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The Honors Course

Aspiring to build a monument to amateur golf, a soft drink magnate teamed with Pete Dye to produce a golf enclave that lives up to its name

By: Lee Pace

Appeared in July/August 2001 LINKS

The entrance to one of the nation’s finest golf clubs sits anonymously off a state highway about 10 miles northeast of Chattanooga, Tennessee, down the road from a strip of burger joints and convenience stores. Only a keycard properly inserted or a call via speaker box to the front desk—and someone has to be expecting you—will open the ramparts and usher you in.

And what a kingdom you’ll discover once you’re inside the Honors Course.

The prelude is a mile-long drive to the clubhouse, a modest structure of 10,000 square feet whose beige siding and tin roofs make it resemble a Tennessee farmhouse. The winding entry road takes you through canopies of hickory trees and dogwoods, the golf course unfolding on the left side in all its Pete Dye-designed splendor.

As far back as a half-century ago, a handful of Chattanooga residents, dreamed of building an exclusive, world-class championship course for the area. The concept percolated for a couple of decades until, in the early 1970s, an ideal site was found in the town of Ooltewah (Cherokee for “resting place”). A decade later, a group led by Coca-Cola magnate Jack Lupton purchased the land and hired Dye

Joe Richardson, Lupton’s longtime attorney to Lupton, was involved in the process from the beginning and remembers Lupton having two charges to Dye. One, the course should move with the land rather than being shaped by heavy equipment; two, the greens should be more receptive than the ones at Dye’s then-recently opened TPC Sawgrass.

Dye found the gently rolling 460-acre site, which sits at the base of White Mountain, ideal for Lupton’s vision. The first six holes take off through the wilderness; Dye routed the 1st hole so one of the surrounding mountain peaks loomed beyond the ideal fairway landing position. Early in the round the golfer feels absolute seclusion—no houses, roads, commerce or other fairways in sight. 

Seven through nine race around two lakes carved out of red Tennessee chert; huge limestone boulders removed from just beneath the 10th fairway frame the lakes. The stretch of 11 through 13 is one of the course’s true charms. The holes are open and airy and bounded by an array of horticulture: fescue and native broomsedge grass, cedar and pine trees, blackberry bushes and honeysuckle vines.

The course comes to a stern conclusion with 15 through 17 encountering anew those two lakes the golfer grappled with on the front. The final hole is long and narrow with a difficult green complex. For atmosphere, the 17th green is bordered by a Cherokee cemetery dating to 1808.

The golf course’s beauty and subtlety are the basic elements of the club’s appeal, but the tiny details attended to at each step along the way elevate the experience. Members and their guests stay in guesthouses and cottages that are stocked with creature comforts—including the most powerful showerheads this side of the fire department.

Lupton’s desire to have the course seen and played by top amateurs under competitive fire adds another element to the Honors story. In addition to regional and state competitions, it’s been host to the 1996 NCAA Championships (Arizona State won the team title, with Tiger Woods winning the individual crown), the 1994 Curtis Cup (a tie) and the 1991 U.S. Amateur (won by Mitch Voges).

On the wall of the clubhouse is Richard Tufts’ “Creed of the Amateur.” Tufts, a rules expert and former USGA president whose family founded Pinehurst, once disbanded a professional event on his storied No. 2 course because of creeping commercialism. His wish was for the amateur to “accept cheerfully all adverse breaks, be considerate of his opponent, play the game fairly and squarely in accordance with its rules, maintain self control and strive to do his best, not in order to win, but rather as a test of his own skill and ability.”

Those ideals carry on graciously today at the Honors Course.

Par: 72
Yardage: 7,215
Year founded: 1983
Architect: Pete Dye

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