Before I began my quest to play The Top 100 Golf Courses in the U.S. as ranked by Golf Digest for 2017-18, I talked to several people about my plans. One such person was Bill. Bill is a member at my home course in Atlanta, Cherokee Town & Country Club. Bill and I are often paired together on Saturday mornings when we play at the Club with the Early Birds. The Early Birds are a great group of guys that just love playing golf. I was welcomed into the group soon after joining Cherokee. It was a way to meet other members and a way to be assured of a game on Saturday mornings.
During one of our discussions on my upcoming quest, Bill mentioned that he had a friend that was a member at The Honor’s Course in near Chattanooga, Tennessee. He offered to connect me with his friend once I was ready to play there. I told him I would likely play in late Fall after I’d played as many courses as I could in the places that needed to be played in the Summer and early Fall.
As it turned cold in Northeast and Midwest, it was time to take my Top 100 Golf Course tour south. I mentioned to Bill that I’d like to play the Honors Course in later October. He contacted his friend and discovered that he was no longer a member at the Honors Course. But not to worry the friend said. He volunteered to arrange for another member to host me at the course. Bill’s friend introduced him to Marshall who agreed to host me. Now you see why they call Tennessee the volunteer state. My home state of Texas owes much to the brave men of Tennessee who came to Texas and fought for its independence from Mexico. Many of them, including Jim Bowie and David Crockett fought and died in the Alamo.
The Honors Course is in Ooltewah, Tennessee which is less than a two-hour drive from Atlanta. On the morning of Halloween, I dropped the kids off at school and headed to a place in Tennessee that I’d never heard of before I started my quest. As I made the turn off the highway into the tree lined entrance of the Honors Course, there was no doubt I was at a place that knew the meaning of Southern Hospitality. Marshall and I arrived at the same time and met in the parking lot. We dropped my clubs off and headed into one of the dining rooms in the club house for breakfast. The setting was beautiful. It reminded me of sitting at the kitchen table as a kid with my grandparents at their home in what we called “the country,” just outside of Huntsville, Texas.
I don’t know what it is about country settings, but they always put me at peace and bring me back to my childhood days. The days when I ran barefooted through open fields in pinstripe coveralls enjoying just being a kid in the outdoors. It is said that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the boy. This was a time in my life when water was drawn by a bucket from a well. A time when food was grown or killed and cooked on a wood burning stove. A time when there was no indoor plumbing. These were days when we bathed in rain water captured in a foot tub or pulled from a nearby pond with a bucket. The days when light came from a kerosene lamp that left soot on the ceiling. These were the days when life was good simply because you were alive.
Marshall and I talked and got to know each other as we broke bread together. On this day, golf was more of an excuse for the lives of two men from two different worlds to intersect and share in fellowship.
Following breakfast, Marshall and I headed to the first tee with Jack who had been assigned as our caddie. The Honors Course has seven tees ranging in distance from 5015 yards to 7450 yards. The course has hosted numerous amateur championships including the US Amateur in 1991, the US Mid-Amateur in 2005, the US Senior Women’s Amateur in 2011 and the USGA Junior Amateur in 2016. This is a course built to honor and celebrate amateur golf. There is a circular monument in front of the clubhouse with plaques that have the names of the winners of amateur championships held at the Honors Course.
Marshall and I chose to play the blue tees which measure 6630 yards with a 73.4 rating and a 145 slope. This is a difficult course. The first hole is a 380 yard par four with a fairway that bends and slopes right to left. The fairway is carved between trees that look and fell close to its edges. It makes a 90 degree turn to a green that is perpendicular to the tee box. The green has plenty of sand traps to keep your focus.
I stood on the tee box filled with confidence after my rounds on the West Coast during the week before. That confidence was shattered with one swing of the club. I sliced my drive into the trees. It had been several rounds since I worried about my old nemesis. I had hit fades when I wanted to hit draws, straight balls when I wanted to hit fades, and hooks when I wanted to it straight balls, but it had been a while since I had to fight an outright slice.
Fortunately, there was an opening in the trees for me to attempt an intentional fade to get to the green which was 175 yards away. My ball clipped a tree branch and didn’t fade. It landed in the left rough, 50 yards from the pin.
My pitch shot hit the green and rolled into the bunker. My sand shot landed on the green but rolled 35 feet from the hole. I two putted to open my round with a double bogey.
The 500 yard par five second hole looks very narrow from the tee box. There is a narrow alley formed by trees that are tight against the tee box and the rough immediately in front of the tee box. While the trees continue to hug the fairway on the left, they are pushed back on the right leaving room for lots of rough, bunkers, and sandy waste areas. The fairway is straight for most of the hole but does bend left to right at about 115 yards before it turns farther right at the green. My drive went right again, but with the trees pushed back on that side, the ball landed in the rough just short of the first fairway bunker.
At 260 yards from the middle of the green, Jack advised that I hit a 160 yard shot to the left fairway. The ball came out of the rough cleanly and flew farther than expected, landing about five yards into the left rough. There were tree branches between my ball and the green.
I hit a three-quarter shot under the branches with my pitching wedge. The ball landed just off the left side of the green.
I had intentionally hit to the left side of the green to avoid a miss hit going into the bunkers on the right side of the green. The problem however was that the green sloped left to right. My putt from just off the green ran 25 feet past the hole. I two-putted from there for a bogey.
The first par three on the course is the 180 yard third hole. This hole, like the two previous holes, was isolated from all other holes on the course by the trees that framed it. The pin was up front on the large green. There is a long bunker along the entire left side of the green and a small one off the back left. I hit my tee shot pin high. The only problem was the green wasn’t wide enough. The ball landed in the right bunker.
My first bunker shot hit the top of the green and rolled back into the bunker. My second shot rolled five feet past the flag.
I made the putt to save bogey.
Things didn’t get any easier with the fourth hole. It is the third toughest hole on the course. It measures 425 yards with a 220 yards carry over native vegetation to the fairway. There is a 90 yard sandy waste area between the right side of the fairway and the trees. The trees are tight along the left side of the fairway. I hit my drive 255 yards to the right fairway.
The remaining part of the fairway between my ball and the green moved slightly to the left and then shifted back to the right just before the green. The trees just short of the green, impinged upon the fairway. The flag was positioned on the back right, 175 away.
I hit a nice fade with my five iron that landed just past the flag and rolled into a sprinkler head. I just missed my birdie putt and tapped in for what would be a rare par on this nice fall day in Tennessee.
I knew the fifth hole was going to be a problem for me the moment I saw it. The 410 yard par four sets up terribly for the way my ball was flying. While the hole moves right to left, the tee box is almost at a 45-degree angle. This didn’t leave me with much room to start my ball on a line along the left side of the fairway especially with the fairway moving back to the left in the landing zone. Jack pointed to a tree on the right side of the fairway as my line. I hit my drive off line and into the trees off the right side of the fairway.
I tried to hit under the tree branches and lay up to 100 yards, but the ball brushed the tree branches and landed in the fairway, 140 yards from another back pin location.
I missed the green to the right with my third shot.
I chipped on and two-putted for my second double bogey of the round.
The sixth hole is a 540 yard par five with a narrow fairway that snakes its way through trees, a couple of bunkers on the right and a lot of rough and native vegetation. I hit my drive 240 yards along the right edge of the fairway.
I did a poor job again with the direction of my lay-up. I laid up to 130 yards as planned but the ball moved right and landed in the right rough with tree branches blocking the path to the green.
My only chance of getting to the green was to hit toward a tree off the left front of the green and fade the ball. The ball didn’t fade. It hit the tree and kicked left.
I pitched onto the green and two putted for a bogey.
As if the course wasn’t hard enough already, the seventh hole adds a little water to the mix. The start of the fairway is 140 yards from the tee box with water in between. The water continues along the left side of the fairway to past the green. The fairway slopes down severely off the right side.
I hit back to the fairway on my second shot. My third shot landed short of the back right portion of the green and rolled down the slope. I putted up the slope and onto the green to 2 feet from the hole. I made the putt for bogey.
The water that comes into play on the seventh hole, continues along the left side of the par three eighth hole. On this day the flag was on the front right portion of the green so neither the water nor the bunker off the front left of the green came into to play. I hit what I thought was going to be the perfect tee shot. The ball was headed straight at the flag. It landed just short of the front of the green and rolled back down the hill to fifteen yards away.
This left an impossible shot to get close to the flag. It took three more shots to get the ball to the bottom of the cup for a bogey. It was a very frustrating hole, but that’s golf!
The final hole on the front nine is a short par four. The hole measures just 350 yards. The first part of the fairway is about as wide as it gets on this course, but the fairway narrows at about 100 yards from the green. It gets really narrow as water cuts in just in front of the green. I popped up my three wood off the tee leaving 215 yards to the middle of the green.
I decided to lay up short of the water in front of the green on my second shot. I hit my third shot to 8 feet but missed the par putt. I finished the front nine with a bogey and a 46.
My drive on the 425 yard par four tenth hole landed in the middle of the fairway and gave me hope that the back nine would be better than the front nine. The fairway on this hole is narrow with trees lining both sides. There is a long fairway bunker on the left at the beginning of the fairway, a couple of small ones on the left about 100 yards from the green and a couple of more on the right as the fairway approaches the green. There are bunkers off both sides of the green.
My approach shot missed the green to the right and landed just right of the green side bunker. The pin was on the right front portion of the green.
I tried to hit a flop shot just over the bunker to the short-sided flag. The ball hit the lip of the bunker and bounced in. I hit out of the sand to six feet short of the flag and made the putt for a bogey.
At 540 yards, the par five 11th hole is the longest hole on the course. The fairway is narrow but not encumbered by bunkers or encroached by trees except for the ones where my drive landed when it missed the fairway to the right. I hit my second shot to the left fairway leaving 175 yards to the green.
Again, I found the one area on the left where trees could impact my approach shot. I attempted to draw the ball around the trees, but the ball hung out to the right and landed short of the green. My pitch shot landed on the right side of the green and rolled back off.
I putted from off the green to three feet and made the next putt for my second bogey on the back nine.
I made a double bogey on the short 340 yard par four 12th hole after hitting my drive to the right rough, hitting my approach shot short of the green and three putting after chipping onto the green.
I bounced back with a par on the 380 yard par four 13th hole. The hole has a wavy and narrow fairway. The left side of the fairway has trees that encroach, the right side has a couple of trees midway to the green and near the green. I hit my drive to the first cut of rough off the right edge of the fairway.
My approach shot landed just short of the green. I putted onto the green to less than a foot short of the hole. I tapped in for a much needed par.
The par three fourteenth hole is the shortest hole on the course but is the second hardest of the four par threes. The hole measures just 135 yards from the blue tees but was playing 145 yards with a back left pin. There is nothing but deep rough and sand between the tee box and the green. I hit my tee shot to the bunker off the right side of the green. My sand shot stopped 20 feet past and below the flag. I sank the putt to save par.
The 420 yard par four fifteen hole brings water back into play. There is water between the tee box and the fairway and along the left side of the fairway through the green. There are trees along the right side of the fairway. The green is at an angle to the left of the fairway and requires a water carry to reach. The safe drive on the hole is one that starts along the tree line on the right and draws to the middle of the fairway. My drive started a little farther left of the tree line than I wanted so it landed in the left fairway rather than the middle, leaving 205 yards to the flag.
With water on the left and my tendency to fade my three hybrid, I aimed my approach shot over the water and toward the left side of the green. I hit the dreaded straight ball. The ball landed on the left side of the green and rolled back into the water. I took a drop and two putted for bogey.
The 155 yard par three sixteenth hole is the final par three on the course and the only one with a water carry. The par three 8th hole has water along the left side, but with the pin on the right, it didn’t require a water carry. Unfortunately, my first tee shot didn’t carry the water. The second golfer in the lineup hit a tee shot that did. I then two putted for a double bogey.
The final par five on the course is a short one. The 17th hole plays just 470 yards from the blue tees. There is water between the tee box and the beginning of the fairway, but the carry is only 160 yards. The fairway is offset to the right of the tee box. There is a mound on the left just before the being of the fairway. Jack stood on this mound along the line he recommended for the tee shot. I hit my drive along that line but didn’t catch the ball solidly. It landed on the mound.
I laid up to 120 yards. Jack warned that there was nothing but trouble to the left on my approach shot. I favored the right and missed the green. I chipped on to five feet from the hole and made the putt for a par.
The final hole at the Honors Course is a 420 yard par four. The fairway bends slightly to the right and requires a 170 yard carry to reach its narrow front. I lined my drive up along the left side of the fairway expecting to hit a fade. The ball went as straight as an arrow and landed in the left rough.
I needed a par on the hole to break 90. I was over 200 yards from the green with a tree blocking my path to the green. I badly wanted to break 90. If I didn’t break 90, I wasn’t concerned about whether I shot 90, 91, or 92. All that mattered was breaking 90. I decided to go for the green with reckless abandonment.
I decided that I would try to hit a low draw with my driver. The shot I imagined was one that started at the right edge of the green and drew back to the middle. I almost pulled the shot off. The ball drew way too much and landed pin high on the putting green that was adjacent to the 18th green.
My pitch from the putting green to the 18th green landed just short of the green.
I chipped on and two putted for a double bogey to end my round with a 45 on the back nine and a total score of 91. This was a day when I didn’t have even my B game, but I still had a good shot at breaking 90 on a very challenging course.
I’d like to thank Bill for working with his friend to arrange the introduction to Marshall and Marshall for his generosity in hosting me at this difficult course in a setting with an ambience of Southern Charm.