Golf Courses Improve in Alabama

The Canadian son of a pair of Scots was working on a golf course in Ireland when he got the call that brought him to Alabama — the call to come and help create a golfer’s paradise.

At the time, most golfers viewed Alabama as little more than a stretch of highway leading to better courses in Georgia and Florida. In an effort to change that, Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner approached Robert Trent Jones Sr. about building a trail of high-end golf courses across the state.

Jones, in turn, called Niall Fraser, saying his services were needed in Alabama.

A month later, when Fraser arrived to dig test holes, he realized his new project would require more than just a few fairways and bunkers.

“Golf in Alabama in those days was blue jeans, bring-your-own-beer and have a good ol’ time, ” Fraser, 53, says inside the clubhouse at Point Clear’s Lakewood Golf Club. “We had to change the culture.”

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Work began in December. Within four months, ground had been broken on 54-hole courses in Birmingham, Mobile, Opelika and Huntsville. By the end of 1991, 700 pieces of equipment were moving up and down the state to construct a total of seven projects. Fraser and his team worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for nearly three years. When the machinery came to a halt, the first leg of what would become the world-famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was complete.

Jones, at the age of 80, brought Fraser on as a shaper in 1986, fresh out of graduate school at Michigan State University, where he studied turf grass. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Fraser was genetically predisposed to notice the finer points of a golf course. His parents, both golfers, honed their skills in their hometown of Troon, Scotland. The Royal Troon Golf Club held its first Open Championship in 1923, and the links course has hosted golf’s oldest major championship seven times since.

Though shapers typically work from the seat of a bulldozer, they are rarely the ones moving hills of dirt from Point A to Point B. Instead, in Fraser’s words, shapers tend to “handle the finesse stuff. We make it so you could run a marble down the dirt.” This artful touch was made more crucial by the fact that Jones, who worked into his 90s, never used blueprints for his courses — only sketches. Fraser’s highly sought-after skills ultimately provided opportunities to work all over the world, staying for extended periods of time in a Spanish villa, for instance, or a castle in the Irish countryside.

Despite this glamorous lifestyle, Fraser was present on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail from day one. Four years after finishing the first phase in 1993, he and Jones began work on a 54-hole course in Prattville. After moving to Tampa to start the golf division at excavation giant Phillips and Jordan, Fraser and his family returned once more to Alabama in 2002, to build 36 golf holes in Muscle Shoals, 18 at Ross Bridge in Birmingham and also begin a $13 million reconstruction of the courses at Point Clear’s Grand Hotel Marriott Resort. When it was all over, Fraser had compiled a staggering body of work.

“I headed up construction for Mr. Jones, for the state, through the building of all the 11 facilities, or 26 golf courses or … ” — he pauses to double-check his arithmetic — “468 golf holes.”

And the state is reaping the benefits. “We just had the 10 millionth customer, ” Fraser says. “The 20th anniversary was last year. When you look at what that’s worth to the state in the way of tax revenue — those people pay greens fees, tend to have more disposable income, stay at nicer hotels, maybe eat better — that’s what Dr. Bronner was going after.” And construction created jobs for more than a decade. “It changed a lot of lives.”

Fraser says he never got burnt out on the work, but instead was made weary by the constant travel. Shapers rarely get to play the game they help create, and, as a former college golfer who says his handicap today stands somewhere around a four, Fraser missed the game. Plus, he and his wife, Kristi, now had two young children. The Canadian accepted the job as senior director of grounds at the Grand.

That was August 2005. Lower Alabama residents remember what happened next.

“I closed on my property two days before Katrina hit, ” he says. “The hotel obviously closed for a year, but the golf course didn’t. It was only closed for about 10 days before we got it back up and running.”

The grounds’ oldest oaks survived the storm, but almost all of the landscaping, down to the grass itself, was ripped away. Katrina left Fraser with a blank canvas. The problem was, for all his experience shaping dirt, he had never worked in flowerbeds.

“I was a turf guy, not a flower guy, ” he says. “The Grand Hotel is about flowers. That was one of the things they wanted. So somebody referred me to a book and I went and got it: Elton John’s Flower Fantasies.”

With a little help from his friend, Sir Elton John, Fraser began renovating the 160-year-old hotel to its historic beauty. Fittingly, he started with the turf and worked his way up. In 2010, Fraser was promoted to director of golf at Lakewood Golf Club. The club has seen an increase of nearly 400 members over the last four years, when country clubs around the country are in decline. “It’s a very vibrant club, ” he says.

Fraser keeps watch over the entire hotel grounds with the hawkish yet fun-loving eye of an old-school golf pro. He still carries guests’ bags and picks up trash. He organizes regular clinics, where instructors teach fitness and try to get kids interested in golf again. He serves wine at the club’s Wednesday night functions and drives hayrides at the Halloween party. On top of all that, he makes sure to play golf with Lakewood members once or twice a week.

“It’s a game. And I enjoy the game very much.”

Ellis Metz is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile.

text by Ellis Metz • photo by Matthew Coughlin

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