WEST POINT — Seventeen years ago, against all odds, West Point native George Bryan successfully brought the U.S. Open Women’s Golf Championship to this town of 11,000 in rural Clay County.
That national championship, televised around the world, was played at Old Waverly Golf Club, designed by 1975 U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate and opened in 1988.
Now then, fast-forward to a bright, breezy Friday morning, across Old Waverly Road from Old Waverly, where Bryan, co-founder Toxey Haas and 76 founding members formally opened Mossy Oak Golf Club. Designed by famed architect Gil Hanse (architect of the Olympic Course just opened in Rio de Janiero), Mossy Oak is unlike any other golf course in Mississippi or nearby states.
“It is not a links course, but it has a Scottish feel to it,” said Pate, who was among five professional golfers to play a nine-hole exhibition Friday morning. “Gil (Hanse) learned his trade in Europe and I think it shows here. He is one of the finest, if not the finest, golf course designers in the world.”
Bryan believes that Mossy Oak, together with Old Waverly, will make West Point a destination golf attraction. Existing cottages at Old Waverly and planned cottages at Mossy Oak will offer the equivalent of 150 hotel or motel rooms.
“The hope is to attract destination golfers not only from all over the southeast but all over the U.S. and even the world,” Bryan said. “In golf, one plus one equals more than two. We think having two world-class golf courses right across the street from one another will be that kind of attraction.”
Mossy Oak stretches out to 7,500 yards, par 72. It features striking elevation changes and native grasses and wildflowers that frame the fairways. There aren’t many trees, which makes the strategically located stately oaks all the more striking. There are two spring-fed ponds (stocked with tiger bass), and a winding creek with several berms running off it. Ninety-five bunkers of varying sizes, including a massive 20,000-square foot bunker as you approach the 17th green, help frame the course.
Former Ryder Cup hero Jim Gallagher, Jr., now a Golf Channel analyst, was among those who played in the exhibition Friday.
“My caddy has blisters on his hands from raking all the traps I’ve been in,” Gallagher quipped at one point and after blasting sand shots on the first five holes.
Modern golf courses often are the result of so many bulldozers moving so much land. Not this one. The place is gorgeous and so natural in appearance.
“We are opening this course today, and it looks as though it has been here for a century,” said Brandon native Jonathan Randolph, who plays the PGA Tour and played here Friday. “This golf course just has an aura about it. It’s special. You’ve got to drive a thousand miles to see anything else like it.”
Alex Rocha, two-time Brazilian Open champion, has seen something else quite like it in his native Brazil. Last March, Rocha played in a similar exhibition to open the Hanse-designed Olympic course in Rio.
“Both last March and today, we were playing a brand new golf course and at both places it felt like we were playing a course that had been there forever,” said Rocha, who played college golf at nearby Mississippi State. “Both have such a natural feel to them.”
That kind of talk is music to George Bryan’s ears. He loves this land of Mississippi’s so-called Black Prairie. He loves the history of it, too. He knows that in 1541 Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto passed through this area in search of gold and silver and eventually found the Mississippi River instead.
“Our goal was to have this golf course look as much like it did when DeSoto came through here,” Bryan said. “This land is so beautiful, why mess with it?”
Time will tell if the Mossy Oak/Old Waverly combination becomes the destination golf resort Bryan envisions. But keep in mind, many folks told Bryan he was crazy when he wanted to bring a national championship tournament to rural Mississippi.
Early returns are promising. Mossy Oak already has booked 1,800 tee times for the fall, including golfers from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Texas, as well as Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana. Those interested can visit mossyoakgolf.com for details.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns.