2006: Test of faith

John Tyson built Blessings Golf Club to challenge the world’s best players, but at the moment he’s the man in the crucible.

“Oh, Johnny, Johnny,” he chides himself, “you came at it too hard from the top. . . . Oh, Johnny, here comes that train wreck. . . . Oh, Johnny. . . .”

So it goes at Blessings, the course with the saintly name and the Old Testament-tough reputation. Tyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods – a 114,000-employee company that produces a quarter of the nation’s chicken and beef – believes that “golf’s about being tested on every swing.”

So he assigned architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. to build a course that does just that. And Tyson, a 10-handicapper with a tidy short game and intimate knowledge of the course, happily takes his lumps like everyone else.

“I told Johnny the first time I played it, ‘If you’re not careful, the course record’s going to be 108,’ ” recalls Butch Davis, former head coach of the Cleveland Browns and University of Miami and a friend of Tyson’s since second grade.

If the biggest criticism of Blessings is that it’s too hard, Tyson can happily live with that.

“Here’s my biggest challenge,” Tyson says, rifling through a file drawer near his office that is filled with candy.

Cocaine and alcohol used to be Tyson’s biggest challenges. He traces those addictions to his college days, when he was making his way through three schools before getting his business degree from Southern Methodist. By the late 1980s, his twin addictions were common knowledge, his position in the company tenuous and his relations strained with his father, Don, then Tyson Foods’ chairman and CEO.

He sobered up in 1990 and began moving up the corporate ladder, being appointed chairman and CEO in 2000. (In May, Tyson, 52, turned over the CEO role to Dick Bond, who previously ran IBP Inc., a giant beef and pork processor. Tyson remains chairman.)

These days his vices are golf and chocolate – and not necessarily in that order. Sweets have an almost humorous grip on Tyson. He has chocolate bars at the ready on the golf course. And Tom Jones, Blessings’ director of golf, recalls that when he was interviewing chef Steven Brooks, Tyson’s first question was, “Do you think he’ll be able to make a good shake?”

“That’s not usually something a chef gets critiqued on,” Jones says, as Tyson, sitting nearby, polishes off a post-round chocolate milk shake.

That anecdote is typical of Tyson’s handling of Blessings, which opened in 2004. In the business world, Tyson’s image is that of a big-picture executive, perhaps reflecting the fact that his first major act as chief executive was to acquire IBP in a deal that doubled Tyson Foods’ annual revenues to more than $23 billion. (Tyson Foods’ 2005 sales totaled $26 billion.)

But at Blessings, the home course and top recruiting tool for the University of Arkansas golf teams, Tyson has been the consummate micromanager. He picked Jones Jr. to design it, in part because both men place a premium on precise driving, but also because the architect was receptive to Tyson’s input.

And there was plenty of that. Standing in the fairway on No. 12, a three-shot par 5 that’s arguably Blessings’ best hole, he says, “The joke on the golf course is that Mr. Jones got this hole built – and then I got involved.”

That apparently fulfilled a long-held desire for this born-again golf nut. Davis recalls that during a long drive with Tyson, he asked his friend, “Do you ever look out on some of these hills and bluffs and envision golf holes? And he said, ‘All the time.’ ”

Jones Jr. says Tyson described his vision for Blessings this way: “Bob, I’m tired of playing these resort courses. I want to put integrity into all of the shots, particularly the tee shots.”

The architect liked the sound of that, so he arrived here one Halloween night wearing a chicken mask, and Tyson, eager to get the project rolling, immediately drove Jones around the moonlit property at 11 p.m. Not surprisingly, Jones recalls it being “mysterious, spooky.” But the architect also was struck by the diverse topography – a heathlands look on some of the property, woodlands on the higher elevations, the eastern trees in a western-style setting.

Tyson immersed himself in the design process, suggesting additional tee boxes on No. 5 and a bunker on the right side of the sixth fairway, consulting with John Daly on the placement of a greenside bunker on No. 10, endorsing Tom Jones’ idea for a new tee box on No. 11 and insisting on keeping trees along the dogleg on No. 14 “to avoid the resort-complex thing.” Thinking ahead to possible tournament play, Tyson consulted a U.S. Golf Association official on rulings that might arise and sought the PGA Tour’s advice on spectator traffic patterns.

Golf instructor Peter Kostis was called in to design a true practice range, not just a flat piece of ground with flagsticks scattered about. Landing areas on the range are 10 yards wide, demanding precision, and range finders are at every hitting station. As he did with Jones Jr., Tyson hawked Kostis throughout. “Every time I was there, he was there,” Kostis recalls.

Tyson even oversaw an 18-month effort to pick a club logo, finally settling on an elegant image of a dove carrying a flagstick in its bill. And the club’s name reflects his faith. (“Episcopal,” he says. “They’re more flexible.”)

It was all done, Jones Jr. says, to fulfill Tyson’s desire for “a course to match Southern Hills.”

Whether it ascends to that level in the golfing public’s mind is yet to be determined, but it certainly fits Jones Jr.’s description of “a big, strong golf course. You feel intimidated by the scale of it.”

“Hey Beau, how you doin’, buddy?” Tyson yells to a member across the sprawling dining area in Blessings’ men’s locker room.

A few minutes earlier, Tyson and Tom Jones had been standing on the top floor of Blessings’ distinctive clubhouse – sort of a Fallingwater-meets-Taliesin West design – watching member Beau Hollingsworth and his playing partner make their way up No. 18.

“These are the two members who are either quitting every day or they just shot their best score and want to go again,” Tyson says.

From the moment he arrived at Blessings as director of golf, Jones heard members griping that the course was “too hard.” So Jones, an Oklahoma State All-American in the 1970s who won once on the PGA Tour before a back injury curtailed his playing career, began lobbying Tyson and Jones Jr. to “clean it up around the edges.” Tyson, in an effort to test players on every shot, had allowed the distinctive Arkansas hay to encroach on the fairways, swallowing stray shots. “Right now, if you miss a shot, it’s the death penalty,” Jones recalls telling Jones Jr. “I’m just trying to get to the point where somebody can get parole.”

Apparently the changes worked.

“You’ll never see this again,” Hollingsworth says, walking over to Jones and playfully taking a knee, as if begging forgiveness. “I’m sorry. You finally made it playable.”

In Blessings, Tyson created exactly what he wanted: a strategic 7,500-yard-plus golf exam consisting of 18 distinct and memorable holes. In the process, he and Jones Jr. threw in a few devious curveballs. Pointing to a tree in the middle of the second fairway or the steep slope of the elevated eighth green, he’s fond of saying, “It just messes with your head.”

Now he wants to see how his creation holds up against some of the world’s best players. He’d love to bring a top-flight amateur tournament to Blessings, if not an even bigger event.

“I’d like to see the best players try to punish it,” Tyson says. “I’d like to know if 62, 63 is the norm or if it’s 68, 69.”

He’s perpetually fine-tuning Blessings, recently adding new tee boxes on Nos. 4 and 8. He doesn’t play Blessings so much as stalk it – limping on a bum knee that’s the result of a football injury (“It’s bone on bone,” he says) – looking for the slightest blemishes, mulling strategic options. He realizes that could cause a dilemma.

“If you’ve got a masterpiece, when do you start making it worse?” Tyson wonders. “It’s the art of stopping.”

He’s not ready to do that just yet. Kostis, for one, thinks that’s just fine, drawing an analogy to another course that’s perpetually being tweaked: Augusta National.

“Most great courses are run by benevolent dictators,” Kostis says. “And this is going to be a great golf course."

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