NCAA Championships: Blessings Golf Club a worthy challenge

Blessings No. 14 (Courtesy of University of Arkansas)

NCAA Championships: Blessings Golf Club a worthy challenge

Architecture

NCAA Championships: Blessings Golf Club a worthy challenge

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – John H. Tyson has spared no expense in ensuring his golf course tests and thrills the best college golfers in the country. He gets his chance at this month’s NCAA Championships at the Blessings Golf Club. 

The NCAA Division I Women’s Championship is May 17-22 at the Blessings, and the men follow May 24-29 at the course near the University of Arkansas.

LIVE SCORES: NCAA Div. I women’s golf

An ultra-private facility that serves as home base for the Razorbacks, the Blessings will offer some of the smoothest, fastest greens found anywhere on a long, scenic and extremely challenging test of golf.

And don’t expect many gimmes after the events reach match play. 

The purity of the greens can hide the scary side of the Blessings: How to get a ball to stop rolling downhill? While the course’s available length initially grabs attention – it can be stretched past 7,900 yards – it likely will be how players approach and then tackle the final 20 feet on any given hole that decides the champions. 

“If they get ’em on line, the putt will go in, but they’re going to be quick, championship greens … this is a championship,” said Tyson, the billionaire owner of the Blessings and chairman of Tyson Foods who built the Arkansas teams a standout practice facility that includes indoor and outdoor greens and training areas.

On a tour of the course in March, as the turfgrass came out of winter dormancy, the greens rolled a little over 14 on the Stimpmeter – a 5-foot downhill putt could trickle past the hole, catch a slope and take off, rolling all the way across a green. The immaculate surfaces likely will be a tad slower for the NCAA Championships, but players better prepare for the very real chance they will four-putt or roll balls off greens. 

“These are U.S. Open-speed greens,” said Brad McMakin, Arkansas men’s coach. “They are going to be very quick, and if you get it on the wrong side of the hole, you’re going to have a hard time two-putting and saving par. It’s definitely going to be championship golf, and I think with it being the NCAA Championship, that’s what all the coaches are looking for. They definitely are going to be fast.”

No. 5 at Blessings Golf Club (Courtesy of Blessings Golf Club)

The Blessings has a course rating of 80.9 and slope of 155 off the longest tees, marking it as among the most difficult golf courses in the world. The average slope rating for a U.S. course is 113. The men will play a par-72 setup at 7,501 yards, and the women will play a par-73 setup at 6,473 yards. Multiple tees can be used to adjust length throughout the events, especially if strong winds blow in from neighboring Oklahoma. 

Downhill putts are risky

The rough can be penal with knee-high fescue lining fairways – “There’s some Arkansas hay, as it’s called,” said Blessings general manager Richard Cromwell – but the playing corridors are relatively generous and often as wide as 80 yards. There are several carries over barrancas and uphill holes, and while the potential length might initially cause a few double-takes, the strategy for powerful college players revolves around playing to specific lines in the fairways. Players then will have a better chance to strike approaches to the greens that leave uphill putts. It’s much more comfortable to have a 20-footer uphill than a 10-footer downhill.

And if a tee ball is out of position, even if it’s in the fairway, it can be nearly impossible to get an approach shot anywhere near the pin on some of the greens. 

McMakin’s advice to players in the NCAAs is to “definitely pay attention in the practice rounds to the hole locations and being under the hole, and trying to putt uphill all week long. If you get on the sides and are trying to putt downhill, I think it will be very difficult.”

Many of the greens feature bold roll-offs at the fronts and sides that can carry away a ball 20 yards or more, but most also are buttressed with banks and slopes that will feed a ball to a given hole location if a player is willing and capable of playing a properly shaped shot away from the pin, putting their trust in gravity.

No. 8 at Blessings Golf Club (Courtesy of University of Arkansas)

Many of the interior slopes appear deceptively benign, but at championship speeds even short downhill putts offer the chance of an unbelievably long comebacker – possibly from a bunker. 

“I think the men’s committees and the women’s committees (for the NCAA Championships) will set the pin placements appropriate to the skill set,” said Tyson, who loves to walk his course with his dogs while tracking players’ strategy. “Looking at the women’s setup and the men’s setup, I think the challenge for both groups is understanding which holes are the ones that I have a chance to go try to get a birdie and do something, and where are the ones where I just have to put it in the right place on the green and have a reasonable 15- to 20-footer versus getting on the wrong side of the hole. … Those that think well on this golf course will be identified.”

Improved flow

The Blessings opened in 2004 with a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design and has hosted high-level junior, amateur and college events. The place was built with little concern for budgetary constraints, but Tyson said that after a decade the course was beginning to show some age. Tyson is a tinkerer, unafraid to change what he sees as not challenging enough, pretty enough or perfect enough.

“Like a lot of projects, you say it’s 10 or 11 years old, what do you need to do to adjust some things?” Tyson said. “Robert Trent Jones Jr. gave us a nice foundation, and (architect) Kyle Phillips came in and gave us some really nice adjustments. The flow and the rhythm of the game are much better. I’m going to find out exactly what’s it all about when the young men and women come to play, and I think my membership’s scared to death that if the course gets beat up a little bit too much, what will I do next?”

Phillips started work in 2015, and the project almost was complete in 2016 when extreme flooding covered several lower parts of the course along a creek. The redesign stretched into 2017. 


“We wanted to strengthen some strategic elements of the golf course, so we ended up rebuilding five greens,” Cromwell said. “The new green construction along with the new positioning of the bunkers definitely helped from a strategic standpoint. So the shot values are much stronger.”

The front nine plays across the low portion of the course along the creek before the back nine climbs 160 feet, playing up, down and around the hills before returning to the creek for the closing holes. 

The old first hole atop a ridge above the clubhouse was converted to a practice area, and the new first hole shares a fairway with the 18th, playing in the opposite direction in similar fashion to the Old Course at St. Andrews. The 483-yard, par 4 might be one of the toughest opening holes in the game, with tee shots that must avoid the creek before an approach is played to a green tucked against the hazard. 

“The golf course does start on your very first swing, on the tee ball,” Tyson said. “There are some design philosophies where the first shot allows you to get into a rhythm, the first hole gets you into a rhythm. We went another direction. … You better be ready here. You better have it, and you better understand what you’ve got and go with it.”

The 499-yard, par-4 18th plays diagonally across the creek to the shared fairway, with a forced carry of more than 300 yards for a bold shot played to the right in an attempt to shorten the hole. A more conservative tee shot to the left over the creek can leave a player with an approach of more than 230 yards. 

No. 17 at Blessings Golf Club (Courtesy of University of Arkansas)

Members have played off portable mats since December to prevent divots in the impeccably manicured Zoysia fairways, which don’t provide much roll. And length isn’t unsurmountable for an elite men’s field full of players who can drive the ball past 300 yards. Cromwell said players who take their medicine after a mis-step can avoid embarrassing scores, but any player who tries to force the issue likely will find a few big numbers out in those hills. 

Tyson hopes it will be the thinkers, not necessarily the longest hitters, who prevail. 

“I’m not sure, but the longer drivers might wind up making one or two mistakes and end up going, ‘Wow, I was playing good golf, and I just turned a short hole into a double bogey because I didn’t pay attention,’ ” said Tyson, a dedicated fan of amateur golf who tracks the Arkansas teams online during events. “I would hope the kids understand that there aren’t any holes they can take off. 

“Even though some of the fairways are wide, if you get on the wrong side of the fairway … you’ve got the wrong angle into the pin. As much as they might get physically tired because of the competition, they’re as mentally tired, going ‘I really had to pay attention to where I was going to leave the ball on every shot.’ ”


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