skip to main content

125 Years of Golf in America: Tennessee September 4, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

Next Week: Colorado  125 Years of American Golf Home

Watch: 2003 APL champion, PGA Tour winner Brandt Snedeker on golf in Volunteer State

Dick Horton Forged Tennessee’s Trailblazing Path 

By David Shefter

Dick Horton (left) has befriended virtually every top golfer in Tennessee, including PGA Tour winner Brandt Snedeker. (Dick Horton)

“When it comes to golf, he rivals P.T. Barnum as a promoter, Thomas Edison when it comes to ideas, and Winston Churchill in leadership.” – Author Gene Pearce on Dick Horton in “The History of Tennessee Golf: 1894-2011.”

Tennessee can proudly extol its list of USGA champions, a group that includes two U.S. Open winners, four U.S. Amateur champions, a U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and the only three-time winner of the U.S. Senior Amateur.

But when it comes to golf in the Volunteer State over the past half-century, one name trumps everyone. Dick Horton has never hoisted a USGA trophy, let alone qualified for a championship, nor did he find amateur success or compete on any professional tour. Yet anyone who has played the game in Tennessee since he first arrived in 1973 owes Horton a major debt of gratitude.

For 35 years, he served the state’s golfers as the executive director of the Tennessee PGA Section and its amateur counterpart, the Tennessee Golf Association. Virtually every club professional and amateur golfer has been touched in some aspect by Horton. How many leaders of a state/regional golf association are on a first-name basis with players, club pros and key donors?

“I would put him on the Mount Rushmore [of golf administrators],” said Mark Hill, the USGA’s managing director of Championships, who was hired by Horton in 1994 and worked under his leadership until 2002.

“I don’t think I even fully know the full scope of what Dick has done,” 2003 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Brandt Snedeker, whose Sneds Tour serves 1,600 juniors over a 145-event summer schedule, told The Tennessean. “I don’t think most people do.”

“I said many years ago if there is a Mr. Golf in Tennessee, it’s Dick Horton,” Bill Garner, one of the professionals who hired Horton in 1973, told The Tennessean.

Jay Mottola, the recently retired executive director of the Metropolitan Golf Association (Greater New York area) who has known Horton for nearly 40 years, added: “First-class guy. People in the state and regional [golf] world have a lot of respect for him and respect for the things he did in Tennessee.”

Forty-six years ago, Horton, then two years removed from graduating from Wake Forest, was a wide-eyed 23-year-old with enough forward-thinking ideas that the Tennessee PGA Section hired him for a salary of $7,000, half of which he would have to somehow raise himself. At the time, the PGA Section and its amateur counterpart, the Tennessee Golf Association (TGA), weren’t best buddies.

A battle was being waged over handicap computation. Both organizations wanted a piece of the potential financial windfall.

Horton got the sides to agree to share the proceeds from the computation service. His mantra: Do what is best for the game, not personal gain. His catchphrase from the beginning has been “a cooperative effort.”

The TGA saw Horton’s innate ability to forge relationships and negotiated with the PGA Section to have him also lead its organization, an almost unheard of arrangement for the era. By 1974, he was overseeing both organizations.

Besides solving the handicap computation issue, Horton’s biggest early contribution was creating a summer junior golf camp. Before coming to Tennessee, Horton had spent six months working for the fledgling Atlanta-based National Junior Golf Association, a forerunner to the American Junior Golf Association. The NJGA went belly-up in 6 months, but not before Horton saw the benefits of getting juniors started in the game.

Since 1973, more than 15,000 boys and girls have experienced the junior golf camp, including Snedeker and 1999 U.S. Amateur champion David Gossett. According to Junior Golf Scoreboard, Tennessee ranks fourth (girls) and fifth (boys) nationally among the top states to produce college golfers, trailing only behemoths California, Texas and Florida (and Arizona for boys).

All of which led Horton to form the Tennessee Golf Foundation in 1990. Its mission has five key components:

  1. Develop junior golf for boys and girls
  2. Promote golf as an amateur sport in Tennessee
  3. Create Golf House Tennessee and a Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame
  4. Encourage turfgrass development within the region
  5. Establish an endowment fund to build the game’s future in Tennessee

That last point is where Horton’s deep connections and relationship-building skills have paid off handsomely. From a shoestring budget in 1973, Tennessee now has a $22 million endowment that would make some colleges envious. The Vinny, an annual charitable event run by country-music star Vince Gill and a close friend of Horton’s, has raised more than $8 million. PGA Tour player Scott Stallings proposed the creation of the Tennessee Junior Cup, an annual Ryder Cup-style competition among the state’s top juniors.

Horton gave key donors a choice of what aspect of the game they wanted to lend their name. Today, their children and grandchildren not only see the fruits of those charitable donations but are often benefactors. 

“Dick is a glass half-full guy,” said Hill. “He’s a bridge builder. He’s on a first-name basis with everyone because of the breadth of his job.”

His biggest benefactor, however, was the late Jack Lupton, the millionaire Chattanooga businessman who founded The Honors Course, a host site to numerous USGA and high-level amateur competitions. It was Lupton who put up $4 million for the construction of Golf House Tennessee adjacent to The Legends Club in the Nashville suburb of Franklin. 

Dick Horton has championed golf in Tennessee for amateurs and pros.

Golf House Tennessee, which opened in 1995, became the first of its kind to not only house the TGA and Tennessee PGA Section, but also the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame, Tennessee Golf Foundation, the Vince Gill Tour (now Sneds Tour), the Special Olympics of Tennessee, an office for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), a regional director for the Club Managers Association of America (CMAA), and an office for turfgrass research. There’s also a nine-hole Little Course designed by Bob Cupp and 1982 U.S. Open champion Tom Kite that is used by a number of grass-roots organizations.

“We have the largest Special Olympics golf program of any state,” said Horton. “We have a staff person who works with Tennessee Special Olympics. We have 100 middle-school [golf] teams that our Foundation coordinates.”

Five years after Golf House Tennessee’s opening, Horton coordinated a merger between the TGA and the Women’s Tennessee Golf Association. The women unanimously approved it, and the TGA board eventually voted 35-3 in the affirmative.

“You can’t imagine the number of phone calls we had from different organizations wondering how we pulled it off,” said Horton. “It was through the brilliance of our attorney (Mike Kaplan). Women probably have eight seats on the board now. Again, it goes back to this whole cooperative culture.”

Horton’s accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed outside of the state. Several organizations offered him chances to leave, but he remained loyal to Tennessee.

Even the International Association of Golf Administrators (IAGA) finally accepted him. At first, they were reluctant to invite Horton because of his affiliation with the Tennessee PGA Section. By 1990, he was the IAGA’s president and one of its most respected voices.

“No one was wary of Dick having an agenda for the other side,” said Hill, one of several Horton proteges to enjoy success at the highest levels of golf administration. Matt Vanderpool, the executive director of the Georgia State Golf Association and former Louisiana Golf Association executive director Carr McCalla also cut their teeth under Horton.

While Horton, 70, stepped down from his executive director duties in 2008, he remained with the Tennessee Golf Foundation until last fall. On Feb. 23, he was inducted into the Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame. Horton remains humble when talking about his accomplishments.

“I’m the bus driver who had a lot of good people with good minds and a whole lot of net worth,” he said. “They said, give us the right direction and we’ll follow. I’m fortunate the direction was what they liked.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at