Jim Harris: Stephens' Alotian Club Will Be In Full View In 2013 With Prestigious Western Amateur

Average golfers and regular fans of the sport see Augusta National Golf Club and its beauty every spring, thanks to the Masters Tournament being televised. If we wanted to see up-close the greatness of Pine Valley in New Jersey, we could follow amateur golfers for one weekend in the fall. For free. But, we wondered, would we ever have the chance to watch skilled golfers take on Arkansas' greatest, but rarely seen, golfing treasure?

Warren Stephens, the Little Rock businessman, said Wednesday he's wanted his 7-year-old Alotian Club to be played by some of the world's best golfers and he wanted the general public to see them play the Tom Fazio-designed course that was ranked by Golf Digest as the 14th best course in the United States for 2011-12. He just wanted the right event to come Alotian's way.

It couldn't be a professional tour event, because Alotian wasn't designed to accommodate the great crowds that follow those tournaments — not to mention dealing with the logistical nightmares of moving such crowds around, or bringing in massive TV trucks that would televise such an event. For a tournament such as the United States Golf Association's U.S. Amateur, with 350-plus competitors, to be staged here it would require more space and more holes than Alotian's acclaimed 18.

The Western Golf Association was looking to bring its tradition-rich Western Amateur championship to the Alotian Club, and Stephens could not refuse, he said.

The Alotian Club will play host to the Western Amateur in late July 2013, featuring the best international amateurs. The public will be welcome to watch, Stephens said.

"I hope people will want to come out to watch these great amateurs play this course and come out to see the course," Stephens told KTHV's Wess Moore on Wednesday.

He said it was "very important" that a major amateur event serve as Alotian's debut in tournament golf. "The foundation of golf is in amateur golf. There is no professional golf without the amateur tournaments for great players to compete and hone their skills."

Stephens said Alotian has been approached to hold other events but, until the Western Amateur, the club had turned down all requests.

Behind the U.S. Amateur, and perhaps the invitation-only Crump Cup for amateurs staged every fall at New Jersey's Pine Valley, considered the No. 1 course in the world, the Western Amateur is as prestigious an event as any for an amateur golfer.

It's regarded as maybe the most grueling tournament to win, requiring eight rounds for a champion to be named through four rounds of stroke play and four rounds of match play.

The tournament invites 156 competitors, trimming the field after 36 holes to the Sweet 16, who then compete in match play. The winners and other competitors over the 112-year history of the event are a who's who in golf all time. The tournament was always decided by match play, but the four rounds to qualify for a Sweet 16 tournament bracket was started in 1956, and Sweet 16 qualifiers include such Western winners as Mason Rudolph in that first Sweet 16, Jack Nickaus in 1961, Tom Weiskopf in 1963 and Tiger Woods in 1994. Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Chris DiMarco, Scott Verplank, Hal Sutton and Ben Crenshaw claimed at least one Western title. Such rising stars as Ryan Moore, Jamie Lovemark and Danny Lee have won in recent years.

University of Arkansas golfer Ethan Tracy, who was on hand at the Alotian Club for Wednesday's announcement of the event, won the Western Amateur last summer over 2011's amateur sensation, UCLA golfer Patrick Cantlay. Tracy, a senior who has helped the Arkansas golf team to a current national ranking of No. 3 (the Hogs at one point were No. 1 this fall) was the Western runner-up in 2010 to David Chung.

Tracy, who has played Alotian on two occasions with his teammates on the University of Arkansas golf team, said he's certain that Alotian in mid-summer will have "rough that is murder, greens that are pure and pins that are hard to reach."

One reason the Western Golf Association and its Western Amateur appealed to Warren Stephens, he said Wednesday, was due to the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship Program, in which the WGA provides full college scholarships to caddies around the country. The Alotian Club is the only club in the state that is among the 400 clubs that support the WGA and the program. Two former Alotian high school age caddies have received Chick Evans scholarships; 825 caddies from clubs around the country are attending college on the scholarship, and the Evans Alumni around the country number 9,400. Most scholars attend one of the 14 universities where the Evans Foundation owns and operates a Scholarship House. The program is funded by more than 100,000 golfers around the nation, along with Evans Alumni and proceeds from the BMW Championship, a PGA Tour FedEx Cup event.

Vince Pellegrino, who represented the Western Golf Association at Wednesday's announcement, said the Alotian's Club involvement in the Chick Evans Scholarship Program led to conversations about the club playing host to a Western Amateur. While both Stephens and Pellegrino acknowledged that late July is not the most favorable time for golf in the Little Rock area due to heat, Pellegrino joked, "We've put out a request for cooler weather at that time."

Stephens said, "We'll do what we have to do" to make the playing conditions up to tournament standards. The Alotian has top-of-the-line bent grass on its greens and a heating and cooling system below the playing surface to help manage the greens in a variety of conditions.

For the past three years, the Western Amateur has rotated among four Chicago-area clubs, including 2012's event slated for Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park, after spending 38 years at Point O'Woods Golf and Country Club in Benton Harbor, Mich.

The Alotian Club will be the highest 2011-12 Golf Digest-ranked club to ever host the event, while some of the greater U.S. courses in the past 100-plus years also have played host to the event: Pinehurst (the No. 2 course is 37th for 2011-12), Bellerive CC in St. Louis, Chicago Golf Club (currently ranked 17th by Golf Digest), Detroit Golf Club, the old Memphis Country Club where Bobby Jones was medalist in 1920, to name but a few. Maybe the second most-famous amateur name behind Jones, 1913 U.S. Open winner Francis Ouimet, won the Western Am in 1917 at Midlothian in Blue Island, Ill.

And Chicago's Charles "Chick" Evans, whose scholarship bears his name, literally owned this tournament for a while; he won eight times, starting in 1909 and ending with the 1923 title.

The big winners in this are Central Arkansas' golfers, the ones who haven't played Alotian or seen the course in person. Now, they'll be able to see some of the most skilled golfers in the world tackling a world-class course built right here.

The incomparable Pine Valley, as exclusive a club as Alotian and Augusta National Golf Course, lets the public through its gates and up its tiny road for one weekend to see the annual Crump Cup. Warren Stephens has found the perfect event to show off his and Tom Fazio's creation and to bring great attention to golf in Arkansas.