Judgement Day 2023 … the day the golf course won

By Malcolm Butler

I’ve written about it before.

The annual pilgrimage to Alabama each summer with a bunch of wanna-be professional golfers who are anything but Sunday golfers. It’s the perfect group comprised of some really outstanding humans, hacking away for four days in the Yellowhammer State.

This year our destination was Prattville and the Robert Trent Jones Trail site was Capitol Hill which sits less than 10 miles from the state capitol in Montgomery.

During the course — no pun intended — of our 25 years of making the annual excursion to Alabama, we have ventured to Capitol Hill six previous occasions (2006, 2008, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2020). It’s one of our favorite spots.

Or it was.

The trio of courses at Capitol Hill are appropriately named: The Judge. The Legislator. The Senator.

They are all three different styles of courses, including the links-style Senator. And all three are challenging for our group … maybe that’s why we like them. Competitors like challenges.

This year due to storms that rolled through Prattville Thursday morning, we had to audible and made the 75-minute drive to Birmingham to play the Ridge (another one of our favorite spots on the Trail).

It was a beautiful day, and as the scores from our group of 15 rolled in it appeared we were in for another pretty normal weekend of competition.

But as we soon discovered, Friday would be anything but normal.

Keep in mind that our group consists of all levels of golfers. One or two guys have handicaps in the single digits, while a few guys play basically one weekend out of the year and thus have handicaps closer to the forties. The rest of us sit somewhere in between.

But that’s what handicaps are for … to level the playing field.

And although money, a traveling trophy and bragging rights are on the line each year, the companionship amongst good friends is the real prize for all of us.

But that doesn’t stop us from wanting to win.

On Friday as we teed off on The Judge, none of us knew what was in store for all 15 of us over the course of the next 18 hole of our golfing lives.

According to RTJGolf.com, GOLF Magazine called the Judge course one of the 10 public courses in America worthy of hosting the U.S. Open. The Zagat Survey of America’s Top Golf Courses ranked it among the top 50 courses in America.

The first tee lies 200 feet above the fairway overlooking the river and the Montgomery skyline. With 14 holes adjoining the water and a bulkheaded island green, the Judge is described as simply magnificent.

It has a reputation.

And following Friday’s round that saw way too many of our golf balls go into said water, The Judge now has a few new nicknames that include four-letter words.

I was paired with my Lincoln Parish Journal business partner Kyle Roberts along with Andy Yepson and Matt Walker. The course was really wet from the rains over the previous few days. As we rolled up to the No. 1 tee, there was the sign that cause golfers nightmares — GOLF PATH ONLY.

The three words that turn a 4-hour round into more like five and a half hours. The Judge — which boasts arguably the most scenic yet intimidating hole on the Trail (the par 4 No. 1) — is considered by our group as the hardest of the courses we play.

Water everywhere. Bunkers everywhere. Woods everywhere. High grass everywhere. Trouble everywhere.

It’s a course that will penalize you shot after shot if you aren’t in the fairway or on the green. Even under best course conditions its a challenging 18 holes for sure.

We have played The Judge 10 previous times over the years of the RTJ Shootout. And yet, as an entire group, we have never experienced the beat down it put on us this time.  As a collective group we have played more than 1,100 rounds at the RTJ Shootout.

I don’t recall one ever like this.

The front nine was a struggle for my group. So much that I was thrilled to have carded a 48 at the turn after getting off to a horrid start (my first two swings of the day resulted in lost balls and penalty strokes).

The 48 felt like a victory. I remembering feeling relieved and ready to turn my attention to the back nine. It had to be better, right?

It wasn’t.

So 51 swings/putts later I had carded a 99. With my handicap of 9, I had posted a 90 on the day.

Not only was I convinced that I was not going to be in the mix for the day’s payout (we pay the top three places), but I was pretty confident I had played my way out of contention for the overall 72-hole championship.

Kyle and I licked our wounds as we waited around the 18th green for the final group behind us to finish. We felt beat down. Almost numb … but not numb enough.

We would find out we weren’t alone. The Judge had done it to all of us.

Friday’s round quickly became known to our group as Judgement Day.

As we sat in the clubhouse eating lunch, we were “muddied” and collectively thinking of finding another hobby.

The Judge had won. Our best pre-handicap score in our group was a 97. A ninety-freaking-seven. Even our best golfer who holds an official USGA single digit handicap had fired a 101. Our group average was 106.6. To put that into perspective, normally our group average hovers in the low 90s.

It was a golfing massacre of epic proportions.

And none of us knew what had happened. We still don’t. Sure the course is tough. Sure the course was wet. But in 25 years of competing in the RTJ Shootout, we had never seen our entire group abused on a golf course like we experienced on Friday.

Selling clubs on Ebay was mentioned by a few guys. I haven’t looked to see if they followed through since we returned Sunday. 

There was talk of maybe a bowling tournament next year instead? At least in that sport you are trying to get a score of over 100. 

I guess the good news is we found the courage to return to the course on Saturday and Sunday and showed The Senator and The Legislator what was up! Scores were back to normal. Daily winners were in the 70s.

And all was right with our RTJ World.

They say it’s that one great shot that always brings you back to the course.  I think there is a lot of truth to that.

However, for our group of guys, it’s the friendship. It’s the memories. And it’s the stories … even the ones that involve Judgement Day 2023.

Mitch Spillers, Malcolm Butler, Scott Walker and Brandon Norris standing on the tee box for the Par 3 No. 13 on The Senator during Saturday’s round.