My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
The town of Ooltewah, where Honors Course is located, translates to English as "resting place," which couldn't more more appropriate for the experience at Honors. It's a low-key peaceful experience through a beautiful peace of land that blends smoothly with nature. This certainly can't be said of all Pete Dye courses. I enjoyed the course, and enjoyed the "club" even more. It's really has a "chill" feel to it. To be completely honest, I wouldn't rank this course as highly as the #31 ranking that is bestowed upon it by Golf Digest, but that doesn't mean it's a bad course. If you're a Pete Dye fan, and generally I am, it's definitely worth checking out Honors to see how different it is that some of his other more brash and unnatural courses, like Whistling Straits, TPC Sawgrass, and PGA West. I like all three of those courses, so that's not a criticism, but just that Honors Course is quite different. Thanks so much to M.B, our host for the day, who generously welcomed my buddy and I to his great club.
#18, Par 4, 400 Yards
After hitting our drives on the 18th, the horns blew, and we needed to head into the clubhouse. Our hosts weren't able to wait out a rain delay, so all of a sudden I faced a question--could I check Honors Course off the list if I didn't hole out on the 18th hole and have 18 holes of scores to add up? I faced this one time before, getting lightning-ed off of Lost Dunes and not being able to get back out. Playing only 12 holes there, I can't really say I played the course. However, in this case, we teed off of the 18th...a much more debatable issue. Luckily, the staff in the pro shop was generous in letting us go back out to finish the last hole once the weather cleared and the greens dried out a bit. They sent us back out with a different caddy to escort us through the last couple shots. It was a little uncomfortable finishing off without loosening up or anything after an hour of so waiting, but we finished our round, and declared victory! Regarding the 18th, the hole doglegs to the right and keeping the ball on the left side is preferred the entire way, especially to avoid the bunkers on the right of the green.
#17, Par 5, 470 Yards
After giving you substantial rope to hang yourself with on the prior two holes (lots of water to avoid), Dye gives you a bit of a break on #17, before finishing with another gut-punch. The 17th starts off with a drive over a bit of water, but it should only come into play for a top shot really. After the drive, the hole snakes through a narrow corridor of woods, playing uphill. It's tight, but fairly short, so there are a number of clubs that could be hit for the second shot. The biggest issue with that second shot (or third) is to avoid "Big Bertha," the deep and nasty bunker that punishes shots that miss the green short and to the left. From here on it, the rain would get in the way of some of my pictures!
#16, Par 3, 155 Yards
A classic Pete Dye par 3 here. All carry over a large pond to the green with a couple small pot bunkers well over the back. Collection areas surround the green if you miss by a little. Obviously, bring enough club to land safely on grass and avoid a big splash. For us, the rains started right when we arrived at the green. The next 15 minutes or so would be played in a monsoon!
#15, Par 4, 375 Yards
The next two holes at Honors scream of Pete Dye. This one is close to a mirror image of the 7th hole, occupying the opposite side of the pond. Just like the 7th, the hole bends to the left, with the lake lining the inside of the dogleg along the left side. The 15th adds one additional challenge, which is an small area of swampy scrum through the fairway that needs to be carried between the drive and approach. A bail-out into the green runs the risk of hitting one of two bunkers that wait on the right side.
#14, Par 3, 135 Yards
Lots of tall grass, sand, and junk needs to be carried on this one-shotter, but get it safely over the trouble and you can make a good score here.
#13, Par 4, 380 Yards
A smooth dogleg to the left awaits on the 13th, with a very tricky green as the ultimate target. Long of the green is a devilish elevated pot bunker, but otherwise, this hole is fairly void of hazards that could get in the way of a good score. With that said, I had a seriously hard time on the green with 4 putts needed to get in in the hole. So, don't lose your focus on this one and do what I did!
#12, Par 4, 340 Yards
After a long hole, the 12th is a bit of a breather. The hole is a shortish par 4 with a slight bend to the right. The approach shot feels like you're hitting to the edge of the White Oak Mountains, with bunkers waiting anywhere you would possibly miss. Driver is certainly not necessary from the tee. The key is keeping it in the short grass and avoiding the hazards that stand in the way of a par or even birdie.
#11, Par 5, 540 Yards
Getting there in two is not in the cards for the common man. This one is built to be played as a three-shotter, with a bend to the left at the very end. Keeping the ball in the short grass is the key on the first and second shots, to avoid the tall grass and mounding on the right and to avoid being blocked out by a tree on the left side. Two well played shots will result in a shot to a long and slender green with a large and extremely deep bunker on the left side of the green.
#10, Par 4, 405 Yards
Pete Dye, while often criticized in some circles for the penal nature of his designs, typically has very sound architecture skills. This hole has some a bit of Donald Ross in it, where the best shot shapes are a draw off of the tee and then a fade into the green. The green is a bit elevated with bunkers in the front and right.
#9, Par 4, 350 Yards
The last hole on the outward nine is a fun one. It's not long, but there's enough trouble out there to still make you think off of the tee, which is an island in the middle of the water hazard that you've spent your last couple holes trying to avoid. Carry it over that hazard, and avoid the bunker on the left, and you'll have a pretty short shot into the green. However, I said short, not necessarily easy, as you'll need to carry more water to get to the putting surface.
#8, Par 3, 165 Yards
Another pretty typical Dye hole. If you're going to miss (which isn't suggested), miss a bit short or just a touch to the right. Water will catch a shot that errs to the left and a miss wide to the right will get in tall grass that tops some nasty mounds. Best to just knock it on the green!
#7, Par 4, 390 Yards
The seventh hole is one of those classic Pete Dye holes. Water extends the length of the hole on the left side. There is only one bunker on the hole, but it is enough to make the player think. That pot bunker sits on the right side of the green, and is penal enough that it makes the left side of the fairway the preferred side to approach the hole from. Of course, to be on the left side of the fairway, you have to flirt a bit more with the water off of the tee. After finishing this hole, which gets your pulse going a bit, you deserve a drink. And, what do you know, they placed the halfway house right after this hole! Brilliant!
#6, Par 5, 520 Yards
The sixth is the second of three holes with an obstructive tree that stands in the way of a mis-guided approach shot. Except, in this case, it's on a par 5, so your strategy to avoid it comes on the second shot. The hole is a dogleg to the right and hugging the right side is the most dangerous line but also the best angle all the way from tee to green.
#5, Par 4, 370 Yards
Positioning is the key from the tee. I pulled driver and aimed over the trees down the left side, but I wouldn't do it again. I ended up in position "A" but got way too close to the bunker that sets on the right side of the fairway, on the outside of the dogleg, and in the landing area if you get too aggressive. The play from the tee is just to get it out there in the middle of the fairway and leave an easy shot into the green. My aggressive line paid off with a 110 yard shot into the green, but it probably wasn't worth the risk.
#4, Par 4, 405 Yards
Only one hazard on this hole, which is in the form of a waste bunker that lines the right side of the landing area from the tee, on the inside corner of a smooth dogleg to the right. Hugging that bunker presents the best angle into the green, which has two strategically positioned trees standing guard over the left portion of the putting surface. From the left side of the fairway, it's likely that your approach might have to contend with those trees.
#3, Par 3, 180 Yards
I wish cameras did a better job to showing green contours. The second picture below is my best attempt and definitely doesn't do this green justice. This one had some interesting slopes on it, for sure. The primary obstacle on the course's first short hole is the bunker on the right side. Just getting on the green doesn't assure you of a two-putt par, so gauge the pin location carefully and take your caddie's advice to get the easiest chance at rolling in a par.
#2, Par 5, 505 Yards
The first par five on the course meanders casually to the right with bunkers and waste areas on the right side much of the way. Up by the green there are some interesting pot bunkers waiting to punish an errant approach. This is a pretty easy hole and you should definitely take your chance to score on the first two holes at Honors because it's about to toughen up from here. By the way, listen to the caddies at Honors. The greens have lots of slopes where aiming away from the hole is often the best way to get it close. The caddies know the aiming spots and can give good advice. For the front pin we faced on number two, aiming left of the hole was advisable.
#1, Par 4, 380 Yards
The opener at The Honors is a dogleg left to a green that is indicative of what you'll face the duration of the day...fast, undulating, and difficult! Jack Lupton didn't want Pete Dye to focus on one style of bunkering at Honors, so he asked for a little bit over everything, and it's evident on the first hole. On the left side of the fairway off of the tee is a long slender fairway bunker. To the left of the green are pot bunkers, and to the right of the green are more traditional bunkers. Just getting your ball in play off of the tee should be enough to have a reasonable shot into the green to make an opening. Of course, that assumes a two-putt, which can never be assumed at The Honors.
Finally, on to the golf course. There are a whopping seven sets of tees listed on the scorecard, with an additional option that combines two of the tees. So, you've got EIGHT tees to choose from. All the way back, the Silver Tees, stretch to 7,450 yards and play to a par 72 rating and slope of 76.8 and 152. Nasty! We decided to play from the Combo Tees that combine the 6,630 yard Blue Tees and the 6,345 yard Orange Tees. From the Combo Tees, it measures 6,465 yards with a rating and slope of 72.4 and 143. That sounded like plenty of challenge for our first time on the course, with a chance of rain in the forecast. I'll quote those tees below:
No discussion of the clubhouse can be complete without mention of the Honors Circle, an area dedicated to famous amateurs who have contributed to the game and/or the club's history. I couldn't get a great picture of it, but this is what I've got.
After breakfast, it was time to get changed and ready for golf. The men's locker room is split between two levels, with the bar/grill area in between. It's a really cool feel in there, with one of the coolest card tables I've ever seen sitting in a landing area halfway between the grill and the upstairs. I imagine it's something of a "king of the mountain" competition to score that table when the club's busy!
The mission of Mr. Lupton's course was to honor amateur golf, something his friend Bobby Jones made so famous. The club has hosted countless amateur events over the years, but unless the mission statement changes, will never host a professional tournament.
Unfortunately, Jack Lupton died of a stroke in 2010, but his club, modeled after Augusta, still stands in his memory. What stands at Honors is a bit unique as far as golf clubhouses go. In fact, it feels more like a home than it does a clubhouse, with large gardens, patios, and living spaces for guests. We arrived in time for breakfast and had fantastic egg and cheese sandwiches, some sticky buns, and fresh coffee before heading out to the range. We sat on a great outdoor patio overlooking a gorgeous garden, which served as a great welcome to the day.
What makes his membership at Augusta relevant to Honors is the fact that Lupton allegedly was very interested in being Chairman of the club, and became very upset when he lost out on the Chairmanship to Hord Hardin in 1980. With the leadership position at Augusta not in the cards, Lupton decided to built his own club in his hometown where nobody could take away his ability to run the place. With a little bit of Bob Jones and Clifford Roberts likely in his mind, Lupton would be the one-man Board at HIS course. All matters of the club were his call. One of my favorite pieces of artwork found in ANY clubhouse on my quest to date is the picture of Jack Lupton in the board room of The Honors that is displayed in the Men's Grill. Some pictures do indeed speak 1,000 words. There was never any question among members of who was in charge at Honors!
My day at The Honors Course marked the second of a four day stretch of golf that would include East Lake, Holston Hills, and Lookout Mountain. It was a great trip indeed, and in this "Fearsome Foursome" of Southern golf, I was reminded of the old Sesame Street jingle "One of these things is not like the others." Three of the courses on this itinerary were built by Golden Age golf architects, with The Honors being the outlier, built by the modern genius of golf course design, Pete Dye. In some ways this felt like a typical Pete Dye course. However, in many ways it did not.
Built at the foot of the White Oak Mountains in 1983, Honors has a much more natural feel than many of Dye's other gems, which tend to be much more manufactured in appearance. While I have no statistics to back my inference, I would guess that he moved far less dirt here than on his average design. While the look is more natural, it still includes many of Dye's prototypical features, like pot bunkers in many spots, railroad ties in others, and hazards-a-plenty. It's plenty challenging, which is also a hallmark of a Pete Dye design.
So, I touched a bit on what stands on this serene piece of property in suburban Chattanooga, but how did it get here? The Honors Course is the baby of one of Chattanooga's most famous benefactors--Jack Lupton. Mr. Lupton was born into a family that owned Coca Cola's largest bottler, and would eventually inherit the company, grow it substantially through several acquisitions, and then finally sell it. He sat on the Board of Directors at Coca Cola for over 25 years. Although, as Honors Course goes, perhaps the most important item on Mr. Lupton's resume was his membership at Augusta National Golf Club (a painting of Bobby Jones in his green jacket is prominently displayed in the clubhouse: