Ever dreamed of saving an abandoned golf course? A retired Alabama jailer has made it happen in Alpine Bay

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ALPINE, Ala. – Ever seen an abandoned golf course and wondered: is it still possible to play golf there? Can it be saved? How much would it cost to reopen, at what cost?

With the closure of hundreds of jobs in the US after the market collapse in 2008, there are plenty of such overgrown properties, including dozens of layouts from famous designers. Nothing comes out of many of these properties except memories and maybe a few golf renovation dreams.

Rarely do those dreams of resuscitating an abandoned layout come true. It just takes the right person.

Enter Tony Parton, a former federal corrections officer living in rural Alabama. He had no intention of taking over a failed course. But he liked golf – and a certain layout.

It was called Alpine Bay. The majority of Alabama golfers have never heard of it, and most minorities who knew about it never bothered to play it. They couldn’t tell you how to get there or even if it was still open.

Alpine Bay Golf Club in Alpine, Alabama after the course was salvaged and reopened (Golf Week)

Alpine Bay Golf Club, located in east-central Alabama, 43 miles east of downtown Birmingham, near the south shore of Logan Martin Lake (part of the Coosa River’s broad watershed), was originally planned to have two 18-hole to have jobs. But because there was no money for the development of a large resort, only one of the two courses was opened in 1972.

That course had a lot going for it: a par-72, 6,518-yard championship layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., namesake of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail built decades later. Plus, Jones built it with the help of his son Rees Jones, then in his early thirties, who became an award-winning course designer and brand name himself, as well as the young Roger Rulewich, the architect who actually designed most of the courses on the Trail two decades later.

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Struggling financially from the start, Alpine Bay struggled year after year to stay in business, with its only course and sparse population nearby. Although Alpine Bay was a beautiful layout in stunning natural surroundings, it was difficult to get to even from Birmingham, with at least part of the drive on winding, lonely two-lane roads. After decades of barely surviving, it closed in 2014.

The closure of Alpine Bay barely caused a ripple in the golf world, not even in Alabama. But the place had built up 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 took a walk on the deserted trail.

Course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., left, with Alpine Bay Golf Club owner Tony Parton (Jim Hansen/Golfweek)

“When we arrived at what had been the eighth green [a par 3 over a small lake]’, he recalls, ‘we were shocked by the abysmal state of the track. It was completely overgrown, just awful, with weeds and wild plants growing to waist height and the original grass almost dead.

The Partons committed to pulling out the worst weeds on just one green. “We came back several nights in a row to discover what was left of the golf course we loved.”

During one of their first trips to the abandoned course, Tony received a call from his friend Mark Calhoun, also a previous 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 the green had been and tried to figure out what we could do about it,” said Parton. When the tall grass on the former green was cut to a reasonable length, they realized, “There was hope for this course.”

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Alpine Bay Golf Club in Alpine, Alabama (Golf Week)

The 144-acre estate that was the golf course, practice range, putting green and small clubhouse had been up for sale for months. Parton quickly called the broker and made an offer. The price tag was $144,000. The process took only a few months. In early 2017, when Parton retired from the federal prison system, he had raised enough money to take over the course.

Buying Alpine Bay was one thing, but getting it ready for golfers was another. The next step in the process was to get more people on board. With Calhoun’s help, Parton founded Alpine Group LLC. A handful of investors increased the value of the public company to $520,000. Still not much to run a golf course.

It took five months of diligent restoration and grueling work to get the course ready to play. “There are no words that can describe the emotions of watching golfers tee off for the first time on the course,” said Parton.

In the 12 months following its reopening in the summer of 2017, the semi-private Alpine Bay Golf Club acquired 60 members. Today, more than twice as many live there, virtually all from the surrounding communities of Lincoln, St. Clair, Vincent, Coosa Pines, Harpersville, Childersburg, and Talladega. Nearly 15,000 rounds have been played on the course in the past two years, with peak green fees reaching just $46 on weekends and holidays.

Yet Alpine Bay is the Rodney Dangerfield of Alabama golf – it gets no respect. Rarely does anyone from Birmingham, Montgomery or Huntsville make the drive to play. Most golfers in the state have never heard of Alpine Bay, and those who have heard of it dismiss Alpine Bay as no longer active or not worth playing.

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Alpine Bay Golf Club in Alpine, Alabama (Golf Week)

To demonstrate the long forgotten and ignored virtues of the Alpine Bay golf course, Golf week including a day at Alpine Bay during 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 evaluators. Overall, the reviewers, who even came from Northern Ireland, found Alpine Bay well worth a visit. The condition of the track still needed a lot of work, but the bones of the track are excellent. In many ways, it’s a better example of a classic layout by Robert Trent Jones Sr. than any course on the Trail.

A special appearance that day was Robert Trent Jones Jr., Trent Sr.’s oldest son, along with Jr.’s own son, Trent, the chief operating officer of Robert Trent Jones II, Inc. This was the first time for Jones Jr. or Trent to visit the job Jones Sr. designed half a century earlier.

Alpine Bay Golf Club in Alpine, Alabama (Golf Week)

While Jones Jr. with Parton walking the track, he was constantly reminded of the features typical of his father’s designs. In an impromptu conversation after the round, he said that Alpine Bay “deserved a much better fate than it has received thus far”.

The truth is that if Alpine Bay became part of the Robert Trent Jones Trail — and updated and refined accordingly — it could become one of the more remarkable and unique golf destinations in the state of Alabama.

But perhaps it’s better to keep it as the neglected hidden gem it is – as Parton loved it.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek

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