and no connection to Alabama — came to author the first and most emulated golf trail in the world.

And there it was: he was the only one that said “Yes.”

Via mass advertising, the now famous shot of The Judge’s opening hole at Capitol Hill.

In 1992 the state of Alabama brought in less than $2 billion in tourism. That was the same year the first four courses on the Trail opened: Oxmoor Valley (Birmingham), Hampton Cove (Huntsville), Magnolia Grove (Mobile) and Grand National (Opelika).

Forward to 2017 and tourism accounted for a record $14.3, much of it directly due to the popularity of the Trail, its eight hotel and resort properties and the roughly 500,000 annual rounds played (three more sites opened in 1993; another 54-hole complex in 1999; then three more between 2004 and 2006).

Not only that, Bronner has spun the popularity of the Trail and the goodwill it’s fostered into a marketing mechanism that’s attracted outside business to Alabama. The breakthrough came in 1993 when Mercedes Benz, using a $100 million RSA loan, announced the construction of its (then) only U.S. manufacturing plant in Tuscaloosa. Other major industries followed — auto, steel and aluminum, most notably — many seeded with pension fund money. By 2000, the fund was worth over $30 billion and 100-percent funded.

As Bronner talks about the Trail’s financial impact, it occurs to me there are several ironies surrounding it. The first is that while the pension’s nearly $200 million investment to fund the construction of the first seven golf courses reads like a staggering sum, the Trail’s development was never about turning a profit, nor was it ever just about golf.

The courses — spread across eleven different sites ranging from the Appalachian foothills in the northeast corner of the state to the shores of Mobile Bay on the Gulf Coast — do not bring money into the fund. They make an average of only about 3-percent profit each year, and those couple of million dollars are turned back around and spent on upgrades and renovations.

As the Trail recently celebrated the 25-year anniversary, almost every site has undergone some level of significant refurbishment including bunker alterations and renovations, re-grassing of greens and tees, or complete green rebuilds.

Nevertheless, the initial expenditure of $200 million, on golf no less, was extreme risky business, wasn’t it? I asked Bronner if he ever felt like he was playing with fire. No, he said. That investment was “miniscule” considering the size of the RSA’s portfolio.

“Playing with fire is probably a $2.5 to $3 billion investment,” he said, referring to RSA’s development and ownership stake of Raycom Media, a regional cable broadcaster that was sold in early 2019 to another media company for $3.6 billion. “That’s fire.”

There’s a certain Trump-ness about Bronner, beginning with an affable but unmistakable air of confidence, continuing with this marbled, Versailles-on-budget 8th floor sanctum and ending somewhere around his moppishly coiffed sandy red hair [Note: this description was written years before Trump entered politics].

But where the former tycoon often exudes pompousness or buffoonery, Bronner’s manner is more mischievous. Given the success he’s had attracting global industry and propping up local companies, many politicians curry his favor and his prognostications about the state of Alabama’s economy are sometimes minor media events. When he speaks, the Alabama business community listens. If Warren Buffett is the “Oracle of Omaha,” Bronner is the “Magus of Montgomery.”

[Author’s note: in recent years Bronner has drawn criticism from certain lawmakers and economic groups for what is perceived as a flawed or reckless investment strategy. Under Bronner’s longtime direction, the RSA has diversified the portfolio to a unique and aggressive degree, at least as compared to many other state pension funds. The holdings include the title to a skyscraper in New York, the aforementioned media and newspaper companies, the financing of high rise buildings in Montgomery and Mobile, and more recently, investments in new housing developments.]

“You have to remember that [25] years ago Alabama was 48th, 49th and 50th in everything,” Bronner says, still nosing the Cohiba.

“Alabama (wasn’t) going to change, so that was my very first effort to say, ‘They can shoot me, they can run me out of the state, but at least they’re going to change relative to this one little thing.’ And in announcing that one little thing called the Trail, I was really after number two: how can I get industry into the state?

“I’m not sure that I could have pulled that off to any degree that we did without the Trail.”        

The Trail does a spectacular job of showcasing many surprising and beautiful locations around the state.

Bobby Vaughan is a talkative and straightforward Virginian who met Bronner in 1986 while opening and then managing a private club in Montgomery. The two had struck up a friendship long before the idea of a golf trail matriculated through either man’s mind, but on several occasions Vaughan had shared his idea about how golf could have a powerful, positive effect on Alabama’s ill repute.

“Alabama was every four-letter bad word that you could possibly think of,” Vaughan told me, specifically at that time following the uproar surrounding the 1990 PGA Championship and Shoal Creek’s membership policies. “We were construed as racists, bigots, rednecks, you name it. That’s where Alabama was at the time.”

But public golf, he believed, could be the vehicle through which Bronner could change both the state’s reputation and, ultimately, the economy.

When Bronner took over the RSA in 1973 the pension was worth $500 million and only 25-percent funded. By the mid-1980’s the numbers had improved, but not to the degree Bronner had hoped. He was looking for a game-changer.

The Lakewood Golf Club outside Mobile, one of the Retirement System of Alabama’s most recent acquisitions.

The critical moment came in 1989 when he visited Vaughan for a week of golf at the course he was now managing outside Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The two were dining with their families on the Wake Forest campus when Bronner said, “Tell me again that crazy idea of yours about those golf courses.”

Bronner asked how much it cost to build a golf course and Vaughan estimated $5 to $10 million to do it right. Then Bronner asked how long it would take to build 20 of them, because when you’re dealing with a pension fund worth billions of dollar, it’s not even worth the investment if it’s not $100 or $200 million. Vaughan said he could do it in two years.

“It was two crazies coming at it from two ends,” Vaughan says, laughing, but it was the right answer.

The game changing idea soon took clearer form. Bronner hired Vaughan as project manager responsible for selecting potential sites, brokering land deals and overseeing construction; Bronner would supply the financing and political cover. Now they needed to hire an architect.

The second irony is this: Alabama’s moribund tourism industry was resurrected through the image of a Yankee.

Robert Trent Jones was born in England, raised in Rochester, New York and spent nearly half of the 20th century as the world’s best known and most marketable golf course architect. His career — nearly 500 original designs and renovations across 35 countries — connected the late Golden Age of golf design in the 30s to the go-go real estate days of the 90s, pioneering along the way the concept of the name brand, jet-setting architect. (Jones passed away in 2000).

I called Roger Rulewich, who joined Jones’ firm as an associate in 1961, to ask why Jones, semi-retired at the time, was the only architect to respond to Bronner with any real interest. Had the other designers — Jones’ peers and professional heirs — learned nothing from the man that had made golf course architecture the global profession it was?

“He was willing to talk to anybody about a project and was always hopeful there was going to be some work for him in it,” Rulewich said from his Boston-area office. “Jones’ response was, let’s see what they’re talking about. And it turned out they were talking about an awful lot.”

Given his age and the scope and speed of construction, Jones could only be tangentially involved, although he showed up on at least one occasion with some hand-drawn drafts of greens (Bronner recalls Rulewich coming to him and saying, ‘You know, he’s got his sketchbook out now and he’s driving us all crazy!”).

Rulewich and Vaughan handled all aspects the project, scrambling from site to site and often working on the fly with no design plans other than crude routing maps. It was a whirlwind of logistics and improvisation, the largest golf construction project ever endeavored employing 700 pieces of equipment and 1500 workers on seven different sites. “I think on some of the sites we didn’t have the property defined until we built the golf course, and then the boundary was set out around the golf course,” Rulewich says.

The busy, demanding landscape of Silver Lakes, near Gadsen.

The Trail courses are an innovative commuter golf experience, not just because you can easily drive from one site to the next and experience wide swings in scenery and atmosphere, but because the courses function as sizzling neon billboards meant seize your attention without slowing for contemplation.

With futuristic yardages (some courses tip out at over 8,000 yards), tee shots cutting over water and ravines, enormous jagged-edged bunkers invading rambling fairways and greens sometimes 60 yards deep with high, stair-stepped levels, it’s not golf you linger over. The courses are as subtle as a rollercoaster, summer blockbusters that trade nuance for showmanship. You don’t savor them so much you survive them, and, yes, by reputation and intent, they are difficult.

That directive came from Bronner, often clashing with the more gentlemanly instincts of Rulewich. But this was the late 1980s and early 1990s, after all, when the trend was to make golf courses audacious. The only comment Bronner made about the courses at any point during their constructions, in a whistle-stop helicopter tour just prior to the opening, was, “They’re not difficult enough.”

But to be both difficult and acceptable you need memorable landscapes, and the genius of the Trail is how it shows off aspects of Alabama most players would never know existed. First-time visitors are usually shocked by the Allegheny-like terrain surrounding Birmingham and the wild, stepped fairways at Oxmoor Valley.

The courses at The Shoals in Florence, one of the last additions opened in 2005, dance between woodlands, lakes and meadows, each finishing on dramatic bluffs above the Tennessee River.

At Cambrian Ridge in Greenville three unique nines camber along surprisingly steep hillsides while jumping across lakes, ridges and canyons. The Lake and Links courses at Grand National, meanwhile, are strung gorgeously around the jigsaw shore of Lake Sougahatchee.

Even though Robert Trent Jones didn’t technically design the Robert Trent Jones Trail, traces of his historical style are evidenced throughout it via Rulewich, just on a much larger, more outrageous scale — particularly the bunkering and the green designs.

“I think between Bobby and myself, in trying to make these courses as challenging as we could, (the) contouring of greens was an amplification of what Jones would have done,” Rulewich says. “We were free to do these things.”

Dr. David Bronner

Bronner won’t reveal which architects or firms scoffed at his Trail idea (“I didn’t confirm or deny,” he says when I begin naming names), but anyone who follows golf design can venture some educated guesses based on who was who during the late 80s time period (Vaughan will only talk about them off the record). Regardless, they missed out on not just building but branding over 100 miles of world-famous public golf visited by some 12 million golfers to date, on some of the most adventurous sites in the Southeast.

I ask him if he’s had occasion since then to meet with the doubting architects, if any have ever expressed remorse. “Not only that, they let me know: When you do something else again, or you want to do another one…’ That sort of stuff,” he says, pausing to finally light that cigar. “And I just smile.”

The final irony is that the Trail may very well be the thing that Jones is best remembered for, now and certainly to future generations. That others executed it is beyond the point.

His involvement, whatever it may have been, gave international credence to a wildly ambitious idea, a cause no doubt made legitimate by the Great Man imprimatur. While the golf speaks for itself, the Trail has accomplished something even more by helping bolster a state’s reputation, and possibly its economy too.

Even if it took two crazies and a Yankee to do it.

Note: A version of this story first appeared in GO! Magazine in 2011. The data and economic figures have been updated.

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