This summer casual golf fans will have the rare opportunity of seeing the Alotian Club in person, and they’ll be able to watch how Golf Digest’s 14th-ranked course in the nation tests the best amateurs in the world.
The Western Golf Association sought out Warren Stephens’ exclusive golf enclave for its prestigious Western Amateur tournament, which typically has been staged at top courses in the Chicago area and last year drew a field from 13 countries. In fact, for 43 years the Western Am has not been played outside the Chicago area or away from its previous permanent residence, Michigan’s Point O’ Woods Golf and Country Club.
Stephens, in a January interview alongside Alotian COO Dan Snider, said he welcomed the opportunity for his course to play host to such an event and display Alotian on a national stage.
The Western Amateur will be played July 29-Aug. 4.
“It’s a great honor,” said Stephens, CEO of Stephens Inc. “You look at what they call their Sweet 16, look at their past winners, and it’s a who’s who of the PGA Tour.
“And as we learned more about the Western Golf Association and what they do with their [Chick] Evans Scholarship, to host this is great for the club and great for Arkansas.”
The Alotian Club operates a caddy program in which caddies can qualify for the WGA’s Chick Evans Scholarship. Two Alotian caddies have gone on to earn full college scholarships.
The preparation for hosting the tournament started even before it was officially announced last year. Snider said changes to the 7,480-yard, par-72 course were minor and mostly involved growing the rough so the fairways could be narrowed at expected landing areas.
“We’ve never really had any rough at the club … we did it last year so it could grow in this year,” Stephens said.
Course designer Tom Fazio advised on alterations to strengthen the challenge for the amateurs, and he sent in his right-hand man, Andy Banville, to observe on site.
“We also wanted to address pace-of-play issues,” Stephens said, noting the field will begin with 156 players.
The Western Amateur is an invitation-only event. The WGA bases its invitations on world amateur golf rankings and will also extend invitations to golfers outside those rankings, particularly those who no longer play college golf.
College golfers tend to dominate the world amateur rankings.
Little Rock resident Mark Bartlett, who spent time after college playing PGA Tour and other pro events before regaining his amateur status, was one of those invitees last year to Exmoor Country Club in upscale Highland Park, Ill.
“I want to tell you, that tournament … absolutely blew me away,” said Bartlett, 44. “The organization, the hospitality, it all was as good as any tournament I’ve ever been to, including PGA Tour events, and I didn’t expect that.
“I hope I get an invite again this year, and if I don’t then I will volunteer and pass on the good fortune that I felt from those guys in Chicago at Exmoor.”
(For more on Mark Bartlett, read Big Finish Lifts ASGA Player of Year Bartlett.)
The Alotian Club will sell transferable passes to the general public, costing $100 for the entire six days of play, the week after the Masters Tournament concludes in April. Sales will also be online.
The Western Amateur may be the toughest grind next to PGA Tour qualifying school. The 156 entrants compete in two rounds of stroke play during the first two days, then the field is cut to the top 44 plus ties.
After two more rounds of stroke play, the top 16 players advance to the Western’s fabled Sweet 16 for match play.
The winner and runner-up of the Western will have played eight rounds of golf over six days.
Former Arkansas Razorback golfer Ethan Tracy upset the heralded former amateur turned pro Patrick Cantlay in the 2011 Western Amateur.
“Just think about this. We had the Southern Amateur last year at Chenal [Country Club] and the Western is coming this year,” said Arkansas State Golf Association Executive Director Jay Fox. “I think they say it’s the third largest amateur tournament in the United States.
“Just think about the economic impact the Southern and now this tournament brings to Little Rock. We get to show off the state, the beauty of Alotian to people who have probably never seen Alotian. It’s a tremendous, tremendous honor for Alotian, Little Rock and the state for the Alotian Club to be hosting the Western Amateur.”
Prepping the Course
Snider said the Alotian Club has 21 committees with members and volunteers to cover the various aspects of putting on a major tournament. The Western Golf Association will also provide volunteer officials for the tourney operation.
All told, the number of volunteers involved may top 700.
About 40 to 50 of the amateurs will require private housing while in Little Rock, Stephens said.
Committees will oversee everything from tournament scoring and marshaling to security, medical, spotters, transportation, merchandise and media.
Charging for admission and selling advertising to the tournament program will offset some of the club’s cost in putting on the tournament, Stephens said, and also any leftover money can go to the Western’s Evans Scholarship.
“We’re not really sure of the interest,” he said. “The Western would be ecstatic if we sold 1,500 tickets. We think there will be a curiosity factor that people will want to come see the tournament here. We’ll have 2,500 tickets printed, and if there was by chance more demand, then we could do more.”
Logistics figure in limiting the crowd, and parking outside Alotian’s gates is problematic; in early January, the club was still looking at four possible sites (including Pinnacle Mountain State Park and two area high schools) to park cars and run shuttles to the club.
“We wanted to make the tournament as accessible as we could,” Snider said.
Alotian members will surrender their lockers to the competitors the week of the tournament. They probably won’t have to give playing privileges, though, until the week before the event, Stephens and Snider said.
Alotian Not Immune To Winter Problems
Many golf courses in central Arkansas took a winter hit from the ice and snow that inundated the region at Christmastime, mostly in the way of lost trees.
The Alotian Club was not immune; in fact, its location near the largest snowfall accumulation in the state, just a few miles east of Perry County, led to major tree damage and loss.
“We probably lost 1,000 trees,” club owner Warren Stephens said in January. “Most of them, in fact none of them, are very significant to play. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.
“Most disheartening to me and to Dan too is a lot of trees that were planted in the entryway of the main gate and were only 8 ½ years in and looked beautiful, they are now torn up.”
Stephens said most of the tree damage was aesthetic, such as broken tops of trees and dangling limbs.
“Those are problems we’re not equipped to get to,” he said. “We’re waiting our turn for the tree companies to get to us. We need those out, but you’ve got every golf course in town that has that issue.”
July in Arkansas
One of the first concerns Stephens expressed to the inquiring Western Golf Association officials was: Did they know how hot Arkansas can get in late July?
“We will do everything we can to make sure the participants and their caddies are well taken care of,” Stephens said. “We’ll have multiple places on the course and concession stands for them to stay hydrated.”
One of the concessions to the heat, Snider said, was adding another day to the tournament so golfers would only play 18 holes a day over the stroke-play portion of the event.
“You’ve also got to consider, though, that many of these players will be college golfers who are used to playing many holes in one day,” Snider said.
But are they used to the walking challenge Alotian will present?
The course will answer some of that by carting golfers between some extended and hilly areas of the course, Stephens said.
“We have some pretty tough walks from the green to the next tee,” he said.
With its premium air green-cooling system, the course should not have trouble dealing with the extreme heat that has plagued Arkansas courses in recent summers. Alotian uses a bentgrass strain, A-4, that Stephens and Snider said offers the best putting surface available year-round.
“The defense of Alotian will be the greens and the elevation changes,” Stephens said.
Contrasting Exmoor with Alotian, which he also has played, Bartlett said, “Honestly, they are as different as golf courses as you could find. Both are in incredibly great condition, but they are completely, completely different in playability.”
Bartlett expects Alotian to shine in the spotlight.
“I think they will be blown away by Alotian,” he said. “The beauty of the golf course is unbelievable. The staff, the service and what Mr. Snider and how he runs tournaments and events, it will be a very impressive display.”
The Alotian superintendent crew, led by Justin Sims, in concert with Fazio’s man Banfill, has determined how the shape of the second cut of El Toro zoysia rough should fit with the bunkering. Pin positions will be determined based on weather conditions and pace of play.
“We want all the par-5s to play as much as possible as three-shot holes,” Stephens said. “We don’t think the eighth hole will play that way, but that’s OK.”
Club members and a select few might have seen some of the great pros — past Western Am winners Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to name two — play Alotian when Stephens put on the Jackson T. Stephens Charitable Trust tournament over a five-year period. Otherwise, this may be the only chance for people to see the course and how skilled international golfers tackle it.
“Yes, it’s a great way to open the club to the public in a limited way,” Stephens said. “We’re not limiting it because we don’t want to have people see it. We just have limited facilities. We’re not built to hold big crowds, but it’s a nice way to open it to golf fans and to support amateur golf as well.”
The Western Amateur’s Sweet Sixteen qualifiers, including such eventual winners as Tigers Woods, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard, have gone on to elite status in golf. Over the years, members of the Sweet Sixteen have accomplished the following:
- 29 of the last 35 PGA TOUR Player of the Year awards
- 12 of the top 20 on the PGA TOUR career money list
- 28 major championship winners for a total of 73 major championships
- 13 events on the 2010 PGA TOUR schedule
- 7 participants in the 2010 Ryder Cup
- 15 of the last 19 U.S. Amateur Champions