Among Arkansas' secrets to success are a creative coach and a one-of-a-kind playground

Photo courtesy Walt Beazley, University of Arkansas Athletics Communications

Photo courtesy Walt Beazley, University of Arkansas Athletics Communications

Getting to Blessings Golf Club involves some blue highways and a lot of Ozark mountain scenery, and at the end of the road, if your name isn’t on the list, you’re not getting in.

Blessings is a hidden gem, both beautiful and gnarly, and 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.

And it’s gorgeous. The buildings are clean and crisp (think Frank Lloyd Wright), with stark lines that stand in sharp contrast to the smooth “Razorback” green that seemingly rolls out of the back door of the team facility for the college players. The driving range is mammoth and, maybe even better, deserted. Only 120 members play and practice here, which means the college players all but have the run of the place.

Freedom goes a long way in college golf.

“It probably changed our program forever,” head women’s golf coach Shauna Estes-Taylor said of Blessings as she gave me the grand tour on a hot July morning. College golf gets to see the whole package in the spring of 2019, when two weeks of NCAA championship golf comes to Fayetteville.

When that happens, it will be purpose, realized. If there’s something to understand about a place of this caliber, with the visionary backing of a man like John Tyson, Chairman of Tyson Foods, it’s that it was made for major events. That’s one reason there isn’t an annual Arkansas-hosted college event here. Tyson wants postseason events, or national junior tournaments like the AJGA’s Rolex Tournament of Champions (you could argue it’s what really got the Blessings rumor out there back in 2010).

“Mr. Tyson loves golf, lucky for us,” Estes-Taylor said. He lives on Blessings’ fifth hole.

Tyson is a big reason this facility is here, and in the grand state it’s in. He’s a hero to this Northwest Arkansas area (which is also home to Tyson Foods), regularly donating money to the university’s poultry science program and taking a big interest in the golf teams. As Estes-Taylor showed me the indoor facilities, Tyson crossed the short-game area toward the workout room, making a beeline to the coach to say hello.

Photo courtesy Walt Beazley, University of Arkansas Athletics Communications

Photo courtesy Walt Beazley, University of Arkansas Athletics Communications

Tyson’s ear for feedback says a lot about him as a person and as a businessman. With each major event Blessings hosted, he wanted to know what went right, and what wasn’t right. The overwhelming consensus was that the course wasn’t walkable enough – too much elevation and distance between holes. To make Blessings more walkable is not a surprising directive from a golf fiend like Tyson, an accomplished player himself who plays elite amateur events like the Dunhill Cup.

So he brought out the bulldozers. Blessings is originally a Robert Trent Jones design, but Kyle Phillips, the man behind Scotland courses Kingsbarns and Dundonald, tackled the redesign. It was massive.

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. It’s just a practice hole. Several more holes morphed into different holes, and others changed their look completely. Perhaps most impressively, the new ninth hole (which previously was No. 11) was leveled off considerably thanks to a two-month dirt-hauling effort.

The redesign was done entirely with sod as opposed to seeding, in part to get the course up and running as quickly as possible. Only six holes were open at a time during the summer, and through part of last spring’s season.

In all, 1.8 miles of walking were shaved from the Blessings experience with this redesign. A new feature has the first and 18th holes crossing over each other in a big X. As Estes-Taylor says, it’s “very European.”

“I was here when it first opened, and now I get to see the renovation,” she said.

As she off-roaded a golf cart through the dirt trails in July, Estes-Taylor was already thinking about how to set up Blessings for a national championship that was still nearly two years away. Some holes are flexible – for example, No. 6 could be a par 3 or a par 4 – and others require some player data to establish landing zones and proper tees. A championship here will be challenging, but it will be truly fun.

* * *

In two years, Arkansas just needs to make sure it’s in the mix. The Razorbacks missed the national championship last season by two shots. Ultimately, Estes-Taylor chalks up some of that to a missing piece of the puzzle that she realized too late.

“This place,” she said, gesturing to the golf course, “is such a good postseason tool that we underestimated.”

Estes-Taylor thinks Arkansas just wasn’t sharp last year because her players didn’t have the usual challenge. It’s hard to get serious about playing these six holes or those. Blessings requires the whole package. It’s the kind of course that forces a long hitter to pay attention to the rest of her game.

Arkansas has not just been successful because of its playground, though. The culture that Estes-Taylor has set up plays a big factor. The team bobbed around the 80-100 neighborhood of college-golf rankings when she arrived 11 years ago, but since then the rise has been steady. Back then, Arkansas was a potential stepping stone for her career.

“I never thought this would be my dream job,” she said. “The support, the resources, the people -- it’s a wonderful place to raise a family. My parents have moved here.”

Estes-Taylor preaches Midwest manners. She teaches her players to say thank you, please, and yes, ma’am/sir. She keeps a stack of thank you notes on the massage table in the team room and encourages players to use them.

“My goal as a coach is giving them tools to be great people,” she said.

Razorbacks who turn pro always have a home at Blessings, and the university does a lot to promote its #prohogs (and why wouldn’t you when one of those players is Stacy Lewis). The LPGA’s Northwest Arkansas Championship is played annually at nearby Pinnacle Country Club, and the criteria to get in hangs in the team room. The event is generally full of past and present Razorbacks. A beloved, hometown LPGA tournament is the kind of exposure for a program that Estes-Taylor says “you just can’t buy.” She thinks that pipeline from Fayetteville to the LPGA was important in getting one of the nation’s top players, Dylan Kim, who was looking to transfer from Baylor after her first two years.

What an impact Kim is making for a team that wasn’t light on talent to begin with. The Razorbacks are positioned to be one college golf’s toughest teams this year. They torched Vanderbilt Legends Club in the season-opening Mason Rudolph Championship on Sept 15-17, tieing an NCAA scoring record on the way to a six-shot victory. Kim was one of three players in the top 5 (ahead of her, Maria Fassi tied for first and Alana Uriell was third).

“It’s about being different in recruiting,” Estes-Taylor says of getting those players to Arkansas. Her biggest obstacle may lie in the remote location.

Meet Estes-Taylor and see Blessings, however, and you won’t want to leave.