ALPINE, Ala. – Have you ever seen an abandoned golf course and wondered if you can still play golf there? Can it be saved? How much would it cost to reopen, at what cost?
Since hundreds of golf courses across the US closed after the market collapsed in 2008, there are many such overgrown lots — including dozens of layouts by famous designers. Nothing comes of many of these properties but memories and perhaps a few dreams of a golf renovation.
Rarely do these dreams of revitalizing an abandoned facility come true. It just takes the right person.
Enter Tony Parton, a former federal corrections officer who lives in rural Alabama. He had no plans to take over a failed course. But he loved golf – and a certain layout.
It was called Alpine Bay. The majority of golfers in Alabama have never heard of it, and most of the minority that did know never bothered to play it. They couldn’t tell you how to get there or if it’s still open.
Located in east-central Alabama, 44 miles east of downtown Birmingham near the south shore of Logan Martin Lake (part of the broad basin of the Coosa River), Alpine Bay Golf Club was originally planned with two 18-hole courses . However, lacking funds for major resort development, only one of the two courses opened in 1972.
This course had a lot going for it: a 6,518-yard, par-72 championship layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., the namesake of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail built decades later. Additionally, Jones built it with the assistance of his son Rees Jones, then in his early 30s, who himself became an award-winning course designer and brand name, and the young Roger Rulewich, the architect who two decades later would actually design most of the courses on the trail.
Financially strapped from the start, Alpine Bay struggled to stay in business year after year. Although a beautiful layout in brilliant natural surroundings, Alpine Bay was difficult to access even from Birmingham as at least part of the drive was on winding, lonely dual carriageways. After barely surviving for decades, it closed in 2014.
The closure of Alpine Bay made little waves in the golfing world, even in Alabama. But the place had built a loyal following. Namely Tony Parton. And the closure of Alpine Bay didn’t end Parton’s love affair with the layout. On a summer evening in 2016, he and his wife Jan walked across the deserted square.
“When we got to the eighth green [a par 3 over a small lake]”, he remembers, “we were shocked by the miserable condition of the track. It was all overgrown, just awful, with weeds and weeds growing waist high and the original grass all but dead.”
The Partons pledged themselves to weeding the worst weeds on only one green. “We came back several nights in a row and worked to uncover what was left of the golf course we loved.”
On one of their first trips to the abandoned facility, Tony received a call from his friend Mark Calhoun, who was also a regular at the golf course. “Mark asked where I was,” Parton recalls. “I said, ‘You’ll never believe me, but I’m with Alpine.’ ”
Calhoun got into his pickup truck and drove straight to where Tony was mowing weeds and grass. “Mark and I took a close look at what used to be the green and tried to figure out what we could do about it,” Parton said. When the tall grass on the former green was cut to a reasonable length, they realized, “There was hope for this course.”
The 144 hectare property, which consisted of a golf course, practice area, putting green and small clubhouse, had been for sale for months. Parton quickly called the agent and made an offer. The price was $144,000. The process only lasted a few months. By early 2017, Parton, who was then out of the federal prison system, had raised enough funds to take on the course.
Buying Alpine Bay was one thing, preparing it for golfers was another. The next step in this process was to get more people on board. With Calhoun’s help, Parton formed Alpine Group LLC. A handful of investors increased the value of the limited liability company to $520,000. Still not much to run a golf course.
It took five months of painstaking restoration and backbreaking work to get the course ready to play. “No words can describe the emotion of seeing golfers tee off on the course for the first time,” said Parton.
In the 12 months since it reopened in the summer of 2017, the semi-private Alpine Bay Golf Club has added 60 members. Today it is home to just over twice that number, virtually all from the surrounding communities of Lincoln, St. Clair, Vincent, Coosa Pines, Harpersville, Childersburg, and Talladega. The course has played about 15,000 rounds each for the past two years, with peak weekend and holiday green fees as low as $46.
Still, Alpine Bay is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Alabama Gulf — it gets no respect. Rarely does anyone from Birmingham, Montgomery or Huntsville set out to gamble. Most golfers in the state have never heard of Alpine Bay, and those who do dismiss Alpine Bay as either out of business or not worth playing.
To demonstrate the long forgotten and ignored virtues of Alpine Bay Golf Course, golf week included a day in Alpine Bay as part of the 2021 Architectural Summit near Birmingham honoring the legacy of Robert Trent Jones Sr. The summit was attended by 44 of Golfweek Best’s course assessors. Overall, the reviewers, who traveled from as far away as Northern Ireland, found Alpine Bay more than worth a visit. The conditioning of the course still required significant work, but the bones of the course are superb. In many ways, it’s a truer example of Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s classic layout than any of the courses on the trail.
A special appearance on the day was Robert Trent Jones Jr., Trent Sr.’s eldest son, along with Jr.’s own son Trent, the Chief Operating Officer of Robert Trent Jones II, Inc. This was the first time for either Jones Jr. or Trent to take the course Jones Sr. designed half a century earlier.
As Jones Jr. walked the course with Parton, he was constantly reminded of the traits that characterized his father’s designs. In an impromptu chat after the round, he said that Alpine Bay “deserved a much better fate than it’s had before”.
The truth is that if Alpine Bay were made part of the Robert Trent Jones Trail and updated and refined accordingly, it could become one of the most notable and unique golf destinations in the state of Alabama.
But maybe it’s better to keep it for the neglected hidden treasure it is – just as Parton loved it.