George Bryan: Businessman, philanthropist, visionary, who brought U.S. Women’s Open to West Point in 1999. (Photo courtesy of Old Waverly)

Former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton remembers vividly a crisp, clear fall day back in 1984, when his good friend and former MSU classmate George Bryan took him on an excursion into the backwoods of Clay County near West Point.

Says Templeton, “We were in George’s old Bronco on an old dirt loggers’ road, and George pulled over in the middle of all this wilderness. We got out and George said, ‘The fifth green will be over there and the sixth tee will be just across the way over there.’ I said, ‘George, you got to be kidding me. You are out of your mind. You are smarter than this.’”

Four years later, Old Waverly, one of the grandest golf courses in the Deep South or anywhere, opened, with the fifth green and sixth tee right where Bryan had said they would be. Instantly, Golf Digest rated it as one of the best 100 golf courses in America.

Yes, and 15 years later, Bryan brought the U.S. Women’s Open to West Point and the Golden Triangle. The tournament was attended by 130,000, covered by international media, and telecast around the world. It was a feat that seems even more amazing in retrospect than it did at the time.

“That’s the thing about George, he had vision few people in this world have,” Templeton says. “He could see the possibilities when nobody else saw them and then make those possibilities into realities.”

Rick Cleveland

George Wilkes Bryan Sr., a gentleman, business leader and visionary, died Jan. 6 at his home across the road from Old Waverly. He was 78, and he leaves behind legions of friends and admirers across the country and particularly in the Golden Triangle.

As this writer and others who knew him learned many times over, anything George Bryan had a hand in was going to be first class. Bryan will be remembered as much for his human kindness as for his business successes and his vision. Says Archie Manning, the Ole Miss and NFL football hero, “I can only hope to be as kind to people as George Bryan always was.”

When Manning had first signed with the New Orleans Saints he became friends with Bryan, and Bryan Foods became his first major endorsement as a professional athlete. About that time, Manning was taking up the sport of golf.

“My first tournament was this four-ball at Shady Oaks in Jackson,” Manning says. “I didn’t know much about the game. Some guy across the fairway asked me what kind of ball I was playing. I picked it up and read the writing on it. I said, ‘I’m playing a Bryan Bacon.’”

Bryan began his career at his family’s business, West Point-based Bryan Foods, even before he began attending Mississippi State. He graduated from State with a degree in business administration at about the same time Sara Lee Corp. acquired Bryan Foods. Bryan steadily rose through the ranks in the meat industry, eventually serving as CEO of Sara Lee and chairman and director of the American Meat Institute before retiring in 2000. He made millions. He gave much of it back.

Throughout, Bryan never forgot where he was from or where he received his education. He gave back to West Point, Clay County, Mississippi and Mississippi State.

“It is difficult to overstate the impact of the loyalty and generosity of George Bryan and his family to Mississippi State University,” says MSU President Mark E. Keenum. “… George and Marcia (Bryan’s wife) left an indelible imprint on MSU.”

The Bryans surely did. Says Templeton, “George put his money where his heart was.”

The Bryan Athletic Administration Building, a $5 million facility opened in 1995, was made possible largely due to the generosity of the Bryan family. The Bryan Building houses MSU’s athletic administration offices as well as MSU’s athletic ticket office, the Bulldog Club, media relations, business and student services offices.

Bryan was a philanthropist in other ways. He served as general campaign chairman for the United Way of the Mid-South and as president of the Chickasaw Council Boy Scouts of America.

To know Bryan was to know how he exuded charm and kindness in everyday dealings with those he encountered, be they the cooks in the kitchens of Old Waverly, the wait staff, the golf course workers or the caddies in the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open. Quite simply, he treated others the way he would want to be treated himself – always with a personal touch.

Besides the U.S. Open, Bryan also brought the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship to Old Waverly and the club also has hosted Southeastern Conference golf championships. Bryan also co-founded Mossy Oak Golf Club, another world class golf course, which opened across the street from Old Waverly in 2018.

Bringing the U.S. Open to rural Clay County might well be Bryan’s crowning achievement. World Golf Hall of Famer Judy Bell of Colorado Springs was the president of the USGA when the decision was made to play the U.S. Open in Mississippi.

“George Bryan was a fine, honest man,” Bell says. “When he came to us and made his pitch, he exuded honesty and class. He was so sincere. There were three or four of us who made the ultimate decision and it was unanimous. Everything he said he’d do, he did. It was a special event, a memorable tournament. George made it happen. He was all class.”

So much had to be accomplished to make the ’99 Open a reality. Hundreds of miles of highways had to be expanded to four lanes. New roads had to be built. Motels and hotels had to be expanded and renovated. Parking lots had to be established. All i’s had to be dotted, and all t’s crossed to meet USGA specifications.

The ’99 Open has had lasting ramifications for the Golden Triangle and North Mississippi.

Says Templeton, “I’m not sure that anything has had more to do with the development of North Mississippi than when George brought the Open to Old Waverly.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.