Little Rock’s Stephens family has been linked to the game of golf at its highest level in America. Patriarch Jackson T. Stephens, who died in 2005, was chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament from 1991-98. He was on the original board of the national First Tee organization in 2000 and contributed $5 million to its creation.
Stephens’ second son Warren [CEO of Stephens Inc.] picked up a love of the game from his father. He and a group of friends embarked on a series of trips to some of the best golf courses in the country, dubbing it the American Lights-Out Tour and calling themselves “Alotians.” Then Warren went and built one of the best courses in the country -- The Alotian Club west of Little Rock.
With his money, he could have built his course anywhere he desired, but Warren Stephens chose his hometown. In 2011, Alotian was ranked No. 14 in Golf Digest’s best courses in the United States, and officials of the prestigious Western Amateur came to Stephens last year and asked him to host the world-class event at Alotian in the summer of 2013.
Warren Stephens recently spoke with contributing editor Jim Harris about the game of golf and how it has shaped his life. In an extended interview, Stephens related how he discovered the game through his father and came to enjoy it, who taught him to play, and how the Alotian Club rose out of the rough, hilly earth and trees of western Pulaski County.
Stephens also talked about his family’s close friend, Jack Stephens’ personal Augusta caddie Carl Jackson, who is Alotian’s caddie program director and caddied at his 50th Masters with Ben Crenshaw last year. He also touched on one of his family’s special golf loves: the national First Tee program. Then, there’s the story of his hole-in-one at Alotian, before the club officially opened its gates.
Here Warren Stephens tells his story in his own words.
I was about 9 or 10 years old when I first played. I knew Dad played a lot of golf, and I had expressed some interest in it. He got me lessons with [Charles] “Junior” Lewis at the Country Club of Little Rock. At that point in time, I’d go up there after school. You could only get in about three holes before you had to go home, and that’s what I did.
It wasn’t a diversion. I really enjoyed playing it. But I played a lot of sports. Today, a lot of kids get on one sport and stay on it. I played football, basketball and even a little bit of baseball, which I was terrible at. So golf was just part of that deal and that was the way I looked at it. I was OK, but it never occurred to me that I had the ability to play golf competitively.
Junior Lewis would make practicing fun. He knew that I loved football and he’d be saying, if I hit a shot 100 yards, he’s say “You’ve pinned it on the goal line.” He related golf to some other sport. Junior could make people laugh just by talking, not just with the adults at the club, but the kids. Everybody felt comfortable. A lot of my friends today are guys who took lessons from Junior Lewis.
My first love when I go to the driving range is pulling out the 7-iron. That’s what I did with Junior. I probably didn’t have but a 5-, 7- and 9-iron when I started out. For some reason we always picked up the 7-iron. That’s what I do today.
The main thing Junior did is he made it fun. He made the juniors of the club feel welcome. It wasn’t frowned on us to come up and play. There were times, certainly, when it was only the adults who could play, but he always made you feel welcome.
The first time I played with Dad, It probably wasn’t long after that. I have a vivid memory of playing nine holes in the afternoon. One afternoon, he might have already played 18 holes with his group, and it might have been on a late Saturday. We went out and played nine holes. I remember I played really well. He was giving me a shot a hole. I think I parred the first four holes. But they were all one-putts, I wasn’t big enough to get the ball to the green in regulation. He was laughing about that. He said, “I got beat before we even teed off on this thing.” I probably made five or six actual pars.
Golf was always a constant thing that Dad and I could do. My parents were divorced when I was 12 or 13. We spent a lot of quality time either here or somewhere else when I was growing up. Of course, we played a lot when I came back to Little Rock in 1981. We played a lot with clients and friends, too.
Golf for Dad and I was something that we could both go do and really enjoy. I played with his group, his regular group. He let me play with them on Saturdays. When I came up and spent several weeks with Dad, I played with the regular group. If a kid was 15, 16 or 18 years old, that was a great experience because it showed me how golf could foster friendships and people could have so much fun with it their whole life. I found out that was something pretty unique to golf.
One of the things it did for me, I became at ease around men that were my father’s age. That was a good thing for me. I was never disrespecting any of them, I knew I was a son, not an equal of them in my station in life, but I wasn’t intimidated by them. Of course, they would have died if I was intimidated because they had known me since I was a little boy and made me feel at ease, too. That was a great learning experience. Golf was just a constant in my life with dad, in our relationship.
I played Augusta National the first time, I think it was May of 1973. The reason I think that was, it was the weekend that Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby and we were watching that. It was such a momentous thing. I was 16, or just a little past my 16th birthday.
The first Masters I attended was 1975, one of the greatest tournaments of all time, when Jack Nicklaus beat Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf by one stroke. That was pretty amazing.
It really didn’t dawn on me what Augusta really was. And even what it meant, as a 16-year-old or 17 or 18; it didn’t dawn on me the impact that Augusta had on golf and the game. I thought it was a nice golf club. What did I know? One time, Hootie Johnson, who was chairman of Augusta and he and my father were great friends — Hootie, Dad, my brother and I played for a couple of days. Another time I went, Clifford Roberts [co-founder of Augusta National with Bobby Jones] was my partner. My brother was my dad’s partner. I had no idea. I knew Mr. Roberts was head of the club, but to me he was just another one of Dad’s friends. I was too young and stupid to know that I should have been intimidated playing with him. We had a great time.
I’m really lucky. When I look back on it, the fact that I met
Clifford Roberts is a pretty darn cool thing. Never mind that I played 18 holes or more with him. We played the par-3 course and the big course, so that’s 27 holes. I can’t remember if we played two days or not. But that’s kind of legendary.
I never knew Bobby Jones. But Dad did. They were great friends. That would have been even cooler to meet him.
Mr. Roberts has meant so much to August Naitonal and the game of golf. I’m lucky to have met him, I’m lucky to have met a lot of people — through Dad, not because of me. Through being Jack Stephens’ son. It doesn’t mean I’m less appreciative of it or don’t recognize how fortunate I’ve been.
I tend to be kind of a 10-over, 10-handicap guy. If I break 80 that’s a good day. Hopefully I won’t break 90. At one time I had a better handicap, I had about a 6. I have to play a lot to maintain a 6. My swing is not that good. It takes a lot of practicing and playing. You really don’t have that kind of time. And now getting to the age  … when I play two or three days in a row, like a club tournament, I can tell it. The back is hurting; the shoulder might hurt a little bit.
Yes, I did have a hole-in-one before Alotian opened. Bill Clark, who is now deceased, he and [wife] Margaret are good friends of ours. His construction firm built the cottages and clubhouse at Alotian. Bill was out there one day when I was there; he came up to me, it was in July. We were going to open the club in September . He said, “Warren, I’m just champing at the bit, I’ve got to play that golf course. I know you say it’s not ready, but it looks ready to me.” I told him, “Well, I’ve been sneaking out. Come on, we’ll go play.” We went out, Bill and I and [club pro] John Ziskie and Matt Frazier. On the 11th hole, of course it’s a par-3, I made a hole in one. At the time, now Bill was a great golfer, and I asked, “Bill, how many holes in one have you had? That’s my second one.” He kind of said an expletive and, “You know I’ve never had one.” I said, “I kid you not, I assumed as good a player as you are, you had had several.” I think he said mine was the second or third he’d ever seen. He later went on to have one.
The Alotian Club
It’s hard for me to believe it too, but the club’s been open 7 ½ years. We keep trying to make it better all the time. There’s always something you can be doing to a golf course to improve it. We haven’t made any major design changes. We’ve worked on all our bunkers. We’ve had to work on the greens, some of the slopes were too severe. The drainage issue for a course never goes away.
I’m from here. I wanted to [build it] here. Even though I travel a bit, this is my home. If the club is open I’ll be out there once or twice a week. I want to get to enjoy it.
Arkansas is a beautiful place. I didn’t really do it in mind with “this will showcase how pretty Arkansas is,” but it certainly has had that effect, from the Golf Digest rankings. I see it said by people outside the state that they didn’t know Arkansas was this pretty and I wonder, why don’t people know that? We just need to show it off better.
A lot of people are surprised when they come to Alotian and see how pretty it is. Golf Digest recently ranked the most beautiful courses in the country and ranked us 7th. The only one ahead of us not on a significant body of water was Augusta National. That’s pretty cool. Lake Maumelle may not be an ocean but it sure is pretty.
I had been all over that land when I was looking at buying it, climbing up in deer stands, getting views. We already had from [designer] Tom Fazio a routing that we knew would be the basis for the golf course. But I was out there a lot during the construction. Usually I’d just go on the weekends or late in the evening. I was out there a lot. We had a few things to suggest to Tom that he incorporate into the design, and most was agreed to.
For whatever reason, I could see what it was going to look like during those early construction days. But a lot of people I would drag out there would tell me they thought I had lost my mind. It was pretty rough out there. Not pretty rough, it was REALLY rough.
The Western Amateur is just an opportunity for us to have arguably one of the three best amateur events in the world. Therefore, one of the top amateur fields will be coming to Arkansas. We hope they have a good time. Arkansas is a great place for golf. We’re going to try to make their experience a great one.
It will be interesting. We’re getting ready to start meeting in March on how we want the golf course to be set up, to play. The way we’re set up now, it plays about as easy as it possibly can. We don’t want to make it a death march for the amateurs but we don’t really have rough to speak of. We’re going to have to think through that. For sure we’re going to have rough for the tournament, but how high, how narrow the fairways? Those are the kind of things that Tom Fazio will give us his input on that. So will some other members who are very good players. We’ll use their thoughts on how to play, how to set up the golf course, to make it challenging but fair. I was watching some of the Northern Trust Open on TV recently, and these players today hit the golf ball so far. It’s really unbelievable. I’m sure these amateurs hit it every bit as far if not farther, because they’re just as limber.
There are some green-to-tee walks in which we’ll ferry the players. It’s not a bad course to walk except for a couple of green-to-tee walks. I’ve walked the whole golf course completely. You have to be in shape to do that, but you don’t have to be a marathon runner. Augusta National is pretty easy to navigate because the tees are right next to the greens, but it’s still very hilly.
Carl Jackson, if he isn’t the best known caddie in the world, he’s pretty darn close. Anybody that knows anything about the game would say that. He’s also, when I think of Carl, I think of Carl as a friend. We’ve been friends for a very long time. We’ve enjoyed playing golf together. We played a lot of basketball, which is interesting because he’s about 6-foot-5 and I’m not. I’ve been around Carl since I was 13 or 14 years old [Jackson moved to Little Rock from Augusta to work directly for Jack Stephens]. He’s a very nice man, a very humble man. But he’s an absolute pro when it comes to being a caddie, but he’s also a pro in life.
He’s very much involved in our meetings that [director of golf] Dan [Snider] has at the club. Carl is there and has a lot of good thoughts and suggestions about the golf course, and the setups that are wrong or what we’re doing with maintenance. He knows golf, he knows golf clubs, he fully understands what we’re trying to do at Alotian with the club and certainly with the caddie program. That’s one thing we’re very proud of, is the caddie program, and we’ve had a couple of kids win these Chick Evans Scholarships, awarded by the Western Amateur.
It’s pretty clear we’re losing a lot of young people in the game of golf because there’s not an opportunity to caddie and be around the game and better players. Most people have gone to carts. At CCLR when I was learning to play golf, they had caddies. The caddies haven’t been there for 35 to 40 years, and that’s sad. You think about kids today, how beneficial it would be for them to be around older, good role models — not that their parents aren’t. But to be in a work environment to learn how to conduct yourself on a golf course — if you know how to conduct yourself on a golf course, you know how to conduct yourself anywhere. To have Carl leading that effort for us is pretty special.
I know it’s getting harder and harder for Carl and Ben Crenshaw at the Masters. They play their practice rounds, and Ben hasn’t been able to make it past the first two rounds lately. By the time Friday is over, Carl is saying that’s when he’s feeling back in shape.
There will never be a caddie who will caddie 50 years in the Masters Tournament again. That will just never happen again. Carl caddied for a young man, a friend of Dan’s, who played in the [Qualifying] School this past winter. We thought it might be too much but Carl was delighted. And who in Q School wouldn’t want to have Carl Jackson as his caddie? That’s like having Jim McKay [Phil Mickelson’s caddie] or Tom Watson’s caddie [the late Bruce Edwards].
I think the national First Tee organization is doing a great job of reaching kids that otherwise golf couldn’t reach. Just watching the growth of First Tee and where they’ve come from, with the number of facilities nationwide. And the kids they are reaching. … I’m very pleased, very excited about it. It will make a huge difference in the game of golf.
Being with former President [George W.] Bush last May and Harriet and I being honored by First Tee, clearly that was a thrill. You don’t get to do that very often.
Having the people we were able to have here for the Jackson T. Stephens Charitable Trust Tournament is pretty much a “wow.” Arnold Palmer did so much for the game at a critical time when TV was just coming alive, so to speak. Of course, Jack Nicklaus is the greatest player of what I would call the modern era. And we had Tiger [Woods] come the first year; he was pretty much at the peak of his game and in control of his life. He obviously is a very, very talented player. Phil Mickelson’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever been around. None of these guys are arrogant, they are just very genuine.
And last year we had Ray Floyd, Hal Sutton, Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw. That’s pretty good right there.
All those guys are such down-to-earth good people. I enjoyed having every one of them here, getting to know every one of them. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been a pleasure for me because I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without golf. And look, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if I wasn’t Jack Stephens’ son. It doesn’t make me appreciate it less.
When I look back at it, getting to play a round of golf with Clifford Roberts? Now, that is a “wow.”