Jim Harris: Top Amateurs and Alotian Club a Big Hit

It certainly comes as no surprise that the 156 amateur golfers here and the Western Golf Association officials can’t stop raving about Warren Stephens’ Alotian Club. This summer marks the first time the Western Amateur Championship has ventured this far south out of either the Chicago area or Point O’ Woods, Mich., in more than 40 years, but it’s obvious they hope this isn’t the last time it’s played here.

It’s also a certainty that Stephens, who spared no expense building this club and having the acclaimed Tom Fazio design the course, has also put his heart into making the Western Amateur in Little Rock — or, more specifically, far western Pulaski County — a special, first-class event.

The reaction of the visitors to Alotian “makes me feel great,” Stephens said Wednesday morning.

“It’s what we hoped would happen. We hoped [the golfers] would have, really, the best golfing experience of their life so far. And I think we’re delivering that for a lot of them, if not all of them; certainly most of them.”

Kevin Most, the WGA’s volunteer director, said the Western was being run like a PGA Tour event, and compared to past touraments, “You would not see anything like this,” pointing toward a big tent near the main clubhouse and local caddies wearing bibs.

“Mr. Stephens did a tremendous job here. The hospitality has been amazing. Everyone is smiling and asking, ‘What can I do for you?’ ”

Most says that seeing is believing when it comes to The Alotian Club. Course diagrams can’t do it justice, and mere words on a page may not convey it well enough either. He’s glad he’s made his first visit ever to Little Rock coincide with this Western Am.

Most said he caddied in the Western Open in 1974-75 for then PGA Tour player Steve Melnyk, who is a member of The Alotian Club. “We’ve been friends ever since. When he told me the tournament was coming to this course, he told me I had to get down and see it.”

More than 575 people local golf fans or Alotian members volunteered to take three or more shifts to make the tournament succeed — everything from live scoring on the course to working the makeshift parking lot at The Ranch — and everything seems to have gone off without a problem, anywhere.

“My vision for this tournament is being realized by the hard work by our members, our staff here and all the volunteers,” Stephens said. “So yes, it’s going [as expected] but its because of them. They’ve done all the planning, all the work, and it’s been really gratifying to see it all come off — I’m sure for them too.”

Those fans expecting scores more conducive to a U.S. Open site might have been surprised by the three 7-under 65s that led the way after Tuesday’s first round. Three other golfers recorded 66s, and 59 scores were better than par — the two-round cut will include the top 44 players and ties, and that may require an under-par score.

The good scoring on Tuesday and through Wednesday’s morning round hasn’t been a surprise for Stephens, though. He said he expected 10-under to lead after medal play concludes Friday. The course is playing fair with lots of opportunities to score for players who hit fairways and don’t miss the greens. However, hit a drive just slightly off-line on the extremely high-elevated tee boxes and the ball will find its way into trouble, several golfers confessed.

Michael Weaver, last year’s runner-up in the U.S. Amateur and a member of the University of California golf team, said of Alotian, “This is right up there. It’s awesome. They’ve taken great care of us.

“The course is pretty cool.  It’s all by itself, nothing around, a great layout, a lot of fun to play, with all the elevation and some pretty tricky greens with all the slopes. You’ve got to think your way around but it’s a great test.”

The course length — and 7,480 yards don’t scare the flat-bellied young golfers these days — is not a factor if the players just keep the ball in plate. From the fairway, the large greens are accessible to allow birdie chances. However, misses around the green to tucked pins, often leaving the golfers short-sided, is usually the recipe for at least bogey or worse.

No one we saw on the par-4 15th who missed the deep in and went into the high grass around the green could manage an up-and-down par. Some who had birdie putts, including White Hall’s Wes McNulty, who looked at a 3-footer to get back in the tourney, saw them take a hard turn right, defying the read.

Arkansas Razorback golfer Austin Cook wasn’t fooled from the right side of the hole from 6 feet and made his birdie, one of six on the day. Had he been able to handle the par-3s (he bogeyed three of them), he’d have been up with the leaders instead of settling for a 3-under-par 69.

Cook, who recently completed his UA eligibility, and Hog teammate Sebastian Cappelen were among the best Arkansas scores, along with Fordyce’s Lane Hulse, a South Alabama player, who also carded a 69.

On the other end, local knowledge could not help reigning Alotian club champion Stan Payne, who started with a double bogey on the par-5 first and ended the day at 7-over 79.

The depth of this field is easily as good as any amateur tournament in the world. Consider that last year’s U.S. Amateur finalists, Weaver and Steven Fox from Hendersonville, Tenn., are here but aren’t considered among the top 15. Fox hasn’t played in enough amateur tournaments to get his Scratch Player ranking higher than 63, though his U.S. Amateur win gave him tee times at the Masters and U.S. Open.

Weaver was just a four-foot birdie putt on the 36th hole in last year’s U.S. Amateur final from winning over Fox, but saw it lip the cup. Fox won on the second hole of sudden death. But that heartbreak, along with seeing his highly favored Cal team with No. 1 Michael Kim upset in the NCAA Championship earlier this year, hasn’t dampened Weaver’s enthusiasm.

Weaver had a solid 68 on Tuesday.

“I’ve had a good summer so far,” said Weaver, who played on the winning Palmer Cup team and hopes for a Walker Cup spot. “I played in the U.S. Open, made the cut, and finished 64th, then had a tie for 10th in the Northeast Am and 14th at the Southern Am. I’ll take a week off here and then get ready for the U.S. Amateur.

“I’m looking forward to it. I’ll give it another go. Once you get in match play, anything can happen. The other guy was on the good end of that last year, so I just want to play well there in the qualifying, get a high seed for match play and get it rolling again.”

After four rounds of stroke play at Alotian, the Western Amateur shifts to match play with the Sweet Sixteen qualifiers on Saturday, leading up to Sunday afternoon’s championship match. Two matches are scheduled each day; Thursday and Friday are 18-hole stroke play rounds for the remaining players after Wednesday’s cut.

“Winning the Western? That would be awesome to have a great week here,” Weaver said. “Making match play here is hard enough to make the 16. To end up winning it would be pretty cool, but you’ve got to take it one day at time, play three good rounds and see what happens.”

And that is why, while the rounds of 65 on Tuesday by Georgia Tech’s Seth Ellis, Southern Cal’s Sam Smith and Stanford’s Cameron Wilson were wowing by any standard, they only position them well for the 36-hole cut and give them a nice head start to making the match play. By Sunday here, the early round glories will be long forgotten.

PHOTOS below of the Alotian Club are courtesy of the Western Amateur, Jay Fox and our partner from 103.7 The Buzz, Trey Schaap and other friends sharing photos of the course and event.

alotian club western am tee shot approach

Alotian Club view from Western Amateur

Alotian club one

Alotian Club 2

alotian club 3

alotian club 4

alotian club 5


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