Of The Duffer, By The Duffer, For The Duffer

When he hatched the idea three years ago, more than a few people questioned David Bronner's grip on reality. For months, Bronner, chief executive of Retirement Systems of Alabama, the state's ultraconservative, $12 billion pension fund, crisscrossed the state trying to win support for a bold plan: to build a string of seven world-class public golf courses designed by one of the sport's legendary architects. The largest golf-course-construction project ever would lure tourists to Alabama, improve the state's image, and generate a profit to boot, Bronner insisted. As if the immensity of the undertaking wasn't bold enough, Bronner expected developers to donate land and cities and counties to provide streets and services, thus limiting the fund's exposure to $150 million. Recalls Hugh Wheelless, the Coors beer distributor in Dothan, Ala., and one of the Trail's developers: "I thought he was nuts."

Now, with portions of all seven courses of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail open to the public, retirees and business leaders are banking on Bronner's gamble. For a fund that traditionally invested in low-risk stocks and bonds while avoiding volatile real estate, the Trail represents a new level of risk. The idea would never have flown without the support of the powerful Alabama Education Assn., whose 70,000 teachers make up a majority of the RSA's members--and of its ruling board. In Bronner's 18 years as head of the fund, its assets have grown upwards of twentyfold, to $1.2 billion, and mandatory payroll deductions have shrunk. "It's more risky than bonds, but the potential rewards are also greater," says Paul Hubbert, executive director of the AEA, who blessed the Trail.

But a pension fund betting the nest egg on greens fees? "The idea is so unusual, it's something fund managers are watching very closely," says Steve Curry, director of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement Fund. But, "it's not something we would try." Gauging the returns on the investment could take two or three years, given that nearly one-fourth of the holes remain under construction. Executives at SunCoast Golf Corp., the RSA-owned private company created to run the Trail, say they need to generate about 60,000 rounds per course per year at the modest charge of $20 to $25 per 18 rounds to turn a profit. That's a lot of links-loving tourists.

Bronner and his Trail cohorts insist they were motivated in part by a desire to spruce up Alabama's image and climate for business and tourism. Three years ago, golf contributed to Alabama's reputation for bigotry. When the Birmingham Post-Herald reported that no African Americans were members of posh Shoal Creek Country Club, site of the 1990 Professional Golfers Assn. championship, a prominent member of the club excused the omission by saying that such social mixing "just isn't done in Birmingham." The PGA soon pushed for all clubs hosting its tourneys to admit black members. Says Bronner: "The Trail, which is open to everyone,...will show Alabama's not what some people think it is."

"SISTINE CHAPEL." When the RSA went looking for an architect to design the courses, many big names didn't even bother to reply. One famed designer called the pension fund to report that some kook was using its name in connection with a wild project. Told it was no joke, the architect hung up. But 87-year-old Robert Trent Jones, designer of more than 600 courses over the past 40 years, saw the chance to "paint my Sistine Chapel. This is my crowning achievement." The name Trent Jones lent instant credibility to the project.

Had the RSA been forced to pay for all the land and services, the total bill of perhaps $300 million might have been too much for the state to swallow. But the cooperative coalition of developers, local officials, and the fund spread the risk--and the chance of reward. Coors king Wheelless donated 400 acres for one course and began selling off adjacent lots that fetched as much as $125,000 each. "That was the best donation I ever made," he crows. Similar developments, aided by local governments eager to provide roads and sewers at taxpayer expense, are sprouting near the other six courses. But there's been no hue and cry from the taxpayers--so far. And the teachers whose money is at risk, says the AEA's Hubbert, "have tremendous faith in Dr. Bronner."

Designer Jones predicts that one day one or more of the courses will host a U.S. Open tournament, a rarity for a public course--and a litmus test for golf greatness. But to truly be a success, the Trail must turn Alabama into a golfing mecca, the Scotland of the Bible Belt. If it doesn't, the state's retirees are sure to feel a divot--in the wallet.