The RTJ Shootout: good friends, bad golf, and a bronze statue

Our group prior to the Rolly Cup at the 2011 RTJ Shootout.

by Malcolm Butler

Back in the summer of 1999, my buddies Scott Walker and Mitch Spillers and I decided to take a two-day road trip to Mobile, Alabama, to play some golf at Magnolia Grove. It’s a Robert Trent Jones course.

(To this day, the three of us still argue about whose idea it really was … it was mine by the way!).

72 holes in two days. It was hot. Like playing on the sun hot. Like Mitch’s brand new pro shop belt melting through his shorts hot (trust me when I tell you this was just the first of many meltdowns on this trip).

But we were in our late 20s, and the heat didn’t faze us.

Fast forward more than two decades.

Last week Mitch and Scott and I … along with 12 of our closest friends … headed to Alabama for the 23rd straight year to play in what we now call the RTJ Shootout.

RTJ, as you have probably surmised, stands for Robert Trent Jones. Most golfers have heard of these courses, and I would bet a large majority have played at least one or two of them. Eleven locations scattered around the state consisting of 26 courses comprise RTJ.

Birmingham. Mobile. Prattville. Opelika. Huntsville. Greenville. Dothan. Point Clear. Hoover. Anniston/Gadsden. And Muscle Shoals.

They are all unique. And they are all challenging.

But what started out as three, below-average golfers playing a few rounds of golf on a whim has turned into a trip that we all look forward to every single year. Seriously. As soon as we get back each year (regardless of whether I played good or bad), I started counting down the months until next year’s excursion.

It’s special. And the trip evolved.

Three golfers quickly grew to eight golfers. Then 12. And for the past 15 years our hackers party has been at 16. Last year saw our biggest field of “competitors” as we boasted 18. This year due to some scheduling conflicts, “only” 15 of us participated in Birmingham.

If you live in Ruston, you probably know someone on this year’s trip. I’ve mentioned Scott and Mitch. Brandon Norris. Shannon Lolley. Matt Walker (Scott’s better-looking twin brother). Joe Peel. Andy Yepson. Ben Haddox. Bob Burns. Chris Weego. Phillip Thigpen. Kyle Kavanaugh. Michael Theodos. Tommy Groves.

It was a Who’s Who of average to bad golfers.

In those early years, none of us had much money so we would pile into a Suburban, leave at 2 a.m. (to save on hotel rooms the first night), drive five to seven hours, unload, check in at the pro shop and tee off. And we loved every single stroke of it.

We still do.

Only now we are a little more kind to our bodies. No more days of playing 36 holes. No more middle of the night departures. We leave in the morning. We take our time. And we mentally prepare for the next four days of golf. So far we are a perfect 23 of 23 in coming back with the same number of golfers that we left with, including all 15 this year.

We played one round Thursday through Sunday. And although we still enjoy the golf, I think we enjoy the time together more and more the older we get.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fierce competition.

We set handicaps. The Charter Membership Committee (Scott, Mitch and myself) – not-so-fondly known as the CMC by the rest of the group – uses a special “formula” to even the playing field each year. There is constant complaining about the handicaps. It’s an annual ritual.

There is an entry fee. We pay the top three to four places each round (depending on the number of competitors each year; last year we had a record 18 competitors). We pay the top four places over all once 72 holes are completed.

Each one of the four days of golf is a Major. Thursday is the Master’s. Friday is the US Open. Saturday is the British Open. And Sunday is the PGA Championship. Only four of our competitors have earned the Career Grand Slam (Matt, Bob, Chris and Phillip).

We have the Rolly Cup, aptly named after one of the group’s all-time favorite people: the Reverend Rolly Walker. It’s a team competition that has taken many shapes and forms over the years. There is a lot of smack talk as you would imagine.

Last year we even introduced a Calcutta into the equation. That has been a unique yet fun addition to the Shootout.

Bottom line there are a lot of ways to win and to lose a little cash during the four days, but it’s all in good competitive fun. It’s a shame we don’t have a way to keep up with the past 23 years of this trip.

Oh wait, we do.

Our yearly media guide. Originally started by me in the early years, quickly taken over by Kyle Roberts (absent from this year’s trip) for a few years, and eventually mastered by Scott Walker Publishing Company, LLC.

It contains a schedule of events, year-by-year results, player bio pages, all-time earnings list, records of top scores based on courses, and so much more. It honestly is more information (mostly factual) than one could imagine.

You would have to see said media guide to truly get an appreciation for it. This year’s copy was 136 pages. Full color. Printed. Spiral bound. As you may imagine, along with the historical information, there is also a lot of making fun of each other within those 136 pages.

And I can’t forget to mention the traveling trophy named Clinchy — a miniature bronze golfer on a wooden base. Our champion each year gets to take Clinchy home and put him on their mantle in their living room (at least until their wife finds a less obnoxious place for it). Every year, the champion’s name is engraved on a small plate located on the base of the trophy.

This is serious stuff.

There are 32 of these small plates on Clinchy so we still have nine more years before we have to figure out what’s next.

Over the past 20-plus years there has been a lot of so-so golf played at the RTJ Shootout. A few clubs thrown. One or two drivers or sand wedges snapped. Maybe a few expletives tossed around.

And so many stories that I don’t have room to tell in this column. Like the Great Monsoon of 2004 that caused chaos in the final pairing on championship Sunday (if you know Brandon Norris, ask him about this story. It’s his favorite). Just so many great memories that are engraved in our minds; or maybe not, thus the need for the 136-page media guide.

As the years pass and more memories are made (to be forgotten), what we WILL always remember is our group of guys who were (lovingly) ruthless to each other while competing for a silly bronze trophy and a little cash, yet still remaining die-hard friends all these years.

The RTJ Shootout has become a yearly golfing pilgrimage for us.

I’m just glad I came up with the idea way back in 1999.

________________________

Year-by-Year Champion

1999, 2000, 2001 – No Champion; just golf

2002 Michael Theodos

2003 Andy Yepson

2004 Scott Walker

2005 Phillip Thigpen

2006 Bob Burns

2007 Mitch Spillers

2008 Scott Walker

2009 Mitch Spillers

2010 Chris Weego

2011 Joe Peel

2012 Brandon Norris

2013 Bob Burns

2014 Matt Walker

2015 Kyle Roberts

2016 Bob Burns

2017 Tommy Groves

2018 Ben Haddox

2019 Malcolm Butler

2020 Bob Burns

2021 Scott Walker

2022 Chris Weego


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