Monday, September 15, 2008

The Honors Course

The quest to play the best golf courses in the world mandates a stop in Tennessee. My friends from overseas are scratching their heads about now. Tennessee? Yes, friends, Tennessee. You know, the home of Graceland, Opryland and Jack Daniels.

The Honors Course (ranked # 96 in the world) opened in 1983 and is located in the town of Ooltewah, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ooltewah is a Cherokee name that means "resting place".

The Honors Course ranks right up there in the 'most difficult to find' category of courses. At least Chicago Golf Club has a small sign out front. To find Muirfield, you can look for the Greywalls Hotel next door. Morfontaine, near Paris, is genuinely difficult to find, as is The Honors Course. The course is located at 9603 Lee Highway. You can type the address into Mapquest and it will map out a route for you. Even armed with this useful information, we drove right past it. Then, retracing our route and paying close attention, we ran right by it again without the slightest inkling that it was there. Doubling back, the third time, we missed it as well. After we called the pro-shop the nice lady told us to make a left at the white propane tank, and sure enough, across from Chattanooga Propane Company there is a very small un-marked road, hidden deep in the trees.


The discrete entrance to The Honors Course

The Honors Course is one of a small genre of destination courses that attracts members from well beyond its local geographical area. Much more than a golf course, the Honors Course is a little enclave and has a series of lodges that allow for visiting players to stay for a day or two on-site. Pine Valley and Augusta are the most established destination courses. Sand Hills is the best known of the modern destination courses. The Honors Course was the idea of "Jack" Lupton, who was a friend of Bobby Jones. Lupton is a member of both Seminole and Augusta, and the latter course was his inspiration for this course. His idea was to honor amateur golf and Tennessee golfers, thus the name of the course. The Honors Course is a private affair with a membership of 325, most of who were personally selected by Lupton. Like at Pine Valley and Oakmont, Lupton follows the benevolent dictator model, and it has worked very well.

Just like at Yeamans Hall, you know that you have arrived somewhere special the moment you manage to find the turn off the highway. Once beyond the gate, there is a long winding driveway that takes you up to the discreet, small clubhouse and pro shop. It's always the little things that make a big difference, and at The Honors, they get them all right. They not only take your bags out the car, but valet park it for you. They anticipate when you are going to leave and have your car pulled up and ready to go when you are. The caddy program is outstanding, the food is great (I recommend the Shrimp Po'Boy Sandwich), the grill area is cozy and the service is super. Around various tee boxes on the course are three tasteful and unobtrusive wooden barrels - one filled with chilled water bottles, one filled with chilled soda bottles and one filled with chilled beer. Elvis has left the building, ladies and gentleman!

Although the course is relatively young, it has hosted the 1991 U.S. Amateur, won by Mitch Voges and the 1996 NCAA championship won by a young Eldrick Woods.

The Golf Course

The course was designed by Pete Dye. In the past, I've had a hard time getting excited about Pete Dye courses. I like Harbour Town and The Ocean Course at Kiawah and Casa de Campo has nine great holes. I despise the TPC at Sawgrass and couldn't find inspiration to write about Whistling Straits. The Honors Course, though, made a big impression on me. I was especially impressed with how Dye was able to vary the routing here to create an exceptional balance between easy and difficult holes, long par fours and short par fours, and a difficult course that is also playable for a mortal. Although the slope rating is 145, the course doesn't wear you out like an Oakmont or Bethpage Black.

I was especially impressed with two short par fours, which are great risk-reward holes. The par four 9th hole is only 355 yards long. You probably won't see your tee shot land, as the landing area is semi-blind. The second shot is a wedge to a green protected in front and on the left by water. Dye has said about the 9th at The Honors, "every course needs a #9 - one of my rare forced carries to a par four green". His execution of the hole here is very well done; the design is subtle and really penalizes a mis-hit shot.

Approach to the 9th green

The other great risk-reward hole is #12, a 355 yard par four with a small fairway and a huge tree blocking the green on the right side. Being able to place the ball on the left side of the fairway is of paramount importance off the tee. Doing so, however, does not assure a birdie or par. Again, like #9, even though you are hitting in a very short iron, the green is narrow and well protected. As Dye correctly says about his pot bunker in front of the green, "This bunker can spell disaster for even the most accomplished player."

#12 greenside tree
Tree blocking the approach to the 12th green

The course is built on a huge expanse of land on 400 acres and meanders around the property in an artful fashion. Usual Dye features are present at The Honors Course such as the mounding and grass bunkers seen here on the second hole, below:

#2 fairway
Grass mounds on the 2nd fairway

Dye also has a nasty habit of leaving trees in the line of play to create a preferred side to approach from, as seen here on the fourth hole. Also notice that this green has no greenside bunkers. None are necessary as there are closely shaved areas on three sides of this elevated green.

#4 approach to green
Tree guarding the 4th green

Hole number six, a par five with an elevated green also has no greenside bunkers and another pesky tree lurking near the green.

#6 to green

The well protected 6th green

The #1 and #2 handicap holes surround a man-made pond and both require heroic shots over water to secure a good score. Holes #7 and #15 are mirror images of each other on opposite sides of the pond. Remember, I said Dye mixed in long and short par fours. This is the part of the program that features the long fours. These two gems are 410 and 420 yards and require both your first and second shots to be both long and accurate.

seventh green
seventh green

The par three 14th, below, shows off the diversity of holes Dye designed at The Honors Course. You won't see a lot of railroad ties here. You will see a variety of hole styles, doglegs and elevation changes. In hindsight, I'm not a raving fan of Pete Dye because his courses often have a manufactured look to them. I like The Honors Course best of all his work because it has a natural look and a sense of polish to it, without being forced, unlike many of his other courses.

#14 par 3 green

The 14th, a par three

The eleventh hole is a 545 yard par five that features a generous driving area off an elevated tee. The elevated green seen below has mammoth bunkers in front, guarding the green. The mounds on this hole were created by piling up the tree stumps and logs from the construction of the course.

#11 green
The beautiful approach to the 11th, a par five


Playing The Honors course was a bit of a homecoming for me. My first round of golf ever was played in Tennessee nineteen years ago. It felt good to be back in Tennessee!

My last name ends in a vowel, and it's clear to anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line that I'm not from around here. As my readers know, however, I'm a big fan of the Southern way of life and Tennessee is no exception. I appreciate a distinctive accent and I particularly like their brand down here. They don't drive cars here, they drive vee-hickles. Appropriately, they ask if you need dye-rections to get back to the airport. Many locals are genuinely fascinated to finally meet an eye-talian in person since they didn't realize there were so many different types of Yankees and there are not too many paesanos down here. I also like the distinctive feel of little Southern towns, the local barbecue and the generally slower way of life.

Local 'Bar-B-Que' joint in Ooltewah

Among the notable animals I have played alongside in my travels are pheasant at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas and monkeys at Durban in South Africa. The Honors Course has wild turkeys running through it, which adds to the distinctive feel of the place.

Wild Turkeys roam around the Honors

I understand that the club founder and President Mr. Lupton is in ill health and only rarely gets out to the course nowadays. My best wishes to him. He did good here. He created a modern day Yeamans Hall in Tennessee, which is intended as high praise for a Southerner. The club manages a feeling of gentility that so few others ever do. With so many fools like Donald Trump trying to create magic by putting in asinine features like waterfalls and other trickery, Dye and Lupton have managed to pull off an extremely difficult feat at The Honors - being true to the spirit of the game, building a world-class golf course and having the understated nature of the club shine through.

I strongly disagree with Tom Doak's assessment of The Honors in his Confidential Guide where he states, "there aren't many notable holes: only the par-4 7th, a neat solution to putting a hole along the dike of an irrigation pond, but otherwise one of the most gimmicky-looking hole Pete Dye ever built". Doak continues, "I must admit, though, that much of my disdain for the course is due to the attitude the club presents. It's one thing to aspire to Augusta, but you can't create tradition overnight, and you certainly shouldn't be complaining about rival new courses being less traditional than your own. I don't think you ought to be able to have it both ways, seeking high rankings and national tournaments while trying to remain extremely exclusive at the same time."

Tom got it completely wrong. The opposite is true.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that Doak was way off on The Honors. I've never been around a finer membership and the staff is wonderful.

The par 3 14th hole may be my favorite short par 3 in the world.

Anonymous said...

The author has written an excellent depiction of The Honors Course. It is one of the least known, but special places in American golf. The golf course and club has the quality of Pine Valley or Augusta National, without making sure you know it. It is a great championship golf course. Too bad they won't allow the USGA to host a U.S. Open.

ATL Golfer said...

Playing August 18th, 2009 and really looking forward to it. This will be my 15th on the World Top 100.

Curt said...

Your assessment of the Honors is perfect. Having played and stayed there four times, it is my favorite course in America. Mr. Lupton has created an absolute gem maintained by a wonderful staff.

Anonymous said...

I am moving to the area this summer and wanted some advice to get on here.

Anonymous said...

I recently found your blog while researching garden city golf club. i have very much enjoyed your reviews and find that your thoughts about them are similar to mine regarding courses and 19th holes.therefore,i find it difficult not to suggest curses you may enjoy.Next time you play the honors course a side trip to lookout mt golf club is in order. This is alittle known seth raynor curse that has great examples of his famous hole designs. It is a laid back place whose bar has caracatures of past tournament winners on the walls. I know two courses in highlands area that would be great to play when you play wade hampton but will not
bore you with the info unless requested.keep up the excellent reviews.

Dave said...

As a former caddy at The Honors I googled it today and ran across your review. It makes me proud to have been associated with the club for an extended period of time in the 90's. It's no surprise I completely agree with your assessment in almost every way.I had so many special experiences with the membership and the intriguing guests they brought. I have so many stories to tell about my time there it really speaks to what a great time in my life it was.
Dave Lorenz

Anonymous said...

I caddy here and love the course. The staff always goes the extra mile. The average golfer will not believe the difference in playing a course like this. I remember in one tournament I advised my player to take an unplayable lie from the high grass next to the green. He instructed me three shots later when he got his ball on to the green not to find his ball in that next time. You will have amazing lies in the fairway & will be greatly challenged when you miss it.

Scott in Missouri said...

I have played The Honors Course 3 times and it is one of my favorites. Compared to other courses I have played on the list, I think it should be ranked higher. The layout is great. The course has been in fantastic condition every time that I have been fortunate enough to play it. It is interesting, challenging, and beautiful. The staff is also wonderful.

I love reading your blog and comparing your thoughts to mine on the courses that I have also played. Good luck with Augusta National and thanks for hours of entertainment on nights when I couldn't sleep.
Scott Whittaker

Anonymous said...

I am a member of "The Honors". I have played all over the world and I can say it is one of the most special places in the United States golf community. The staff is world class and I am proud to be associated with such a wonderful place. This is what golf was meant to be.