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Getting behind Alotian's gates


I suppose the golf-loving media have some "enterprising" photographer to thank. In a paparazzo move along the lines of crashing Buckingham Palace or Britney's wedding, a free-lance cameraman slipped into the Alotian Club a few weeks back, shot some pictures and offered them to Arkansas Business. Rather than run them, AB's editor let golf course owner Warren Stephens know what she had. That little favor got her an invitation to bring writers and a photographer out for an exclusive tour of the private course a couple of weeks ago. That, in turn, led to a tour this week for more media and a chance to meet one of the nation's top course designers, Tom Fazio. For Stephens, who in previous interviews had not wanted to go into much detail about his project, the one-shot tour had to be better than chasing off trespassers or having helicopters circling the place and disrupting his friends' backswings. I admit I would be among that curious group wanting to see it via whirlybird. Yes, I'd already checked out any back road off Highway 10 that might afford a view, turning back at the first "posted" sign. Off one road, there is a tall black fence topped with barbed wire probably running for miles. Looked like Stalag 17 fencing to me. At the entry point, across from Lake Maumelle (which you can see from at least 12 holes and from the clubhouse that's under construction), a guardhouse awaits and a serious fellow with an Aussie/New Zealand accent checks out your credentials. I asked one of the club employees if he had played the course yet. He shook his head no, unconvincingly. I swear I saw a look of fear that he had possibly revealed some secret. Seems he actually was in the foursome the day Warren Stephens hit his hole-in-one on No. 11 (150 yards, 7-iron), and until AB broke its story Monday, Stephens was answering "the course isn't open yet" when asked about the shot. I asked Alotian's director of golf, Dan Snider, if it were true he shot a 74. He smiled but wouldn't say yea or nay. Well, Alotian's got one thing in common with Augusta National: nobody's going to speak about course happenings except the chairman. On the other hand, Warren Stephens is a collegial guy, easier to approach than some CEOs. We also go to the same church and are the same age, 47. In visiting with him Monday, I found we share a lot of the same enjoyment found in golf. There the similarity ends, and for me and most everyone in Arkansas the Alotian Club will be that golf enclave behind the woods by Lake Maumelle. We'll only be able to wonder if it's really as fun to play as Stephens said. Alotian, he said, is a 10-year-old dream and a gift to the game and to Arkansas. What it will mean to Arkansas is that powerful businessmen and golfing greats and other out-of-state guest will come here and see a golfing paradise. It should enhance the reputation of a state long beset with an inferiority complex about how it looks to outsiders. I also gathered that Stephens' ideas about what his course would be have changed. It may be a tournament destination after all. One acquaintance familiar with the Alotian membership said, "I bet he has a PGA tournament out there within 10 years." I questioned some of the logistics, the main one being Little Rock's small size compared with usual PGA Tour cities. "Hey, the PGA's having enough trouble keeping corporation sponsorships as it is," he said. "Stephens [Inc.] could step up there if they wanted." The connections the Stephenses have with PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem are strong enough to get it done. Whistling Straits, the Pete Dye-designed gem on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, is hosting this week's PGA Championship. Milwaukee is 90 miles away, and the nearest town to the course is smaller than Judsonia. But Herb Kohler, the faucet magnate who built the course and three others at his Kohler resort area, pushed first for the women's U.S. Open and now the PGA. Could that be possible, Little Rock hosting a MAJOR? While I live and play golf outside the gates of Alotian, I can only dream of such a thing. But Warren Stephens says the word and his dreams happen, like building a treasure of a golf course on terrain where one couldn't or wouldn't have been built years ago.

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