Who knows how different world history might have been had Mahatma Gandhi abandoned peaceful protest in favour of ten-pin bowling or if Adolf Hitler had forsaken invading comparatively defenceless countries and had focused all his energies on mastering the banjo?
Golf, too, might have been a very different game had those early pioneers not chosen a windswept stretch of inhospitable looking dunes behind the beach upon which to footle about but had instead attempted to bash balls around a frozen lake or up and down a multistory car park. Those who are even now mocking this speculative musing might care to consider that the hole we so frequently fail to knock the ball into is only the size it is because that was the standard circumference of drainpipes at that time. Drainpipes, being both regular and readily available, were considered ideal templates. It’s a matter of great personal regret that manhole covers were not chosen instead.
Mrs. Presley Was a Peaceable Person
All this contemplative reflection occurred to me as I wandered down Main Street in Tupelo, Mississippi, to gaze into the window of a corner store from where Mrs Presley bought a guitar as a birthday present for her young son Elvis. Apparently, he really wanted a gun but the peaceable Mrs P wouldn’t accommodate him. Supposing, just for the sake of argument, that a persimmon three wood had caught his eye. Given his majestic hip thrust, it is entirely possible that he would have gone on to enjoy a glorious golfing career instead of wasting his time strumming a guitar and fending off women. With Elvis firmly established as the world’s greatest golfer, the way would have been clear for Arnold Palmer to enjoy a succession of number-one hits.
Judging by the popularity of the various Tupeloid establishments linked tenuously with the King, golfing entrepreneurs might care to research where Tiger Woods bought his first club, topped his first drive and escaped from his first bunker with a view to building a Tiger Woods Theme Park around the shrine in years to come.
A Well-Struck Rhythm Guitar
Had Elvis taken up golf – and the story goes that he was once given a lesson by Gary Player – then his home track would almost certainly have been Big Oaks Golf Club on the outskirts of Tupelo. Reachable from Elvis’s home by a well struck rhythm guitar, this delightfully friendly club is the perfect antidote for those who find some of America’s swankier resorts a little overbearing. 6800 yards long, its generous fairways and large greens gently roll around a few water hazards in a forgiving and friendly fashion that will both delight and flatter in equal measure.
Old Waverly, on the other hand, in West Point, about 45 minutes south of Tupelo, is an entirely different kettle of catfish. It’s one of those places that provoke an almost audible gasp when you set eyes upon it. From the moment you drive through the wrought iron gates, that tingle down the spine alerts you to the fact that here is something out of the ordinary.
The setting is stunning. A magnificent, white columned, antebellum clubhouse perched on top of a hill overlooks everything. With lush fairways fringed by forests, creeks crossed by pretty wooden bridges and lovely large lakes full of fish and assorted wildfowl, this is a course of undoubted quality.
Where Sir Walter Hangs
Built miles from any town on what was rolling prairie back in the late ‘80s, Old Waverly was named – albeit using an Americanised spelling – after the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, thereby establishing a link with the Auld country where the first duck-hook was executed several centuries ago. This connection is confirmed in the clubhouse where a portrait of Sir Walter hangs in the Cameron Room. Even more impressive is an original and massive oil painting of the Old Course at St Andrews, which dominates the Magnolia Room.
Splendid though the clubhouse is, it was the quality of the Jerry Pate and Bob Cupp designed course (also pictured in the photo at the top of this article) that grabbed the attention of the authorities and persuaded them to hold the 54th US Women’s Open Championship here in 1999. Over 100,000 spectators came that week to watch Julie Inkster take home the title.
Over 7000 yards off the back but a much more manageable 6500 from the forward tees, this course sets off in the woods, winds around Lake Waverly after the turn and finishes beneath the clubhouse with as gorgeous a par five as you’ll find anywhere.
Ode to Billy Joe
The only problem is that you have to stay on the estate in one of the villas or condominiums around Lake Waverly if you want to play the course. But, frankly, that’s hardly a sacrifice as the accommodation is in the same kind of immaculate condition as the 18 holes themselves.
Do you remember the song “Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobbie Gentry? If so, you may recall hearing “Choctaw Ridge.” Well, somewhere near Choctaw Ridge is the Pearl River Resort. Now, because of some complicated technicality that need not trouble us here, in quite a few places in the States the only people permitted to own casinos are the native Indians. In this part of Mississippi, that means the Choctaw.
A Fistful of Dollars
The Pearl River Resort in Chocktaw, has a couple of casinos; the Golden Moon and the Silver Star, both of which offer a bewildering range of money-losing opportunities.
More importantly, just around the corner the curiously christened Dancing Rabbit Golf Club. With as many holes as there are numbers on the roulette wheel, it’s a much better bet as the most you can lose is a handful of balls as opposed to a fistful of dollars.
The intriguing name comes from Dancing Rabbit creek, where a treaty was signed in 1830 which presented the local Choctaw Indians with the stark choice of moving to Oklahoma or staying in east Mississippi on a small portion of what had been their historical homelands and becoming US citizens. To put it mildly, it was a somewhat oppressive and unfair proposition, so now that the Choctaw have recovered much of their land and their self-esteem, naming the golf club Dancing Rabbit is their way of waving two furry ears at those who sought to rob them of their inheritance.
The names of the two courses – The Oaks and The Azaleas – are less emotive. Both were designed by the two-ball pairing of Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate and both took something of a battering from hurricane Katrina. Although hundreds of trees were hammered to the ground, prostrate trunks in the forest either side of the fairways was the only indication some two months after Katrina that something untoward had happened. The fairways and greens were in great shape.
Smart But Not Stuffy
Widely acknowledged as two of the best courses in Mississippi, there is little to choose between them. They are both wonderfully well maintained with wide majestic fairways, bentgrass greens (always something of a status symbol in the States) and that indefinable feel of quality that all the best courses possess. From the moment you enter the classic clubhouse, which is supremely smart without being stuffy, you sense that you are in for a treat. And neither course disappoints.
The Oaks is 6641 yards off the regular men’s tees and is the marginally tougher of the two. Taking full advantage of the rolling terrain, every tee is elevated thereby treating you to a full view of what lies ahead. So there are no horrible surprises and no disappointing holes either.
The Azaleas is a tad shorter and a touch more forgiving and, in my humble opinion, the more magnificent of the two. It also has a lodge that is set amongst the trees just a short buggy ride from the third tee. With three bedrooms, two bathrooms and every modern convenience, it is just the perfect place for a few pals to party. Not only can you take your buggy home after the round, but you can also use it again in the evening to drive to the casino to pick up the aces you didn’t score on the course.
Whereas the lodge is ideal for those hell-bent on a wild time, more sober golfers might prefer to stay in one of the eight elegant double rooms that the clubhouse has to offer.
Who Put the “Miss” in Mississippi
My visit to Mississippi coincided with the Southern Farm Bureau Classic at Annandale Golf Club near Jackson, Mississippi and I was invited to play in the pro-am with the ever-smiling Shigeki Maruyama. It was a close call as to which was worse, my golf or his English. However, I did manage a gross birdie on one of the par fives which earned a high-five from Shigeki although, frankly, it wasn’t all that high. One mistake I made was to use a ball given to me by Mississippi Tourism, which, whenever I stood over a putt, seemed to be showing “Miss…” Also memorable were the signs the stewards head aloft imploring the crowds to keep quiet when a player was about to strike the ball. Instead of the customary “Quiet” they just read, “Hush y’all.”
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Wherever you stay and wherever you play, with over 140 courses and that famous Southern hospitality, you are certain to have a great time in Mississippi… even if you don’t see Elvis.