The Honors Course
Tennessee, United States of America

Ninth hole, 365/350 yards;  Judy Rankin commented during the 1994 Curtis Cup how these Zoysia fairways produce lies that are ‘boringly perfect’. The ball does indeed sit up, begging to be hit with flush contact but equally important, the Zoysia fairways promote the release of the ball while at the same time, provide just enough friction to allow balls to come to rest at all sorts of positions in the fairway. To understand why that is important, let’s examine  this hole. The fairway plays through its own shallow valley and the dominant fairway slope is from right to left. Rare is the tee ball that draws a level lie. Yet, with water short and along the left, the right handed golfer is none too thrilled to find his ball often times slightly above his feet for his approach shot. A pull or draw is disaster so golfers do all sorts of odd things to prevent that from happening. Consequently, many a recovery shot is played from right of the green.  One of the most famous incidents occurred with Justin Leonard during the 1991 U.S. Amateur. He missed the green right by four yards. Upon seeing his opponent in a similar situation chip across the green and into the water, Leonard wedged his ball 90 yards back into the fairway, wedged onto the green, two putted and won the hole! Think about what that took for Leonard to do that – no wonder with resolve like that he was able to win The Open Championship in 1997 at Royal Troon. Since that event, the green has been raised along the left but … green speeds have also increased, so play smart. Very neat that many of the club’s most famous moments have played out on a sub-400 yard hole.

The tilted 9th fairway is a continual source of consternation.

Though its fairway is generous in width, the 9th remains uncommonly difficult for its length, thanks to the orientation of its long, narrow, two tiered putting surface against a finger of the lake.

Eleventh hole, 590/540 yards; As we saw at the second, a favorite design feature of Dye’s is to place an angled green at the end of a three shot hole, thereby rewarding the golfer who advances the ball long down the fairway in two. He liked the ploy so much that he used it multiple times at both The Ocean Course at Kiawah and French Lick. Dye also used it at the seventh at The Medalist but the Tennessee landscape here with a deep depression left off the tee and its winding fairway accentuate the charms of this version. Like the fourth, it is another long hole with but one bunker. After two good cracks here, the golfer has a clear look down the spine of the green while his opponent, if he strays at all, will be forced to flirt with a deep greenside bunker. Of course, the tiger might well go for the green in two but holding the angled, plateau green from far back comes with its own challenges.

An approach from long right comes down the length of the green. Meanwhile, an approach from farther back in the fairway is more problematic, given the depth of the greenside bunker.

Twelfth hole, 380/340 yards; There were several outcomes from Dye’s 1963 trip to Scotland and subsequent return pilgrimages. First, he became enamored with what different grasses could mean to a course in terms of texture and contrast. Second, short two shotters captured his fancy. Third, he found merit in having hazards come in all shapes and sizes. Fourth, he discovered the occasional blind shot was not only fine but important. All four of these beliefs are captured within this highly regarded, beloved hole. It plays toward the far hillside to a green perfectly situated on a hummock. Seven sunken bunkers ring the front of the green, turning this very much into a placement hole like the ninth. A mere 23 yards deep, the green is the course’s smallest. The cleverly sloped left to right putting surface places a premium on keeping the approach beneath the hole – and the high back left hole location is to be treated with kid gloves. The twelfth is now in the heart of the course’s prairie portion, a statement made true by a tornado that swept through on Easter Sunday, 2020. No one was hurt but this portion of the property was handsomely opened up by the felled trees. The club’s new architect of record, Gil Hanse,was presented by this freak weather event some interesting opportunities to further amplify the course’s three distinct playing environments. No doubt he will take advantage.

The view from the 12th tee sums up the rural charms of The Honors Course.

A tee ball blocked right leaves the golfer with unwanted depth perception issues to resolve in approaching the course’s smallest target of 4,000 square feet.

The front right bunker with its vertical face of stacked sod must be avoided and the green contouring allows the golfer to do just that. The dastardly back left hole location on top of a small plateau is seen above.

Thirteenth hole, 410/380 yards; Designs sometimes become prisoners of the overall experience. The Honor’s discrete entrance, the long drive in, the unhurried ambiance, the peace and so on define the playing experience, which sometimes means specific design components get the short shrift. Take the greens contours here. Starting straightaway at the first which cascades from front to back, the third green with its punchbowl right, the fourth with its front right knob, the long angled fifth green, the two tiers at the ninth, and here, the green contours taken as a set surely rival Dye’s finest collection. Yet, the author has never once heard them discussed at length. At the thirteenth, the green is angled from front left to back right and places a premium on a draw to the inside of the dogleg left. Deeper than wide, the putting surface flairs up at the rear. One of the most delightful shots is to use the back washboard to send a ball back toward a back right hole location. That shot, that moment, that green isn’t what you will first recall about The Honor Course but it and the other putting surfaces go a long way toward explaining the design’s enduring appeal.

This low hollow gobbles up any weak approach. Meanwhile, note how the putting surface swoops up at the rear. Most club golfers habitually under club but Dye gives the player reasons to be bold at 13.

Fourteenth hole, 175/135 yards; The hole that epitomizes what grasses mean to the course is ironically its shortest one. Initially, a bunker stretched from tee to green but over the years, grasses and vegetation were wisely allowed to take center stage, lending the hole its incomparable rough hewn quality. Though this is one of Dye’s aforementioned four manufactured holes, it doesn’t feel like it. Indeed, that’s what great architecture is about: find a site’s best natural components and incorporate them into the design but when none exist, lend nature a helping hand. Dye and Stone working in concert did so flawlessly here. Finding such a challenging short one shotter that features no water is an infrequent delight. Recovery shots abound here, though you may not exactly like yours (!) as a game of ping pong can break out across the narrow green, which is a scant 9 yards across at the front. Standing on the tee with a short iron, the golfer might feel in control but how quickly that can change! Dye built numerous great fourteenth holes including those at Crooked Stick, The Golf Club, Harbour Town, Long Cove, TPC Sawgrass and Kiawah but this is the author’s favorite.

The rugged, natural appearance of the teasing 14th, a short iron hole full of mystery.

A sinewy bunker snakes through the grasses but is largely unseen on the tee.

The front hole location is particularly ticklish because of the horseshoe bunker. The back locations are made tough by the green contouring and back drop-off.

Fifteenth hole, 475/420 yards; Both the designs of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and The Honors Course offer formidable moments. No surprise, the former was built specifically to test the best professionals and the later to test the best amateurs. Yet, there are some holes at TPC that the author would not like to face on a regular basis, especially its famous, water drenched final pair. Compare those two holes with the island green fourteenth and fifteenth holes at The Honors Course. All four holes are demanding but the opportunity better exists for the thinking golfer to coax his way around the two holes at The Honors Course. Certainly, the golfer is highly unlikely to ever lose a ball at fourteen and fifteen enjoys greater playablity than eighteen at TPC.  Here, the club golfer can play short right and have a reasonable chance of a chip and putt par yet the hole remains hugely satisfying to the tiger who must shape two perfect shots. Both fifteen at The Honors and the Home hole at TPC are the highest handicap holes on their respective sides and are indisputably tough. However, the more low profile features of fifteen, its bailout area short right and a degree or two less of pitch from right to left in the green means the fifteenth enjoys just that bit more wiggle room to where the hole becomes palatable on a regular basis for a 7 handicap. The difference may seem niggling but the author thinks it’s huge. For a course to be considered ‘great’, one must delight in playing it on a regular basis. The Honors Course passes that test with flying colors.

Dye frequently utilized crescent fairways and here is a prime example. Draw a line from the tee to the distant white flag and note how the fairway stays well right of the direct line.

Intimidating for sure but with the caveats of a bailout area short right and a green that accommodates a bouncing approach.

Sixteenth hole, 200/155 yards; Imagine playing this course when it opened in 1983. Seeing limestone edged lakes right beside several fairways and greens would have been both startling and terrifying all at once. Almost forty years later, such use of water hazards flush against the playing surfaces has become more commonplace. Yet, take a look at the photograph of sixteen below. Is it the water that grabs your eye or the carefully cultivated palate of colors everywhere else? This one shotter dutifully transitions the golfer from the openness of the past nine holes and reintroduces the player into a treed environment for the final two. Its risk reward qualities highlight that The Honors Course is especially well tailored for match play.

Tranquil but deadly, the 16th features one of only three forced carries on the course. Limestone proliferates in eastern and central Tennessee so what a prudent choice to deploy it instead of bulkheads.

Seventeenth hole, 545/470 yards; Everything revolves around two facts: it’s the course’s shortest three shotter and it features the deepest greenside bunker. A bullet draw is ideal, hitting the firm fairway and then scampering downhill toward the green. The second needs to be high but can the the golfer gain the required height from the down slope to carry Bertha and hold the 32 yard deep green? Ultimately, that’s the thing about The Honors Course. Its design does just what it was intended to: identify the better player. A lot of modern courses have been built since that feature bigger, gnarlier bunkers yet such features often have little bearing on the golf. They photograph well but they don’t deter the golfer from doing anything other than bombs away. The features at The Honors Course do more with less, which is what one would hope to find in rural setting.

A treed corridor beckons the golfer onward.

Dye considered the second half of 17 to be ‘cathedral looking.’

Bertha is 13 feet deep and the first bunker shot often leads to the next shot being played from the grass face. The green is steeply pitched and the tension between wanting an uphill putt and not getting into Bertha is fabulous.

Eighteenth hole, 470/420 yards; Dye designed the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass and Long Cove immediately before The Honors Course. Lupton repeated on numerous occasions that he wanted a straightforward course or as Dye describes it, ‘a formidable golf course but one that held the line when it came to trickery.’ There would be no manufactured blind shots a la the fifth at Long Cove here. This gentle dogleg to the right characterizes the natural, honest nature of The Honors Course as it gracefully flows across the rolling terrain. A valley separates the tee from the fairway and another one separates the middle part of the fairway from the green itself. A gorgeously routed hole with Dye showcasing the site’s natural features.

The tee ball plays over one valley and …

…the approach another. The angled green is one of the deepest on the course at 37 yards and provides numerous challenging hole locations based on the green’s left to right tilt.

Lupton’s vision of having the best amateur players such as Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods, and Gary Nicklaus come to Tennessee has been realized. Yet, the round that the author will forever associate with the course came from its long time Head Professional, Henrik Simonsen. The Dane’s bogey free 66 was a road map to how to tackle the course. No surprise, half the birdies came at the par five holes though deft recovery shots were required in two cases. The ability to shape the ball in both directions was paramount. Controlling a shot’s trajectory – from flattening it out on tee shots to enjoy added run on fairways like the first and fifteenth to hitting soaring approach shots in two into the par five eleventh and seventeenth holes – proved essential. Driver is not always required; being in position is. When in trouble, get out. Finally, finding the right portion of the greens switches the mindset from defense to offense. The design asked the 53 year old man the full range of questions, from possessing power to staying in position to displaying touch. To witness first hand a cunning veteran demonstrate the full repertoire of required shots was extraordinary. Why people crow about Bob Jones’s ‘perfect’ 66 at Sunningdale Old was made clear that June day in Tennessee.

Integral to the success of the club is how it is run. The Honors is a throwback to National Golf Links of America, Pine Valley and Oakmont where autocrats once saw to it that things were done once and done right. Lupton was friends with Bob Jones and Jones’s views on amateur golf shaped Lupton’s thoughts. Similar to the aforementioned clubs, The Honors exudes a confidence that only comes from a series of relentlessly right decisions over an extended period of time. At The Honors, change for change sake simply has never occurred.

Dye’s six decade career was littered with glamorous opportunities, from the rocky coastline of the Dominican Republic to the sand dunes on Kiawah Island. As he became sought after, commissions came his way that featured a housing component. In fact, residential courses are what drove the boom in construction during his lifetime. Alas, with houses comes compromise and that is a word with which Lupton was unfamiliar. Looking back on Dye’s career, The Honors Course (contiguous block of land, no housing, rolling topography, one man to whom to answer) was one of the handful of best opportunities he ever received. Without the threat of a professional event and the cameras that come with one, Dye adhered closer to nature than many of his subsequent designs, which helps explain why The Honors Course stands the test of time as well as any design he ever built.

The End