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World Class Alabama

Look for master practitioners or top facilities that are among the best in the world and it quickly becomes clear that sports bring out the best in Alabama.

The sun rises on the sixth hole of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail’s Ross Bridge course in Birmingham — one of 11 golf complexes comprising the 21-year-old Trail.

The sun rises on the sixth hole of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail’s Ross Bridge course in Birmingham — one of 11 golf complexes comprising the 21-year-old Trail.

Photo by Michael Clemmer, Golf Landscape

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail
It is not difficult to find a place to play golf in the United States. The National Golf Federation puts the total number of U.S. courses at approximately 16,000, meaning most golfers can tee it up within a short drive of their home.

Despite this fact, thousands of golfers make the trip to Alabama every year in order to play on one of the 26 courses that comprise the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a series of championship-level courses spread across the state from Mobile and Dothan to Huntsville and Muscle Shoals. RTJ officials say more than 500,000 people play one of the trail courses each year, and approximately 60 percent of those golfers are from out of state, including a significant number from Canada and England.

David Bronner, the CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama and the man who helped come up with the idea for the RTJ Trail more than 20 years ago, points out that California regularly ranks in the top five among out-of-state visitors to the Trail. “That’s quite amazing, because it’s a long ways to come from California to Alabama,” Bronner says. “That’s really the essence of the Trail.”

Legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones helped design most of the courses before his death in 2000. The New York Times has called the Trail “some of the best public golf on Earth,” and apparently quite a few golfers agree. Officials say the Trail has attracted more than 10 million visitors since the first course opened in 1992.

“This is something other states don’t have, and it has provided Alabama with the ability to expand tourism and recruit industry,” Bronner says. “That’s really been the beneficial part of the Trail.”

The Birmingham Crossplex includes an aquatic center that holds up to 1,300 spectators and a six-lane oval track with eight 60-meter lanes circled by seating for 4,000 spectators, including seven 22-seat suites.

Photo courtesy of the Crossplex

Birmingham Crossplex
As the head track coach at Hoover High School, Devon Hind has traveled the country taking his team to various indoor facilities. Some are good, some are just OK, and some are cramped and dingy. But since 2011, he says, the one that stands out from them all is the $46-million Birmingham Crossplex, located at Fair Park in west Birmingham.

“It’s the best that we’ve been to,” Hind says. “It has everything. The surface is fast. But the thing that’s so amazing about the Crossplex is just the amenities. Nowhere in the country has the seating that it has. There’s space between the track and the seating. Most indoor places you go, everything is on top of you and you feel claustrophobic the whole time you’re there. This is wide open, and everything is comfortable.”

The 750,000-square-foot facility has a six-lane oval track and eight 60-meter lanes that can be used for sprint and hurdle events. The track is one of only six in the United States that has a synthetic rubber Mondo surface, which Hind calls “the premier surface in the world.” There are dual horizontal runways for pole vault, long jump and triple jump events, as well as dual high jump and shot-put areas located outside the oval.

In addition, there is a pool, with multiple 50-meter lanes, 25-meter lanes and 25-yard lanes, plus two 1-meter and two 3-meter diving boards. There are nine volleyball courts, areas that can be configured for wrestling and gymnastic events, a broadcast-ready press box and studio, a 54-foot jumbo screen with replay and scoring capabilities and training and meeting rooms. The track has seating for 4,000 spectators, including seven 22-seat suites, and the aquatic center can hold up to 1,300 spectators.

“Most everybody who has been there says they can’t believe this is in Alabama,” Hind says. “It’s just beautiful.”

Road and Track magazine has called the 2.38-mile track at Barber Motorsports Park “one of the most beautiful race tracks in North America.” The 740-acre complex also includes the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.

Photo courtesy of Barber Motorsports 

Barber Motorsports Park
A sure sign that a facility is “world class” is when people on the other side of the globe are raving about it. That is the case for the Barber Motorsports Park in eastern Birmingham, near Leeds. BMP holds annual races in both the open-wheel IndyCar Series and the Superbike motorcycle circuit, among other events. And one big fan of the track is IndyCar veteran Will Power, a native of Australia.

“I really enjoy this place. It’s probably the best facility we go to as far as road courses,” Power said before this year’s Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. “It’s very well laid out and very well presented in every way. The crowd here on race weekend is definitely among the best we have.”

Road and Track magazine has called Barber Motorsports Park “one of the most beautiful race tracks in North America,” and it is easy to see why. Dairy mogul and real estate developer George Barber was largely responsible for financing the construction of the $50 million facility, with the goal of creating one of the best auto racing venues in the world.

The result is a 2.38-mile track that sits within 740 acres of rolling hills and immaculate landscaping. The park opened in 2003 and developed such a positive reputation that the IndyCar Series, which also holds the prestigious Indianapolis 500, began racing at the track in 2010.

The park also is home to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The five-floor, 80,000-square-foot facility houses more than 1,200 motorcycles and racecars, some dating as far back as 1902. Much like the adjacent racetrack, the museum routinely receives praise from motorsports enthusiasts worldwide.

“If Mr. Barber is going to approach something,” says Museum Executive Director Jeff Ray, “it’s going to be the best.”

Alabama Crimson Tide Football Team
Five years ago, there could have been a legitimate debate over which college football team was able to lay claim to being the greatest program of all time. Since there was no uniform way to declare a national champion for much of the 20th century, discrepancies have long existed in the number of titles teams have won. Michigan, Notre Dame, USC and Oklahoma all could make persuasive arguments that their programs were the best ever.

Well, with three national championships in the past four years, the Alabama Crimson Tide has washed away its historical competition and put an end to most of these disputes. Take away Princeton and Yale, which won nearly all their titles before 1920, and no school can boast more national championships than Alabama.

The College Football Data Warehouse credits the Tide with 14 titles (Alabama claims 15), which is one more than Notre Dame. And even using only the official AP and Coaches Poll results since 1936, Alabama now has 10 titles, while Notre Dame has eight and Oklahoma and USC seven each.

No matter how you count titles from the past, there is no questioning Alabama’s dominance over the past four years. Alabama is only the second team since 1950 to win three titles in four years (Nebraska did it from 1994-97). The Tide accumulated a record of 39-2 in those three championship seasons, defeating their opponents by an average score of 35-10.

“I think it’s pretty special what we’ve accomplished, what the players accomplished, what the coaches accomplished. I think it’s really special,” says Alabama head coach Nick Saban, the architect of the Tide’s current championship run. “And one of these days when I’m sitting on the side of a hill watching the stream go by, I’ll probably appreciate it even more.”

Dr. James Andrews
While Alabama does not have a team in any of the major professional sports leagues, there are still quite a few pro athletes who spend time in the state. That’s because Alabama is home to Dr. James Andrews, who is one of the world’s most famous orthopedic surgeons in the field of sports medicine.

Athletes from a variety of sports make the trip to the Andrews Sports Medicine and Athletic Center in Birmingham in an attempt to extend their million-dollar careers through both surgery and rehabilitation. Andrews’ patients over the years have included some of the biggest names in athletics, including Troy Aikman, Charles Barkley, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Roger Clemens, Brett Favre, Robert Griffin III, Allen Iverson, Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Adrian Peterson, Albert Pujols, Emmitt Smith, John Smoltz and Hope Solo.

Clemens, the former Major League Baseball pitcher, was Andrews’ first famous sports patient. Andrews performed arthroscopic surgery on Clemens’ shoulder in 1985. A few months later, Clemens set an MLB record by striking out 20 batters in a single game, and he went on to win the 1986 Cy Young Award as baseball’s best pitcher. Clemens’ performance that year helped establish Andrews’ reputation as the premier surgeon to sports stars, and athletes have been traveling to Alabama ever since.

Andrews has been known to perform more than 30 surgeries in a week (most of them on people other than famous athletes) and see an equal number of patients who are in the midst of rehab. He also examines dozens of X-rays and MRIs each week that are sent to him by the team doctors of numerous pro sports organizations. All told, Andrews estimates he has performed 50,000 surgeries — and counting — in his celebrated career.

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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