With a smooth drive down the middle of the fairway, John T. “Jack” Lupton christened The Honors Course 25 years ago this morning.
Lupton’s dream was cultivated by Hall of Fame architect Pete Dye and has been jealously guarded by handpicked superintendent David Stone to honor the game of golf and the amateur’s creed.
“The very thought of having one special memory is mind-boggling,” said Lupton, who has recently suffered health problems that prevent him from playing his internationally renowned course at Ooltewah as much as he’d like.
Long are Lupton’s memories of giving instructions to Dye, who added his imagination to Lupton’s general direction to create what Stone has treated as his own child since its inception.
“He said, ‘I really want a fine golf course and do what you can,’” Dye said of an early conversation with Lupton. “I don’t think he mentioned the contour of a green or the shape of one bunker.
“The only thing he mentioned in the process is that he wanted to make the lake bigger, and we just kept pushing.”
Dye strolled through the acreage west of White Oak Mountain and with every step felt a golf course growing beneath his feet. The contour of the land was natural: There was little need for a bulldozer to shape the grounds. A shift of earth here, a ton or two there and Lupton’s vision was becoming clear.
“Even though the trees were dense, you could work your way through there and you could tell it was a great topography,” Dye said. “Jack said he wanted a lake, and that was that. We created a lake.”
The course is full of breathtaking views and places to catch one’s breath under tall pines or on the patio outside the modest clubhouse. Golf Digest ranked it No. 35 on its most recent list of top 100 courses in the country.
“Some of my friends say we play just because we like to eat lunch out here,” said eight-time Tennessee women’s champion Betty Probasco, who was one of the initial members in the Honors Circle. “It’s hard to believe what a gem has been created here.”
Not one house can been seen from the course. Not a car can be heard. No pool or tennis court or neighborhood noise that has become linked with the modern country club atmosphere.
No, The Honors Course is solely about golf.
Staff Photo by D. Patrick Harding. The Honors Course, in Ooltewah, is strictly for amateurs but is one of the highest ranked golf courses in the United States.
“I am very proud,” Lupton said in a telephone interview last week. “I didn’t know when I built it whether it would even go or not. And it has. And it has been a thrill for me to watch it grow.”
For the amateur
Inspiration from Bobby Jones helped Lupton, a group of friends and a Hall of Fame architect create one of the country’s finest golf courses — one that is equal parts escape, sanctuary and tribute on about 420 acres.
“I have found throughout my life that the things that have real meaning almost certainly have a philosophy and a purpose behind them, and The Honors Course was to be no exception,” Lupton wrote in the introduction of a book for the 1991 U.S. Amateur. “The purpose and the philosophy are clear and concise — to honor amateur golf and all it stands for.”
The place has been, and will be, for amateur golf. It’s an anachronism to the days of players walking 18 holes with white-coverall-clad caddies that are commonplace for its members.
It was been created for state amateurs, the U.S. Amateur, the Curtis Cup, the NCAA Championship, the U.S. Mid-Amateur, the Canon Cup, the Palmer Cup and perhaps someday the Walker Cup.
“He’s gone beyond the call of duty to promote amateur golf and has players come from all over the country to compete,” Dye said. “The Honors is a private club, but they’ve have had more amateur tournaments than I know of.”
Club and USGA officials have considered hosting the U.S. Open in the past. That event doesn’t fit The Honors Course — in spirit or logistics. Dye is proud of that.
“I’ve done a lot of work on PGA Tour courses, and sometimes I know more where to put the toilets and the tents to sell shirts and balls than I do about the golf,” Dye said. “You have to figure out where 25,000 people are going to buy a hat and an umbrella, and where you’re going to put the stands so people see the faces of the golfer not named (Phil) Mickelson or Mike Weir.
“You don’t have to worry about that at the Honors.”
Tiger Woods won his only NCAA individual championship at the Honors, and the 2010 NCAA champion will be crowned there as well.
It’s hard to fathom some of the premier events the course has hosted in the past not returning, and the fledgling Lupton Invitational not growing as an annual event for some of the top mid-amateur and senior amateurs in North America.
“It’s the pride and joy of his life,” said Alice Lupton, Jack’s wife. “It’s lived up to every dream he’s had for it.”
Club president Joel Richardson and a committee submitted an invitation to the USGA to host the Walker Cup in 2013. The USGA recently selected the National Golf Links of America, site of the first Walker Cup in 1922.
“I don’t think it has yet meant to amateur golf what it will mean,” Lupton said. “It takes time.”
Time, like most everything at the Honors, will be kept by Stone, the only superintendent the course has had. He cares for and loves the Meyer Zyozia fairways, Penncross Bentgrass greens and the mix of fescue, berry bushes, trees and native wildlife.
“That guy loves that place and he is that golf course,” said Dye, who chose Stone to care for his creation. “Jack is a one-of-a-kind. But David Stone is that golf course.”
Stone is the only one with a permanent residence on the property. It’s his back yard.
“It’s kind of like caring for the Garden of Eden,” Stone said. “It’s been fun trying to make it as good as we can for golfers, and as good for birds and wildlife and the things golfers don’t think about but that they enjoy.”
Richardson has been along for every moment of the last 25 years and played a vital role in getting it started as one of the founding members.
“We wanted to build a first-rate golf course, but I don’t think we ever dreamed we would create what we have,” Richardson said. “It’s not only a golf course but a facility that has an ambiance that is different than any other place you might go. To come out here is much like going to Augusta.”
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...