For collegians, spring is synonymous with exams. College golfers are getting theirs in the form of Blessings Golf Club
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — For collegians, spring is synonymous with exams. College golfers are getting theirs in the form of Blessings Golf Club.
Texas women’s golf coach Ryan Murphy said stroke play at the NCAA Women’s Championship felt a lot like a cram session — trying to learn as much about a penal NCAA Championship venue that tests every part of you as a player.
Call it a comprehensive final, and one that Texas clearly passed. The Longhorns finished 54 holes of stroke play at Blessings seven shots ahead of runner-up Duke and thus earned the No. 1 seed for the match-play bracket on Tuesday. The match-play championship is scheduled for today.
The challenge continues.
“You have to hit it well, you have to think well, you have to have touch on the greens, and if you’re missing one of those things, you’ll be exposed and it’s costly,” Murphy said. “If you’re missing two of those things, you’re screwed.”
There are university golf courses, and then there’s Blessings Golf Club. They diverged from the formula here in Fayetteville, where locals love their golf. The LPGA annually comes to nearby Rogers, for the Northwest Arkansas Championship. For two weeks this May, Fayetteville is drawing in a different kind of crowd. The NCAA Men's Championship runs May 24-29 on this same course.
John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods and founder of Blessings, intended this course to be a test for the highest caliber of player. He wants to host major events.
Blessings is a hidden gem, carved into a valley here in the Ozark mountains, and it’s a real asset for Arkansas golf. Before the course opened in 2004, the Razorbacks practiced all over town. Now there’s not only a designated course, but a compound, complete with a gym, indoor Dave Pelz-designed short-game area, SIM putting lab and team rooms. It all feels planned to the inch, maintained to the highest degree and used in the most strategic way.
“It probably changed our program forever,” Arkansas head women’s golf coach Shauna Taylor said back in 2017, when two weeks of NCAA championship golf still felt lightyears away. Many teams have either a top-notch practice facility or an acclaimed golf course. Arkansas is the rare program that has both.
The18th hole as it plays back to the clubhouse and the University of Arkansas' robust indoor training facility. [Photo: Julie Williams]
Tyson is a big reason the course and facility are here, and in the grand state they’re in. He’s a hero to this Northwest Arkansas area, which is also home to Tyson Foods.
Blessings hosted an NCAA men’s regional in 2013 and the SEC Women’s Championship in 2012. It will host the Southern Junior Championship in 2020 and Tyson imagines it might set up well for something like a U.S. Amateur Four-Ball in the future. Each time the course does host an event, Tyson wants to know what went right and would could be improved. It was that sort of feedback that went into a more than year-long renovation that spanned 2016-17.
Shot-making aside, Blessings also demands cardio, so one of the goals was to make the course more walkable. The redesign shaved a mile of walking distance by adding bridges, shortening walks from green to tee and reducing the severity of elevation changes.
The first hole at Blessings, which forced players up a steep incline then dropped straight downhill from tee to green, is no longer part of the course proper and that also helped in the shortening effort. It’s just a practice hole. Some holes morphed into different holes, and some changed their look completely.
“I would say it’s gotten easier,” said Stacy Lewis, a former Razorback who won the NCAA individual title for Arkansas in 2007. “When it first opened, it was the hardest golf course I’d ever played.”
Blessings is originally a Robert Trent Jones design. Kyle Phillips, the man behind Scotland courses Kingsbarns and Dundonald, tackled the redesign. One of the biggest changes can be seen right away. The first and 18th holes now cross over each other in a big X.
Senior Maria Fassi said Blessings demands precision and discipline. Teammate Dylan Kim cites the visuals. Blessings also favors long hitters like these two.
“I think (Blessings has) made me sharper around the greens because it’s a very tough golf course,” Kim said. “It’s very visually demanding and you see cliffs and huge drop-offs and you have to take a deep breath and swing. I think it has helped me.”
Experience is key, and that much was clear watching Fassi go 8 under over 54 holes – and bogey free over the final 18 – to win an individual title. She could hit wedges into 15 greens even as the championship setup was stretched to roughly 6,400 yards for the women (and will play to 7,500 for the men). Taylor believes the majority of the women's field could probably hit wedges into 11 of the holes.
There’s an emotional element here, too. Local knowledge only takes you so far before mental fortitude comes in.
"Just not panicking," Taylor said of how Arkansas, which also made the match-play bracket, has played to its strengths. "It’s hard. It’s hard for everybody. You’re going to make some bogeys.”
Julie Williams covers amateur golf for AmateurGolf.com. She is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla.