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June 19, 2023

Joe Wheeler’s ‘General’ course could be so much better

By Gregg Dewalt, Alabama Golf News Editor
Joe Wheeler State Park The General GC

One player's view of what has to change

ROGERSVILLE – Among the amenities at Joe Wheeler State Park is a golf course, aptly named “The General,” a nod to the famous Confederate Civil War leader and the state park’s namesake.

The General is one of three state parks golf courses in Alabama – the others being Eagles Nest at Lake Guntersville State Park and the Oaks at Oak Mountain State Park just south of Birmingham.

Joe Wheeler State Park is about halfway between Florence and Athens, and not far from Huntsville and southern Tennessee.

Designed by Earl Stone and opened in 1974, the General’s listed yardage is 7,251 yards from the tips and offers golfers a nice challenge at an affordable price ($39 weekdays/$42 weekends). Stone’s layout winds through the park’s gentle hills with slight elevation changes across the 18 holes.

Joe Wheeler GC No. 14
Players can catch a glimpse of Lake Wheeler on No. 14 of The General. (Photo: Alabama Parks)

The course, which sits adjacent to Wheeler Lake, underwent a renovations in 2014 that included replacing the irrigation system and regrassing the greens with tifdwarf Bermuda grass.

It’s a picturesque and serene setting for a golf course, and wildlife is abundant.

It has minimal bunkering, and although you can catch glimpses of Wheeler Lake, water is in play on only one hole – the picturesque par 3 14th that plays over a slough and measures a lengthy 223 yards from the tips. Without a doubt, it is one of the best par 3s in the region no matter which tees it is played from.

The General at Joe Wheeler State Park is a bargain

The General is a bargain-brand course. There’s nothing to keep a person from playing and having a good time. But it could be so much better.

That said, it’s unfortunate that state government doesn’t realize the potential of Joe Wheeler’s General golf course. With a financial investment it could greatly enhance the entire park (the park has a lodge, cabins, marina and campgrounds). With the current boom in golf, the General could become a must-play course for visitors and local players alike.

Joe Wheeler The General 2
A tree removal plan would help the overall health of the General and improve many of the hard-scrabble areas along the fringes of the General, where it is difficult to grow and sustain grass. (Photo: Gregg Dewalt)

Full disclosure here – I live 30 minutes from Joe Wheeler and have played the course off and on since arriving in Florence in 1976 to play golf at the University of North Alabama.

I like the layout. I like the fact that there is a good chance you’ll see some interesting wildlife during your round. I like that there is a diversity in the holes that likely will require you to hit nearly every club in your bag. During its peak summer and fall season, the fairways are always pretty good. The practice range has plenty of space to accommodate players, although the practice green could use enlarging and there is no designated short-game area.

So, what could be done to improve the General? A lot.

First, the golf shop/snack bar is dated. It needs renovating, and it’s sparsely stocked with apparel. A few shirts, a few boxes of shoes and some caps is pretty much it. The glass display at the counter seems to have been there since the day Joe Wheeler opened.

A lot of little things add up

When you walk into the golf shop, it would be nice to be greeted by someone at least wearing a logo polo shirt identifying them as a member of the Joe Wheeler staff. A random t-shirt doesn’t cut it.

The gas golf cart fleet should be updated. Many of the carts have rips in the seats and are dirty. Customers should expect a clean cart, and that shouldn’t be hard to provide. Again, it goes back to customer service, which is lacking.

The cart paths are in desperate need of renovations. More importantly, they need to encompass the entire course. There are far too many holes where they only go for a couple of hundred yards and then end  – leaving players to scatter across the fairways. It’s hard enough to maintain fairways when there are cart paths around the course – imagine what it is like when you allow people to go pretty much anywhere in any conditions.

Many of the tee boxes need to be rebuilt and leveled. On several, it’s hard to find a level teeing area and many are beaten up because the course does gets so much play. Most of the the tee boxes need to be wider and longer to give the maintenance crew more options so the teeing ground can heal.

As stated before, in peak summer conditions the fairways are pretty good despite the heavy traffic. It’s along the fringes of the fairways where the General is most lacking.

Hardpan, rocks, roots and too-tall trees

There are plenty of washed-out areas that are rocky with exposed tree roots surrounded by hardpan. These areas need to be sodded or sprigged to improve the overall appearance of the course and to ensure that a golfer doesn’t break a wrist or club trying to play off them.

Joe Wheeler The General 3
Hardpan areas of the General should be sodded or sprigged to improve playing conditions. (Photo: Gregg Dewalt)

Part of the state park’s beauty is its trees, and the General has more than its fair share lining its fairways. Over the years, however, this assortment of pines and hardwoods has grown so high they impede sunlight and air flow – two essentials for growing grass.

A targeted tree removal program would do wonders for the General, specifically left of No. 2 green, left of No. 3 green, both sides of the fairway on No. 4, left of No. 7 tee box, around the tee box on No. 14, and around the tee box and green on No. 16.

The few bunkers there are are all greenside and mostly strategically placed. The course could use a few more, not only greenside but in the fairways to help frame the holes. Currently, it’s a free-for-all off the tee on most holes – just grip it and rip it. Of course, bunkers need maintaining and given the lack of staff to work the golf course, it would be an exercise in futility to try to keep them in good shape. It’s hard enough now for the grounds crew to maintain the few bunkers the course has now.

The 17th hole is the hardest hole on the course and could be one of the best in the region, but it needs work. This par 4 plays 441 yards from the tips and showcases the General’s elevation changes in the span of two shots. It’s a severe downhill drive that then requires an uphill approach that plays about two clubs longer than the yardage. Throw in a green that slopes severely from right to left with a fall off to the front and right, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

There’s nothing that can be done about the tee shot or approach shot, but the green should be flattened. There’s no reason to have the most difficult green on the course on arguably its toughest hole. Also, a greenside bunker on the right would catch many errant shots and prevent them from rolling down the steep embankment.

The General could be a great golf course

The bones of an outstanding golf course are in place at Joe Wheeler State Park. What’s not in place is financial backing from the state, appropriate staffing and a designer to come in and map out a vision for improvements.

Joe Wheeler The General 4
The General’s fairways are usually in good shape. (Photo: Jake Winfrey)

The state has always been eager to reap the financial rewards from its state parks courses, but it has been miserly when it comes to funding them properly. With the post-Covid golf boom still going strong, the time is right to improve the General to ensure that it remains a money-maker in the future.

Of course, that makes too much sense.

Meanwhile, golfers from out-of-state will continue to drive past Joe Wheeler State Park and onward into Florence and Muscle Shoals to play those communities’ collection of fine public golf courses – the RTJ Golf Trail, Cypress Lakes and Blackberry Trail.

And that’s a shame.

Gregg Dewalt is the editor of Alabama Golf News

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Featured image courtesy of Alabama State Parks

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