State of the Hogs: Tough Test

The Blessings Golf Club will play host to its first NCAA event, a men's golf regional. It might be a good bet to go with the golf course. The NCAA Fayetteville Regional starts Thursday in Johnson.

There was a time when the top golf minds in our state didn't know if Arkansas could field college teams in the sport. They argued that it was a warm weather sport and the Razorbacks wouldn't be able to compete with the likes of Florida or Arizona State.

I had those talks with my father, someone who loved the game of golf. No one who had a full-time job hit as many practice balls as he did, whether it was on a driving range or in a hallway in our home with a plastic ball and a mat.

He was one of the doubters. He thought spring came too late in our state for college golf to be successful. And he said there wasn't a proper golf facility close enough to the UA campus.

Oh, how I wish he was around to see what's happened. Stacy Lewis is the No. 1 player in the world in women's golf. David Lingmerth pushed Tiger Woods to his limit last weekend at the Players Championship. Both are giving the Razorbacks immense exposure for their former teams. Orville Henry, to be inducted into the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame this fall, would appreciate these happenings as much as anyone.

How did it happen? First and foremost, the Hogs finally have a world class golf facility, much like the baseball team has Baum Stadium. Build it and they will come, right? John Tyson, former CEO of Tyson Foods, built a fabulous course on a wonderful piece of land in his backyard at Johnson, the Blessings Golf Club.

Along with a state of the art practice facility (donated by Fred and Mary Smith), the Blessings, opened in 2004, allowed the Hogs to compete for the nation's best junior players in both the men's and women's side. There are more like Stacy Lewis and David Lingmerth working intently on their games in Johnson, soon to be cashing checks in professional golf.

There's got to be pride in Tyson's step as he watches the UA play host to its first NCAA golf event, a men's regional Friday through Saturday at the Blessings. There have been other conference meets here, most notably last year when the Razorbacks lost the SEC women's championship by one stroke to Alabama.

"I remember going out to Paradise Valley back in my college days to watch Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite in the SWC meet," Tyson said. "They tore it up."

There weren't any others who could play with those University of Texas legends that weekend in 1972. The talent and the equipment is light years above what was available in that era, but there may not be any in the field that can tear up the Blessings.

One thing is the same, Texas is there and is defending NCAA champs, just like in 1972 at Paradise Valley. But this is an Arkansas team that may have something saved for the Longhorns.

UA junior Sebastian Cappelen is the reigning SEC individual champ. Taylor Moore, the SEC's co-freshman of the year, joins Cappelen and a strong Arkansas team ready to challenge for both the individual and team titles. Moore was one of the nation's two or three top recruits last year, an indication that the Blessings can attract blue chip talent.

Whether anyone can "tear up" the Blessings is open for debate. No one has done it in either of the two top amateur events that have been held there. Tyson challenged architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., to build "a golfer's golf course" and got exactly that.

"Sometimes when you build a course, it's done with a mindset that a bad shot is not going to be punished," Tyson said. "You can build them like for a resort where if you miss it a little, a hill catches it and it's sent rolling back to the middle. This is not like that."

UA men's coach Brad McMakin called Blessings "a man's course, as good of a challenge as we see in college golf." There aren't any easy birdies awaiting the collegians when the three-day tournament starts at 8 a.m. Thursday. Errant shots are generally lost balls, although these days college golfers don't hit many wild shots.

"My first observation, college golf has really expanded," Tyson said. "That's the case both at Arkansas, and especially on the women's side where Title IX has created scholarship opportunities.

"I think you see that the major conferences like the SEC, Pac-10 and the Big 12 are all attracting better players. There's just more players so a lot of schools have benefited."

That was a humble take. Most everyone agrees that the explosion at Arkansas came along with the arrival of Tyson's decision to build the Blessings so close to campus. Gone are the days when UA golfers could play only nine holes because they spent part of the day driving to Bentonville to practice at The Pinnacle. The practice facility at the Blessings is incredible. There are six indoor hitting bays for year round practice. And the course pushes players to their limits.

"I'm sure the team has benefited some," Tyson said. "I think golf at all levels in Northwest Arkansas has benefited from the course. I'll just say it's fun to watch.

"I think our coaching has made a difference. We have top-notch staffs for both the men and women. So when you say the golf course is important, I'll say that you can have a great gym and if no one uses it, you probably don't get better. So it's the way our coaches have used the facility that's important."

Tyson is watching the scores closely over the next three days.

"I know these are seasoned, experienced college players," he said. "I think they have a good chance to hold things together for three days. So I think the individual winner might be under par for the 54 holes. If the wind doesn't really blow, the team scores will be from 5-over to 15-over, 10 to 20 shots higher if the wind really blows.

"It's going to be fun. I'm excited. I will say that if they turn it into a pitch and putt course, I will bulldoze it and make it tougher."

No one thinks that is going to happen.

Hawgs Daily Top Stories