Golf is a game with disappointment built right in. Perfection is unobtainable. Ben Hogan once said that in each round you might hit 3 shots exactly as you had envisioned them.

The odds are better when selecting golf courses, but occasionally what you end up playing isn’t what you imagined.

On a recent adventure through Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee, one course in particular, Thunder Bayou in Blytheville, Arkansas, did not live up to expectations. During the planning, it met our criteria: an unconventional location, interesting design, reasonably challenging and relatively inexpensive. Based on the course website and other information available online, it looked like a real winner.

18-Hole Course at Thunder Bayou Golf Links

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The promotional material described a links-style course – 7000 yards from the tips, but with a variety of alternative tee box selections. The pictures looked nice. It opened in 2002 with great reviews: ranked 2nd best semi-private course in the state by Golf Magazine. It had 80 bunkers and water on 7 holes, Bermuda grass fairways and Bent greens.

That’s not exactly what we found after we followed the access road, past the airplane graveyard where there was once a US Air Force base.

It was a blustery, April morning at 8:00 when we pulled in as the only car in the lot. There was a chance of rain, which we figured was keeping other players at home. Inside we were met by a couple friendly, grizzled Viet Nam War vets who took our cash, scooped out some practice balls, and pointed us to the range and the first tee.

A lone tractor was just heading out with a fairway mower in tow. We were informed that greens would not be cut that day.

It took just a couple of holes to realize that Thunder Bayou was not as advertised. You could see past the bare spots and scruffy rough to what must have once been a wonderful layout. But every one of the sand traps was overgrown with grass and weeds and the greens were in need of work. 

However, we made the best of it because there were still 18 holes and if you can’t have fun on a golf course you’re playing the wrong game.

I really liked the design of the 14th hole, a 146-yard par three with a 2-tiered green surrounded by water on 3 sides. 

The 18th hole is a 573-yard par 5 from the blue tees and we played it dead into a steady wind. It was there that I accomplished a rare feat – a first for me – hitting the green in regulation with 3, well-hit shots: driver, driver, driver. Did I mention the wind? My 20-foot, right to left birdie putt missed a little on the high side, but at least I had scored an interesting anecdote. 

After the round, we chatted with the lone clubhouse inhabitant (we were still the only car in the lot) and discovered that the town built the course with high hopes that golf would attract tourism and revenue. Enthusiasm waned after the 2008 recession and they economized by cutting back on maintenance, which, unfortunately, never really resumed, though they have managed to keep the course open for the locals who couldn’t join the nearby Blytheville Country Club

As a golf tourist, I can’t question their original goals. We are always in search of great courses where you least expect them because they often make for the best stories. But Blytheville has a population of just over 18,000 – a figure that’s decreased by almost 19% since 2010. The average family income is around $60,000 and while there is some industry, the closure of Eaker AFB in 1991 hit the town hard. A championship golf course was maybe not the best idea for Blytheville, even though the fairways were seeded with good intentions. 

I’d only ask that they practice better truth in advertising. Their website has all the up-to-date green fee prices and a means for booking tee times, but they need to revise the description to reflect current course conditions. 

I actually felt more sadness than disappointment at Thunder Bayou (which is a great golf course name!) that a layout with such strong bones was withering away to nothing.

What’s in the Bag?

Club TypeScott’s Club of Choice
Driver:Callaway Epic Flash driver – 65g Mitsubishi stiff shaft
Wood(s):Callaway Rogue 4 wood 
Hybrid:TaylorMade burner rescue (3)
Irons:TaylorMade RSI2 irons 4-gap wedge
Wedges:Ping Glide wedges – 54
Ping Glide wedges – 60
Putter:Odyssey White Ice*
*found in the deep grass – yes I was looking for my ball – about 40 yards off the 6th green at Oklahoma University golf course – must have been quite a toss! Tried to turn it in at the clubhouse but they told me to keep it – been using it ever since
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