The Honors Course
Tennessee, United States of America

The allure of escaping into the rustic comfort of the Tennessee foothills and …

… tackling one of Pete Dye’s masterpieces has proven to be one of the great gifts to amateur golf for nearly 40 years.

Good luck trying to find someone who has anything negative to say about The Honors Course. From its inception by Jack Lupton as a place to honor amateur golf to its caddie program to its contributions to the turf grass industry, The Honors promotes the attributes that define the finest qualities of American golf.

Situated north of Chattanooga, its 460 acres is tucked in a secluded bowl at the foot of White Oak Mountain. No outside distractions exist, no tennis courts, no swimming pool. With the practice field near the main entrance of the clubhouse, golf is clearly the thing and you enjoy it in a most idyllic setting. As you wind up the long entrance drive, your biggest worry is avoiding wild turkeys.

This naturalness is what makes the lasting impression on the golfer. Lupton deserves full credit for creating such a sanctuary, but the hands-on credit for achieving this state up until 2016 belonged to the legendary – there is no other word – Green Keeper David Stone. Dye praised Stone every chance he got and considered him one of the all-time greats. As Dye succinctly states, ‘He understands grasses and that’s what makes a golf course great.’

In Bury Me in a Pot Bunker,  Dye details at length how much Stone meant to the course. Originally from Holston Hills in nearby Knoxville, Stone was discovered by P.B. Dye as they neared completion of the course. An avid golfer himself, Stone was at The Honors Course from its inception in 1983 until he retired after the club hosted the 2016 U.S. Junior Amateur. His work with different grasses steals the show and makes the presentation of other modern courses pale in comparison. When Stone first accepted the position, he roamed the Chattanooga valley studying the different native grasses. Stone gradually then planted natives such as fescues and broomsedge to create a wall to wall environment rich in texture. As a the golfer walks the course with his caddie, he can’t help but admire the different hues of wheat, beige, rusts, tans, and browns that Stone cultivated over three decades.

In recognition of Stone’s work, the Audubon Society recognized The Honors Course in 1991 as being a wildlife habitat preservation.

Stone once noted, ‘We let nature influence our entire golf course. We have areas that we let the natural diversity of plants come in, which in turn leads to the diversity of insects, birds, and other wildlife that nature intended.’ The point is that The Honors Course very much embraces its locale; anything else would be a disservice. Happily, the wildlife is abundant. In addition to the wild turkeys, deer and fox squirrels meander freely. One sight to behold is the osprey that has taken up residence as it dives for fish in the lake between seven and fifteen. Various hawks join the parade as does the occasional bald eagle. Bird watching groups once toured the grounds with Stone. Migratory birds still stop in for a visit. The cadence of the wildlife carries over and helps set the unhurried pace at the club.

Lupton steadfastly supported Stone and his research work until the day Lupton passed in 2010. By then, Stone had well over thirty varieties of bent and five of Zoysia under study in a designated four acre area. Lupton and Stone enjoyed a special bond, one of the most productive in American golf. What’s staggering though is how the torch has been passed. Stone’s long time assistant, Will Misenhimer, took over when Stone retired. Today, its famous Zoysia fairways are the bounciest they have been in the club’s history. That’s a critically important statement because The Honors Course is all about the ground.

Some of the grasses that Stone and now Misenhimer cultivated are best appreciated from a distance!

As for the design itself, Dye told Lupton during the routing process that there were fourteen natural green sites and that he just needed to manufacture the other four. Two of the one shotters (e.g. the third and fourteenth) were  ‘build-a-holes’ but the author is unclear which the other two were. Early on, Dye decided to eat up the only relatively flat portion of the property with two lakes. Their creation served as a source for irrigation as well as dirt and five green sites interact with them. The golfer encounters the water hazards in two distinct bursts (the seventh thru the ninth and fifteen/sixteen) and these hazards give the course a steely edge that unnerve even the best. In fact, Tiger Woods once chipped across the ninth green and into the hazard but such is his mental fortitude, he still went on to win the 1996 NCAA scoring title by four shots over Rory Sabbatini.

Nonetheless, it is the collection of the fourteen natural sites that constitute the underpinning of the course. Tick through them – the first down in a hollow, the second and fourth benched into hillsides, the fifth located on a high spot, and on and on. They are all beautifully situated and by extension, defend against sloppy shot making with an insouciance born from nature. Plenty of Dye’s subsequent commissions were on flat sites or ones where he moved a lot of dirt. The Honors Course highlights that he had an innate – even underappreciated – talent for routing a course around natural features.

With Dye’s passing earlier in 2020, it is easy to wax on nostalgically. Regardless, it doesn’t change the fact that The Honors Course embodies Dye’s trademark design elements: from short holes (nine, twelve and fourteen) to bruisers (five, fifteen), confrontational hazards (fronting water hazard at sixteen), design twists (Valley of Sin on seven, volcano bunker at thirteen), and a fabulous variety of green configurations (from shallow, round-ish ones like the fourth with its right right knob to deep, angled ones like eighteen that slopes away). Tie a bow around them with the course’s presentation and you have a course that is aging with a rural supple ease. Architects fortunate enough to have worked  with Dye during his magical stretch from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s include Bill Coore, Tom Doak, Rod Whitman, Bobby Weed, and Tim Liddy and they all learned invaluable lessons from him that permeate their work to this day. In short, Dye’s influence over the modern game can’t be overstated.

When you think ‘The Honors Course’, you think of Jack Lupton and the financial heft it takes to create a secluded playing environment. You think of Pete Dye and his maximizing the site’s natural features. And you think of David Stone and how smartly the course has been presented since its inception. With the passing of Lupton and Dye and the retirement of Stone, the club has entered into a new chapter. And here’s the thing: It hasn’t skipped a beat. In fact, it plays better today than it ever has. As we tour the course below, take note of how the fairways bob and weave and how the better player can gain an advantage by an expertly shaped shot to maximize his tee ball’s run. Add in the undervalued green contours and you have something special.

Importantly, the club continues to share its course freely for important amateur events on the state, regional, national and international level, including countless men and women State Amateur Championships, the NCAA Men’s Championships twice, the 1991 U.S. Amateur, the 1994 Curtis Cup, the 2005 U.S. Mid-Amateur, the 2011 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, and the 2016 U.S. Junior Amateur. Up next are a U.S. Senior Amateur in 2024, the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2026 and the return of the U.S. Amateur in 2031, forty years after it hosted its first one. Its Honor Circle pays tribute to the Tennessee greats like Cary Middlecoff (who won the Tennessee State Amateur Championship four years in a row) and Lew Oehmig (who won the same event a mere (!) eight times across five different decades). With its new Bermuda greens, the author looks forward to the day when the USGA awards it the Walker Cup. Suffice to state that Lupton’s vision of celebrating the best in amateur golf has been realized.

Holes to Note

First hole, 405/380 yards; Dye met Donald Ross when Dye was stationed near Pinehurst at Fort Bragg in the 1940s. Dye’s reverence of Pinehurst No. 2 is well documented and ticking through his most accomplished designs – Crooked Stick, The Golf Club, Harbour Town, Casa de Campo, TPC-Sawgrass, Long Cove, The Ocean Course at Kiawah,Whistling Straits and here – one similarity jumps out: They all start with a medium length or shorter two shotter. How much of this is attributable to Pinehurst’s famous opener we will never know but Dye clearly believed in getting the golfer into his round before presenting the player with the day’s thorniest matters.

Arguably Dye’s finest opener, with the rich texture in the foreground complimented by the beautiful long view.

The fairway tumbles left with the top of the white flag peaking out above the mound.

The first of many angled greens, though this one is different in that the back of the green is a good three feet lower than the front edge.

Second hole 560/505 yards; Opened in 1983, The Honors Course came along when the amateur and strong club player hit the ball a similar distance. Technology has changed that and The Honors Course has changed with it, going from 7,064 yards at inception to today’s beefy 7,500 yards from the back markers. One of its three shotters (the sixth) stretches to 600 yards but the other three can be reached in two. All four present elevated greens that make for difficult targets from ~250 yards. Water isn’t a threat on any of them but recovery for the desired birdie often proves elusive.  While the top amateurs try to flex their muscle to gain an advantage, Dye’s placement of the greens on plateaus lends them ample defense. It’s the best of both worlds: the tiger is encouraged to attack but natural defenses await. No tricks required.

The slender, angled 2nd green is no mean feat to hit and hold with anything other than a short iron.

Third hole, 220/180 yards; This is early Dye at his minimalist best. Nothing was disturbed tee to green but rather Dye focused on the rolling putting surface with its front middle bowl and back tongue. The hole rests peacefully on the land and the first timer is shocked to discover the presence of a deep back left bunker. Nothing from the tee alerts the golfer of its existence nor its nightmarish recovery propositions.

The putting surface is the high part of its surrounds and therefore possesses a similar ‘hit it or else’ dilemma to the famous ones at Pinehurst No. 2. It is an important green to hit in regulation.

Under no circumstance should the golfer go long left into this hidden bunker. A ‘9’ from here cost the form player in the XXX.

Fourth hole, 465/425 yards; The land is the predominant feature at The Honors Course, not bunkers. Take this long hole for instance. Only one 60 yard long strip bunker at grade with the land was required and the hole pivots around it to the right. The green itself is bunkerless and looks straight from Scotland. If not for the trees, you would swear the ocean was just over the hill.

The golfer is always given something to accomplish off the tee. Here a power fade is ideal with the next hole asking, of course, for a draw.

What a fetching approach shot! Too bad more such bunkerless green complexes aren’t found in America.

Fifth hole, 490/410 yards; Too many doglegs don’t offer an advantage off the tee but not here. A high draw that hugs the inside left both shortens the approach and improves the angle into the green, which is guarded by a five foot deep bunker on its right. It represents a favorite design ploy of Dye’s, calling for one shape shot off the tee and the other into the green. Because he was a part of the American golf landscape seemingly forever, people tend to forget that Dye was a splendid amateur from the 1940s through at least the 1970s. He grew up shaping the ball and viewed the ability to do so as a great barometer of a man’s skill. Here, a draw off the tee is often followed by the need to hit a high floater to the back right half of the angled green. The player who can do so sends a crystal clear message that does not go unnoticed by his opponent.

The golfer readily discerns what shape shot is required from the tee. The question becomes, can he execute it?

Only the left portion of the green is visible above. Today’s hole location is front edge but a back right hole location requires 2, potentially 3, more clubs.

Sixth hole, 600/520 yards; What is absent at The Honors Course? A straight hole! All the three shotters twist and turn across some of the course’s best property. For that matter, so do the two shotters, which is why a good driver of the golf ball delights in an invitation here. The challenge of The Honors Course is evenly spread across all facets of the game. The need to be long and shape the ball either direction is evident on most tees. Accurate approach shots are thoroughly explored too. Finally, with only a few exceptions, the greens are not heavily bunkered, though the modern player may wish they were. Take the sixth as an example. Ostensibly, this should be a birdie hole. A power fade off the tee and another onto the elevated green and all is well. Yet, to stray on the first or second invites an entirely different sequence of events. Perhaps Dye absorbed this classic Golden Age ‘give and take’ between the architect and player from Donald Ross and Pinehurst No.2?  Having lived close to Pinehurst for twenty years, the author states categorically that the balance of the ‘get-able’ three shot holes against the demanding set of one shot holes is eerily similar to that of Pinehurst No. 2. The pressure to make birdies on the three shotters at both courses is acute – and the result often unflattering.

The golfer feels confident reaching for a little extra with a power fade off the tee. However, the challenge …

… tightens as one approaches the green.

Recall how the third green was bathed in sunlight moments ago? A storm has quickly closed, highlighting that shifting weather patterns play a frequent role in a round here in the Tennessee foothills.

Seventh hole, 460/410 yards; Cypress Point’s routing famously takes a golfer in and out of different environments. Same now applies at The Honors Course as the golfer is transported in stages into three distinct environments of trees, lakes and prairie. Specifically, the first six holes enjoy the advantages that come from holes cocooned in treed surrounds at the base of White Oak Mountain. Then, a two part transition occurs whereby the golfer is first brought out into the open as he loops counterclockwise around two lakes (the bigger one being 550 yards across) before heading into the southern end of the property that is distinctly prairie in feel. After fourteeen, the golfer traverses past the two lakes again before returning into the treed environs for the final two. While Mackenzie made the transition seem seamless, Dye used the opportunity of different environments to rattle the player, in particular between six and seven and fourteen and fifteen. Here, after circumventing the overhanging branches at six, the golfer walks uphill to the seventh tee and is starkly introduced to the lake. No comfort or aiming point is provided and strong is the first time player who isn’t perturbed. Same for the transition between the treed fourteenth and the fifteenth along the other side of this lake. Dye liked to remark words to the effect, Once you get the good player thinking, you have him. Without doubt, Dye viewed it as an architect’s responsibility to unsettle the player from the comfort of a routine – and seven does so like few others.

Don’t let the distant white flag on the left act as a siren. Though the fairways is 55 yards wide, the author doubts that a single golfer in the club’s 37 year history has ever stood on the tee and remarked, “What a generous fairway!”

Normally, the prevailing wind would have the flag blowing right to left. Today’s pop-up storm had other intentions. At 6,800 square feet, it’s the biggest green but like the fairway, the target hardly feels ‘ample.’

Eighth hole, 200/165 yards; Two holes (here and twelve) play directly at the mountain and those shots are some of the most handsome to watch as the ball climbs and drops against the distant hillside. Playing beside an ocean has undeniable appeal but when the Honor’s autumnal colors of green, red, orange and gold are in full roar, few environments are more special than here.

The tiger tends to draw the ball while the rest of us hit a fade. So what does Dye do? He puts the most calamitous hazard along the left of holes 7, 8, 9, and 15 which frees up us bogey golfers to enjoy ourselves.

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