The Honors Course is set in a secret valley to the north of Chattanooga and it’s another jewel in America’s golf course crown.
As its name suggests, it’s the place that Jack Lupton, the founder, chose to honour and promote all that is best in amateur golf. The only thing he forgot to do was to make it a little more accessible to mere mortals.
There is nothing at this idyll to detract from the golf, which naturally is the main task in hand. Don’t expect to find a country club, just enjoy a brief interlude with Mother Nature. Nobody understands the art of agronomy better than the team at the Honors Course so if you can sweeten up a member, expect an absolute treat.
Designed by Pete Dye, the Honors Course quietly opened for play in 1983. Apart from Nature's fine-tuning, little has since changed.
The Honors Course in Ooltewah (native translation means resting place), Tennessee opened in 1983. It was the brain child of Jack Lupton, who was a friend of Bobby Jones. One of the motivating factors was to honor amateur golf, hence the name, The Honors Course. As supporting amateur golf is a basic tenet of the Honors Course, a tribute to amateur golfers from the state of Tennessee is located near the clubhouse entrance. It is called the Honors Circle and each honoree has a hole named for them. The NCAA men’s golf championship was held here and won by a sophomore from Stanford, named Eldrick Woods. On the final day he shot an 80 and still won by four strokes.
As a mediocre golfer, the first time I played the Honors I was not all that impressed; there just seemed to be a lot of 200 yard forced carries off the tee. However, I have come to appreciate it and understand why it is ranked in the top 100 courses in the world. Pete Dye was able to leverage the natural environment to create an unforced design that will test golfers of all abilities. The two toughest holes are mirror images of each other around a lake. The seventh and the fifteenth are both over 400 yards and require long accurate drives and approach shots. Conversely, the ninth and twelfth are great risk/ reward holes. The ninth’s green slopes precipitously towards the lake on the left. If the pin is left of middle I would strongly advise aiming for the middle of the green. The twelfth hole has a ginormous tree protecting it on the right side, hence you must keep you tee shot to the left side of the fairway. Many folks feel this is the prettiest hole on the course.
My favorite hole is the short 155 yard par three fourteenth. It has a U -shaped bunker surrounding almost the front half of the green. The hole plays much tougher when the pin is up front. On the other hand, the contour of green doesn’t make back pin locations easy either. Why is it my favorite hole? It is the only hole that I have ever birdied there.
I was especially impressed with how Dye was able to vary the routing at the Honors Course to create an exceptional balance between easy and difficult holes, long par fours and short par fours, and a difficult course that is also playable for a mortal. Although the slope rating is 145, the course doesn't wear you out like an Oakmont or Bethpage Black.
I like the two short par fours, which are great risk-reward holes. The par four 9th hole is only 355 yards long. You probably won't see your tee shot land, as the landing area is semi-blind. The second shot is a wedge to a green protected in front and on the left by water. Dye has said about the 9th at The Honors, "every course needs a #9 - one of my rare forced carries to a par four green". His execution of the hole here is very well done; the design is subtle and really penalizes a mis-hit shot.
The other great risk-reward hole is #12, a 355-yard par four with a small fairway and a huge tree blocking the green on the right side. Being able to place the ball on the left side of the fairway is of paramount importance off the tee. Doing so, however, does not assure a birdie or par. Again, like #9, even though you are hitting in a very short iron, the green is narrow and well protected. As Dye correctly says about his pot bunker in front of the green, "This bunker can spell disaster for even the most accomplished player."
I like The Honors Course best of all of Pete Dye’s work because it has a natural look and a sense of polish to it, without being forced, unlike many of his other courses.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
No one can play the Honors Course without a member or at least someone from the pro shop. I was paired with an assistant pro named Dave for the first 12 holes. He had a hot date that night and had to leave, so on the 13th tee box, a female pro came out to complete the round with me. The course was designed by Pete “golfers love torture, that’s where I come in” Dye in 1983. It is 7,000 yards from the tips and has a rating of 75.4 and a slope of 151. To the best of my knowledge, 151 is the highest slope that the USGA has given out, and this course is as challenging as it gets. This little hideaway, which sits in a valley at the foot of White Oak Mountain, was the brainchild of Coca-Cola magnate Jack Lupton, who wanted to honor the amateur golfer and create an indelible impression on each and every player; I would say he succeeded. The only thing missing from the course is railroad ties, one of Pete Dye’s “trademarks,” because Lupton didn’t want any, but even that omission doesn’t make it any easier. Among all this difficulty I did find one rather fun element; the “echo bunker.” If you speak into the bunker behind the 6th green, it echoes back to you, which is not such a good thing if you are swearing a blue streak after a bad sand shot. I had a lovely afternoon with my two pros as we wound our way through the 18 holes set in 400 acres of the Tennessee hills. Larry Berle.