If Western wants to return to Alotian, Stephens will Llsten
By Jim Harris
ROLAND, Ark. —To hear all sides tell it — from the players to Western Golf Association officials to the members at The Alotian Club — this week’s Western Amateur Championship has been a huge hit as it ventured south out of Chicago or the Michigan area for the first time in 41 years.
And, if the WGA asked Warren Stephens, who built the Alotian Club, to join its regular rotation with five or six Chicago area courses to host the Western Amateur again, Stephens said Sunday the club "would consider that, for sure."
Stephens has said he never imagined a major tournament, amateur or professional, being played at his private course until he learned about the Western Golf Association and its Chick Evans Scholarship Program. The Western officials sought out Alotian, the 15th ranked course in the United States by Golf Digest magazine, almost two years to serve as a tourney host for its amateur championship. The WGA also oversees the PGA Tour’s Western Open and the BMW Championship, which is part of the PGA Tour’s season-ending FedEx Championship.
Amateur golf and the $11 million scholarship program — three Alotian Club caddies have been among the recent recipients — were the selling points for Stephens to open up Alotian to the Western and to area golf fans.
Based on the positive reactions from everyone this week, it could return some time in the not-to-distant future.
"We all feel strongly about the Evans Scholarship Program and amateur golf and we would be open to that," the Little Rock businessman said Sunday in the club’s library between the semifinal and final matches. "One of the things — and I applaud their decision to start moving not only the Western Amateur, but they’re going to move the BMW Championship around a little bit – is that helps them tell the Evans Scholarship Program [story], which frankly, and I’m a fairly sophisticated person when it comes to golf and what organizations do and don’t do, I had no clue of the size and scope of the Evans Scholarship program until we had a couple of kids win the Evans Scholarship.
"So I think it helps them tell their story, and most of the donors to the Western Golf Association and the Evans Scholarship give like $100. So I hope they get some new donors from the state of Arkansas, I don’t care if it’s $10. I think people would feel strongly about that."
Not that there weren’t fears from both ends about holding a tournament in Arkansas in late July-early August, mainly due to the usual heat this time of year. Though the players are required to walk and, if they don’t have a caddie, carry their bags, plans were put in place to shuttle players from greens to tee boxes in certain, highly elevated areas of the course. The usual setup of playing the third and fourth rounds in one 36-hole day was scrapped for two days of 18 holes each. Also, a first for the Western Am was allowing the players to play in shorts instead of slacks this week.
The good news for all parties was that the usual Arkansas summer furnace was only on medium this past week. The typical heat and humidity was only really felt on Thursday — match play quarterfinalist Tyler Dunlap from Texas A&M said he suffered heat exhaustion that afternoon — and, except for the second day and during Sunday’s final — the tourney dodged the usually hot summer thunderstorm with lightning.
Thirty players were unable to finish second-round play Wednesday when a 77-minute storm delay led to a suspension for darkness. Sunday’s final between Oklahoma State’s Jordan Niebrugge and Jacksonville, Fla., resident Sean Dale was delayed twice: once after their opening tee shots when a storm cell blew up around the club and later on hole No. 8 when another cell erupted. Officials opened up the exclusive Alotian clubhouse to patrons and volunteers during the storm breaks.
Outside of that, Stephens said his prayers about the weather were answered.
"I did play weatherman," he said, smiling. "I’ve said a lot of prayers about that. I actually asked both my deceased parents to intercede and make sure the Lord was listening to my prayers and that this was really important."
Stephens was happy that the weather in the monthslong run-up to the tournament also allowed for the rough to grow in as planned and for the greens to be in pristine condition. Players regularly commented about how nicely the greens putted, especially if they put their approach shots in the correct place. All that was missing was the 10- to 15-mph winds that typically buffet the course high on the west Pulaski County hills.
"The golf course is in the best condition it’s ever been in and the greens are as fast as they’ve ever been in a summer because of the conditions," Stephens said. "Really, the way our golf course is set up, without quick greens it’s defenseless. And to a guy like [medalist] Patrick Rodgers it was almost defenseless anyway. But, I think you’re seeing now — Patrick aside and he played fantastic — the rest of the golfers are about 6-under … and you are seeing these match plays end and the guys are 2- to 4-under par. And that’s about how we thought the golf course would play."
Rodgers shot 18-under for the 72-hole stroke-play portion of the event, but the Stanford star was knocked out by Dale, 2 up in the first round Saturday morning. After the first round, when three golfers shot 7-under 65, Alotian began showing its teeth with most of the players. On Friday, the last stroke-play round, 30 of the 53 golfers left shot even par or worse. World No. 1 amateur Cory Whitsett of Alabama missed a berth in match play as the odd-man out in a five-man playoff for four spots. World No. 2 Michael Kim of Cal didn’t even make the third and fourth rounds, blowing up with a 12-over 84 on Wednesday.
Stephens said Sunday he was left with two impressions from the week.
"It is the quality of the golf these young men have displayed and how nice and polite and well-mannered they are," he said. "But, in addition to that, obviously it’s the quality of the golf. The game of golf is in great shape as best as I can tell."
He also couldn’t stop complimenting the efforts of the nearly 600 volunteers who helped him and the Alotian members put on a "first-class event" for the patrons, players and the WGA.
Stephens even broke one of his own club rules, taking out his cellphone to capture an impressive image as the Sebastian Cappelen-Jordan Niebrugge semifinal match reached the 18th fairway. Cappelen, who lost the match on 18, said he’d never seen a gallery at an amateur event quite like the one following him in.
"I actually took a picture of the gallery coming up with Sebastian and Jordan on 18 because that was really, really a great shot and a great scene in golf and in Arkansas golf," Stephens said.