About the same time Stephens Inc. chief executive officer Warren Stephens was putting together his Alotian Club in central Arkansas, another man with means in northwest Arkansas had a similar idea for an exquisitely designed, exclusive, private course in his neck of the woods.
John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods Inc., wanted his golfing friends in the area to have a dynamic challenge but with gorgeous views and the meandering Clear Creek — literally in his backyard — in play. In 2004 he unveiled Blessings, which has been ranked among the best courses in the state.
Talk about a challenge. College golfers and other outstanding players immediately labeled Blessings the hardest course in the region from its tips, though Tyson said some tweaking over the past eight years has softened it somewhat.
Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his design team accepted Tyson’s challenge to create a difficult test. Along with the course, Blessings was blessed with an award-winning clubhouse design by Marlon Blackwell, a University of Arkansas professor, which blended tradition with a modern approach.
Last year, Warren Stephens sat down with Executive Golfer’s Jim Harris to discuss his love of golf and his motivations for building the Alotian Club. This year, Tyson agreed to take that seat opposite Harris to discuss the what golf has meant to him, where the game has taken him, his creation of the acclaimed Blessings in Johnson (between Fayetteville and Springdale) and what he hopes to see from the game in Arkansas in coming years.
What follows are John Tyson’s views on golf, in his own words:
I actually started playing golf when I was 8 or 9, long before I went to work for the company. At the time, Springdale had a little nine-hole course and it was pretty much outside of town. You could put your bag on your shoulder and have a sense of freedom. It’s probably why presidents played golf; it’s gives them that little sense of getting away for a while.
My dad didn’t play. He fished. I played in college and I’d travel and play. It was where I’d go to be with my friends, my close friends. We created some travel golf trips to Europe, which were very enjoyable.
Life is not perfect and golf sure ain’t perfect. There are a lot of similarities. Just as soon as you think you get it right in life, you screw up, and just as soon as you get it right at golf, it goes bad. When you think you have it, you don’t, but you still keep going back out there to get it right. That’s why we do it.
You think about what you’re going to name a course as you’re building it. We talked about it coming along out of the creek with the birds and trees and things, and we were just rambling along and one day it felt like the good Lord just said, “You’re blessed. You’ve got so many blessings. You’ve got the blessing of being outside, of being around your friends.” It became very clear, a very apropos name.
We had this land for a while. When I’d fly in an airplane over it, I’d think, “That looks like a nice piece of land to have a golf course.” When you were first on the land, before there is a golf course, you could look around and there’s six or eight holes right there. I always had an interest in architecture and building, per se. I’d been thinking about building a golf course and finally decided to pull the trigger and create a golf course that is competitive and has all the aspects of the game of golf in it. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do it and to be able to give back to the college game, to the [University of Arkansas] teams out here, to watch the Razorback men’s and women’s teams play here.
My house was here. I owned about 180 acres already. Most of the raw land was around my private residence. I’d ride around on a four-wheeler just checking out the land, driving around Clear Creek … My golf ball does wind up in that creek occasionally … Around 1997 or ’98, my thought was to maybe sell the property but things were pretty pricey. So it was either to sell out at that time and I’d have to move to another property, or keep it, so I went ahead and kept the land.
Jerry Pate came through with his design team. Jack Nicklaus’ people came through. A couple of the design groups, I eliminated because of where they had their price points. Robert Trent Jones Jr. came out and visited. The critical point in that process was his assistant Bruce Charlton. Bruce did most of the work; that’s who I had most of my dealings with. We’d adjust and tweak and had a partnership of working together. A lot of people say, they got one hole built and I ruined the other 17 of them. (Laughing).
A lot of courses are designed to be player-friendly or resort-friendly. I wanted to put the game of golf back into the golf course. I wanted to have varying sets of tees for different skill levels. If you can’t drive it 280 yards or need the fairway 50 yards wide, maybe you need to get to a tee box that better fits your game.
The changes we’ve made in recent years, most of them have been my thoughts, along with talking to Bruce and Bobby and getting feedback from players, getting anecdotal information. Some adjustments were done to help the visual experience and to help with the maintenance of the course. … We’ve made a tweak to the course every year. We’re always making tweaks and adjustments, then we look at it and make more tweaks and adjustments. … It’s a nice golf course. I think those golfers that played it early on, they might have found it very difficult.
When we were building this course, we talked about the philosophy of the game and what the land would give us and what the angles would be like. A great course is one that forces you to play all 14 clubs in your bag. A brilliant golf course is one that forces you to play a 3-wood from the fairway, and a 3-iron, and maybe use a driver on a hole to drive the green. What we thought was, how do you put the game of golf back into the course?
You can really see the technology that has come into the game and how it has changed the game. Right before we started building the course and it was designed, the turning point for drives was like 260-265 yards. When we started building it, we moved that turning point (the area where drives were expected to land) to 275-280 yards. It’s amazing that the turning point now has gone past where it was when we opened. I was talking to some people the other day, talking to an architect. Now the new turning point is 300 yards or more. We’ve added one or two back tees, made some adjustments because of that. We just don’t want two different golf courses, one from the back tees and a different one for the shorter tees. For folks like me we’ll get to our second shot and we’re getting out a lofted club. Those are the technical tweaks that have come along.
I don’t really talk about how much I’ve spent on the course. It’s like a big garden for me. It’s a labor of love. … I’m happy we’ve been able to make a special place. I’ve gotten to play some other golf courses, and what I’ve learned is, the downside of being an owner of a golf course is you see everything that’s wrong. Sometimes I play a course and can see what I would do different. I believe we have a really good golf course here.
The members appreciate that it’s a labor of love. I have taken some of the blessings I’ve gotten and made some adjustments that the members don’t have to worry about. My members are very supportive. They see me doing all of the work. I’ve absorbed most of the costs.
Having an AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) regional event, the first tournament we had, allowed us to introduce the course to junior golfers. That meant the conversations about the course could be inside the junior ranks. After that first event, we had the AJGA Rolex here. Not too long ago, I was over in Scotland playing at St. Andrews in the Dunhill Cup, it’s like the AT&T [Pebble Beach Pro-Am] here as far as amateurs go. I was playing with some young man, a professional over there. He was among some of the Europeans who had been playing amateur or college golf in the U.S. He told me, “I played in that Rolex tournament, and it was the hardest golf course I ever played.”
It got our golf course inside the conversations of the juniors. I believe it’s been a shot in the arm for [Razorback golf coaches] Shauna [Estes-Taylor] and Brad [McMakin], who are two great coaches and has helped them recruit. Last year, we had the SEC women’s championship, which we got by rotation among the schools. At the time, each school had to hold it near their campus once. Then we bid on the NCAA men’s regional, which we’ll have in May.
We did bid on the Women’s NCAA too. I want to seek some of the USGA events. We’ll put a bid out in the future for the appropriate event.
I have talked to some people about having a PGA event, but the first question they ask is, are you willing to spend that kind of money? The question then is, are you willing to spend the same amount of money to put your golf course back together after the event is over? It really speaks to how much you have to spend to have an event like a PGA tournament … There is number [of dollars] to host it, then the number to put your course back together. You can probably imagine how much that would be, and that’s the number that stands out to me. And you have to do that on your own, the [PGA] tournament doesn’t help you. The course has to absorb the cost.
We do host a First Tee event here with Wal-Mart vendors. Our relationship with Wal-Mart and Mike Duke to help this First Tee chapter is special. I like working with the different events
As for the clubhouse, I would like to say I was hands off , but anybody who knows me would know that isn’t true.
I looked at three or four different designs. I visited with some people who specialized in traditional clubhouses and saw some of the visions they had for it. What I was seeing didn’t match what I was looking for. Marlon Blackwell, who is at the University of Arkansas and is one of the best architects around, had done a remodel of my house. So, it was kind of not a true competition but three or four great architects put their ideas down and
I became more drawn to Marlon’s.
Our goal was, how do you bring the outside into the clubhouse and when you are seeing out those windows, how do you bring the inside out to that. There was a relation of being on the outside, looking at the vistas, the landscape of Arkansas.
The entire course, I wanted it to let you feel Arkansas. It’s a lot like walking through the Arkansas woods, a manicured carpet. We’ve maintained the experience of northwest Arkansas and what the environment is like.
I’ll take lessons from my general manager, Tom Jones, who was an All-American golfer in college. And Brad and Shauna and their assistants, they will give me advice when I ask. But what I’m usually told is, “You have paralysis of analysis.” My handicap is supposed to be an 8 or 9, but in truth it’s mostly toward a 14 or 15. We’ve been busy a lot lately.
I want to play more golf but it doesn’t work out that way. My dad’s mantra was, work two weeks a month and fish the other two.
My dad didn’t play golf. He played two holes and said it was too slow.
My best golfing experience has to be getting the opportunity to play St. Andrews on a Sunday. If you know the game, you know that no golf is played on Sunday at St. Andrews. The only time it is open for play on Sunday is the last round of the British Open and the final round of the Dunhill Cup [a pro-am]. You are one of just a few golfers out playing St. Andrews that day. Playing in the Dunhill Cup and making the cut with my partner has been a great experience. I’ve made the cut several times with my pro.
I’m starting to play golf around different places, and just being able to play golf anytime, anywhere is special. But probably the best course is St. Andrews. There have only probably been maybe less than 100 rounds of golf played at St. Andrews on a Sunday. It’s a small fraternity and I know I’m not going to make it in the British Open or the Senior British Open.
I enjoyed playing in Scotland.
Carnoustie. St. Andrews. Dornoch up on the north of Scotland. I remember playing Nairn, in Scotland. Butch Davis, Clark Irwin and Woody Bassett were with me. It’s a typical Scottish day, the wind was whipping us around.
After three or four holes, one of our caddies said, “Even us locals would be inside and drinking by now.” Those are the memories that get made playing this game.
I remember we were staying at a hotel, and the closets here would be bigger than some of the hotel’s rooms. That’s what makes golf, traveling with your buddies, your friends, and those you care about.
Warren [Stephens] and I were both very blessed. He loves the game of golf, I love the game of golf. We’ve both built facilities that have enhanced the game.
I look around and junior golf in Arkansas is probably not as far along as in some other states. Kids have so many other things to do. But First Tee is exposing more kids to the game and is trying to get the numbers up.
No doubt the numbers are dwindling. Golf became part of real estate plays a few years back, and that all changed. I think some of those [players] will come back.
Blessings Site of NCAA Men’s Regional
John Tyson’s Blessings course in Johnson has entertained some of the top junior golfers in the country in recent summers, and in spring of 2011 the course played host to the Southeastern Conference Women’s Championship.
The club’s biggest event to date is coming May 16-18, when the NCAA Division I Men’s Regional, will be staged at the Blessings. The NCAA has six regionals for qualification to the finals at Atlanta’s Capital City Club.
Arkansas’ golf team, led by Coach Brad McMakin, reached the regional round last year and would be a natural draw for the tournament this spring, should the Hogs receive an invite from the NCAA.
The field won’t be known until after conference championships are decided, but fans might also expect other top teams from the region, including Texas, which won the national championship last year over Alabama.
“We’ve got bets among the members already about how low they’ll go,” Tyson said. “We’re not really sure what ‘low’ is, but it will be interesting to see what kind of scores the best college golfers put up.”