The Honors Course turns 40 in fitting fashion: with quiet dignity

Decades later, Ooltewah club's dedication to founder Jack Lupton's vision still strong

Staff file photo / Shown is the green for the 15th hole at The Honors Course, which opened on July 2, 1983. While there have been some changes to the Ooltewah course over time, it has remained dedicated to the mission of emphasizing golf for golf's sake and the amateur game.
Staff file photo / Shown is the green for the 15th hole at The Honors Course, which opened on July 2, 1983. While there have been some changes to the Ooltewah course over time, it has remained dedicated to the mission of emphasizing golf for golf's sake and the amateur game.

On July 2, 1983, John McEnroe was about to win Wimbledon as a player rather than call it as a broadcaster.

On July 2, 1983, "Every Breath You Take" by the Police was the top song in the country, "Return of the Jedi" was atop the box office, and "Dallas" ruled the TV ratings.

Also on that day, Jack Lupton's dream golf course was opened for business on a rolling parcel of picturesque perfection in Hamilton County.

Forty years ago Sunday, The Honors Course teed off.

No, you'd never know it if you were allowed behind the gate nestled down the unmarked road that winds behind the auto parts store off Highway 11 in Ooltewah.

There will be no fanfare. There will be no celebration or tricked-out tournaments.

It's not the way for The Honors, which is guided by two primary principles: Golf as it was intended, and golf club as Lupton, who died in May 2010, would expect.

"There is absolutely zero planned," Henrik Simonsen, the course's director of golf, said in a phone interview last week. "And that's so in line with Mr. (Joel) Richardson's philosophy. Haven't even talked about it a great deal, to be honest."

Pardon the golf analogy, but that approach is par for the course that was built under the premise to make golf about golf, and for the course's highest-profile events to honor the amateur player.

That belief is emphasized with the oft-referenced amateur creed from Lupton, who joined four partners —Richardson, Lew Boyd, Bill Healy and Bill Taff — in concocting, crafting and creating this vision in the late 1970s.

Here's part of Lupton's amateur creed, from the course website: "The work that I have done has been for amateur sport, and I hope you won't mind if I leave you with my creed of amateurism. Amateurism, after all, must be the backbone of all sport — golf or otherwise. In my mind an amateur is one who competes in a sport for the joy of playing, for the companionship that it affords, for health-giving exercise, and for relaxation from more serious matters.


Major changes, minor impact

The late Pete Dye, the World Golf Hall of Famer who designed the masterpiece that is The Honors, once famously said: "The Honors is the only project I've ever had that did not have a budget.

"And we still went over budget."

The grounds are as pristine as they are respectful in honor of the game. It's 18 holes, and the accompanying grounds — this is not a country club, mind you, but a golf club, so there's no pool and the rest — are centered on the original treasures of the game.

"Our biggest goal today and moving forward is to carry on the vision of Jack Lupton and stay true to the purest ways of the game and the ways it was intended to be," said Simonsen, who has held his current title for 16 years and is only the fourth director of golf in the course's four decades. "We are committed to honoring the game most of all. We don't allow music; we don't allow pictures on social media; we don't allow cellphones.

"It is supposed to be a golf getaway when a member comes through those gates and play golf the way it was intended to be played."

Those tenets have attracted a star-studded member list that includes current or former professional players such as Harris English, Keith Mitchell, Brooke Pancake and Charlie Rymer.

It also includes a slew of notable names from other walks of life, including former University of Tennessee and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, who told the Times Free Press a few years ago: "I cherish my membership at the Honors."

"We all need to thank Mr. Lupton," the two-time Super Bowl winner and Pro Football Hall of Famer said, "for this gift he has given to the members, to Ooltewah, to the state and to the country, considering how many national members are there, and to the game of golf."

Of course, the years — and life — have created headaches and hurdles for The Honors.

A perfect storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 Easter Sunday tornadoes pushed an already planned course restoration into full gear.

"Everything was cruising (in) 2019, and Gil Hanse came out and did a handful of visits to create his master plan and put things in motion," Simonsen said of the course renovations. "Then wham, COVID hit and the following April 13 — would have been Masters Sunday — at midnight, and that changed everything."

The storm damage was extensive and everywhere. Golf courses, like most things, had been shut down in most places, including Hamilton County, because of the pandemic, but the fallen trees and debris and damage from the storms were everywhere.

Every Honors Course employee spent every day and every work hour of the next six weeks just on cleaning up. Simonsen called it a "team-building experience" and "surreal" in back-to-back sentences.

But the much-needed work allowed for renowned course designer Hanse to come in and get directly to work.

As he was making significant changes to a few holes — the greens at 10 and 11, an added creek in front of the green on 18 and the tees between 15 and 8 — the course work, like almost all things under Richardson and the Honors management, was with the firm commitment of "WWJD": What would Jack do?

"The amazing thing for all the money we spent, there were members who would say, 'Well, you didn't do anything,' and that was the biggest compliment they could have given us," Simonsen said. "It's almost exactly the same piece of property with a brand new infrastructure."


Moving forward

The history of The Honors is undeniable.

It has hosted more high-profile golf tournaments than any facility in the state, and in terms of amateurs, it's right there with any course in the country over the past three decades.

That same commitment and course of action is the guiding principle as The Honors looks beyond its 40th birthday, Simonsen said.

The Southern Amateur will be at The Honors later this month, followed by the U.S. Senior Amateur in 2024, the U.S. Women's Amateur in 2026 and the return of the U.S. Amateur in 2031.

Simonsen said it's right in the "wheelhouse" for The Honors, and it's hard to argue.

The first foursome on the first tee 40 years ago Sunday were amateur players Jack and Alice Lupton and Pete and Alice Dye. Simonsen said it was important to Lupton to make sure women were welcome to play.

The memories will mark the passage of time, of course, and with its greatness certified, the motives of adding to that legacy are clear.

Because that's the way at The Honors.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

  photo  Staff file photo / Shown is an aerial view of The Honors Course in Ooltewah.
 
 

THE HONORS COURSE

Opened: July 2, 1983

Designer: Pete Dye, originally; reworked by Gil Hanse in 2022

Yardage: 7,635 from back tees; 6,700 from member tees

Notable events: Multiple USGA national tournaments, including the 1991 U.S. Amateur, as well as NCAA championship tournaments in 1996 (with Tiger Woods as individual winner) and 2010 (with Patrick Reed’s Augusta State Jaguars winning the team title)

Ranking: No. 31 in America by Golf Digest in May 2023; has been No. 1 in Tennessee since 1987


WHAT THEY SAID

Famed newspaper columnist and Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard after playing The Honors: “I had no idea ‘Ooltewah’ was the Cherokee word for double-bogey.”

World Golf Hall of Fame architect Pete Dye, the course’s original designer: "The Honors is the only project I've ever had that did not have a budget. And we still went over budget."

Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning: “I cherish my membership at The Honors.”

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