The days are dwindling down until Tyson Foods Chairman Johnny Tyson realizes a long-awaited vision.
In May, the University of Arkansas will host the NCAA Division I Men’s & Women’s Golf Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson, just outside Fayetteville. The two tournaments are scheduled May 17-22 for the women and May 24-29 for the men, with the bulk of the action being televised live by Golf Channel, which has assigned the network’s lead golf producer, Brandt Packer, to direct the coverage.
Tyson is the owner of Blessings, which opened fifteen years ago. The course was originally designed by architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. with a redesign recently completed by noted architect Kyle Phillips. The clubhouse, designed by renowned Fayetteville architect Marlon Blackwell, has won numerous awards including recognition by Architectural Digest as one of the top golf clubhouses in the world.
As for the golf course, it has earned a reputation as a brutal test for even the best players. When the women’s SEC Championship was held there in 2012, the winning score was 52 over par.
Jay Fox, the executive director of the Arkansas State Golf Association (ASGA) since 1991, was working in the scoring tent at the tournament and recalled the course reducing some of the top amateur players in the country to tears.
“There’s a girl out playing on [the LPGA] Tour now who came into the scoring tent. Played for Alabama. She slides her card over to me and mascara is just running down her face.
“You had some really good players shooting 87, 88. Now, it was 50 degrees that day and the wind was blowing 30 miles per hour. But that golf course just whipped their tails.”
Blessings last hosted an NCAA men’s regional in 2013, when Illinois won at 1 under par but the fifth team qualifier shot 28 over.
Those tournaments were nice events, but the NCAA Championship is the most significant tournament ever hosted by Blessings, and will add to the deep bench of quality-of-life amenities in Northwest Arkansas. The golf course’s terrific views and challenging design will welcome some of the top amateur golfers in the world.
Bringing such a prestigious event to his golf club — with a national television audience to boot — has been a goal for Tyson. Blessings was announced two years ago as the host course for the tournament, and preparations have been continuing ever since to make sure the course is in the best shape of its young life to welcome both players and patrons.
During a media day event at the golf course on Tuesday (April 9), Tyson spoke with Northwest Arkansas Business Journal Editor Paul Gatling about hosting the event, how Blessings came by its name and his life-long love for the game of golf.
Paul Gatling: You are about a month away from realizing a vision you had for this golf course for a long time. How do you feel?
Johnny Tyson: Nervous. And I say nervous because I want to make sure all the experiences are good for the [golfers] and the fans. The things that go on behind the scenes. Making sure the ability to get in and out of the facility is easy. To make sure the food trucks are in the right place. The restrooms are in the right place. I want people to say “Wow. That was easy. I got to park, I walked in and got to see the event. It was hassle free.” Then as long as we have our manners for following the golf. There’s going to be no ropes. Fans can walk behind the players and walk with the players. You’ll be able to stand and see the shot. You’re on the course with them and I think that will be a difference for the fans.
For me, giving back to the game of golf is important to me.
Gatling: How or why did you settle on the name Blessings for the golf course?
Tyson: A lot of people ask me that. When we were putting it together there were a lot of recommendations — Oak trees, Walnut trees and creeks. Then somebody suggested calling it Blessings, and I asked why Blessings? Blessings of being outside. Blessings to be with your friends. Blessings to walk in nature and the blessings to play the great game of golf. So I think we’re really blessed to be able to host the NCAA Championships.
Gatling: Where does your love and passion for the game of golf come from?
Tyson: Summertimes at the old Springdale golf course. When it was a nine-hole golf course out there on [Highway] 71. You could go out there and play all day, hit golf balls, chase around. And just be with my friends. And of course at that time, I was 8 or 9, there was a guy named R.H. Sikes, a former Razorback who won the NCAA Championship. Miller Barber came over here to play. There were some people around who were playing pretty good golf, but R.H. was a Springdale guy and would be out at the golf course.
Gatling: What’s been the reaction from the Blessings membership to putting their best foot forward knowing their golf course is about to be on national television for a couple of weeks?
Tyson: I think like a lot of members at a lot of clubs that host an event, there’s going to be a lot of analysis going on upstairs. “Oh, they’re on the wrong side of the green.” “Watch this three-putt.” “They hit that on the wrong side of the fairway.” I think our members are excited that with their knowledge, it’ll make it personal for them. Because they’ve been there themselves. But they’ve been gracious in the time that the golf course has been going through the adjustments [in preparation of hosting]. My members have been very supportive and patient and they are excited to be the host members.
Gatling: You and your family are showing a real commitment to the fan experience by underwriting the admission fee for the entire tournament, both the men and women. It’s very important to you to make this another strong community event in Northwest Arkansas, right?
Tyson: It’s free. Bring your family. Of course, the other thing that our friends up at the LPGA are doing is that the individual winner of the women’s NCAA tournament gets a full exemption into the LPGA event [at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers). And that’s never been done. So there are really two firsts for NCAA golf — free admission and the exemption on the women’s side gets into an LPGA event.
Gatling: How is John Tyson going to watch these two tournaments? On the course, in a cart, in the clubhouse? Little bit of both? How do you anticipate being a fan of these events?
Tyson: The challenge from the coaches and from [Blessings GM/COO] Richard [Cromwell] and my friends has been, are you going to watch the tournament, or are you going to be involved in running the tournament? They say “Johnny, you should just be watching the tournament. Because you’ve been so involved in setting it up. Go enjoy it.” My kids will say that won’t happen. They know me too well.