October 7, 2016 By: Erik Matuszewski – The official name of Mississippi’s newest golf course is Mossy Oak, but it’s almost as common to hear those in the surrounding area refer to it by it’s secondary moniker: Nature’s Golf.
It’s a fittingly perfect handle for a minimalist layout that completely immerses golfers in the peaceful natural surroundings of the Mississippi Black Prairie.
Mossy Oak is the first U.S. course from architect Gil Hanse to open since the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Hanse’s Olympic course, despite being built under severe time and logistical constraints in Brazil, exceeded all expectations by wowing players, fans and television viewers alike. Mossy Oak will do the same, and American golfers don’t have to travel quite as far to experience Hanse’s latest masterpiece.
At first glance, there are striking similarities between the two courses: the look, the greens, the bunkering. But Mossy Oak is unquestionably a product of its Mississippi environs, in this case a property that once was home to the Knob Hill Dairy Farm. The herds of cattle are gone, but the rolling land remains, a spacious expanse that’s framed by native grasses and dotted by regal, full water oaks and sweet gum trees more than 130 years old.
It’s a wonderful walking course, with Bermuda grass greens that flow seamlessly to the neighboring tee boxes, and 360 degree views of the property from many of the holes.
Mossy Oak might be the product of local Mississippi ties, but is already establishing itself as a world class destination.
The course is a unique collaboration between owner George Bryan and Toxey Haas, who is the founder of the West Point, Mississippi-based camouflage and outdoor lifestyle company called Mossy Oak. Like many in the area and connected with the course, they’re both alumni of nearby Mississippi State University.
“It’s a very strategic golf course,” said Bryan, whose family made its money through Bryan Foods, the meat company acquired by the Sara Lee Corporation in 1968. “You really have to think about where you’re driving the ball, where you’re laying up, what side of the hole to hit the ball on. That’s what Gil does. His golf courses are all about strategy. If you don’t think your way around, you can get in trouble pretty quickly.
Bryan and his family also own Old Waverly Golf Club, which is located just across the street from the new course and has been listed among Golf Digest’s Top 1oo U.S. courses. Adding Mossy Oak to the mix gives the area a formidable 1-2 punch, especially because the neighboring courses are so drastically different from one another.
Old Waverly is much more of a classic layout, one that starts behind the regal plantation-style Waverly Mansion with its stately columns and a signature southern cupola on the roof that doubles as the course logo. Built on 360 acres of pasture and prairie, the course — the site of the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open — weaves around four lakes, features a number of homes throughout the property and is surrounded by tall pines and hardwood trees.
There’s also “yard art” unobtrusively tucked along the Old Waverly course. Look closely and you’ll find statues of a turtle, pig, dog, bird, alligator and golfers (among others), along with a tall white obelisk to honor fallen soldiers that’s behind the clubhouse on the way to the 10th tee.
By comparison, Mossy Oak is, well, more natural. It’s wide open and brawny, with deep, rough-edged bunkers befitting its minimalist look. The fairways and greens play firm and fast in the Scottish style that Mr. Bryan loves, while Old Waverly’s playing conditions are more soft and spongy.
It was fascinating to sit in the grill room at Old Waverly and overhear members talking about new course across the street. A common theme emerged, with utterances such as “night and day” and “100% different,” while the consensus seemed to be that Mossy Oak is decidedly tougher. It was for me, certainly; I shot an 89 at Mossy Oak — bedeviled by hard, lightning-quick greens and shots that seemed to bounce into challenging bunkers or native grasses — and followed with a 79 at Old Waverly the next day.
Picking your line can often be a test at Mossy Oak, as holes can seem to blend into one another or trouble is hidden from the tee.
As one member told me: “I can’t tell you how many times I asked the caddie, `Are you sure? Are we talking about the same hole?’”
It’s why all players at Mossy Oak — outside the club’s 76 Founders members — are required to take a forecaddie, at least.
Pulling together the caddie program is one of the tasks for Mossy Oak operations manager Thomas Gallagher, the son of PGA Champions Tour golfer Jim Gallagher Jr. and, surprise, a graduate of Mississippi State.
“It’s something we’re developing that’s very new to guys in Mississippi,” said Gallagher, who caddied for his dad six or seven times, including at the Senior British Open during his senior year in high school. Gallagher has brought in a number of experienced caddies from all over the south, including a group from Shoal Creek in Alabama, and it’s only fitting that the caddie bibs are trimmed with Mossy Oak camouflage.
My caddie, Tex, was crucial in not only assisting with aiming lines off the tee, but in helping read some of the tiered, undulating and mounded greens that Hanse built.
“I think they buried one of the cows from the old farm in there,” Gallagher joked after having a long putt catch the wrong side of a big mound on the sixth green.
In true minimalist style, hardly any dirt was moved in the creation of Mossy Oak. But the green for the par-4 sixth hole sits atop the knob at the highest point on the property, a spot from which one can count all 18 flags.
Hanse has created a wonderful mix of holes which golfers are introduced to right from the start. There’s a medium-length par-4 to ease into the round, with a greenside bunker to the left that has a pine tree growing in the middle of it. That’s followed by two more par 4s: the long second, which plays 485 yards from the back tee and the short, risk-reward third that plays at a long of 299 yards.
The four par-3 holes are tremendous, a group that includes the testily-short ninth, the 11th that plays over one of two large ponds on the property and the uphill 15th to a green that’s barely visible. The par-5 17th features “George’s Bunker,” a massive, 30,000-square foot expanse of sand that cuts into the hill before the green.
A clubhouse is being built between the ninth and 18th greens at Mossy Oak, and there will be on-site lodging in the form of small cottages. For now, there are cottages for stay-and-play options at Old Waverly, which also has 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom villas and condominiums for out of town golfers. I stayed in one of the cozy cottages at Old Waverly, where I could look across the lake at the 18th fairway that curved along the waterfront.
“I’m pleased with where we are with the golf course,” George Bryan said about Mossy Oak. “It’s all we thought it would be. I want to get the infrastructure done now — the buildings, the cottages. It really won’t be complete for me until all that is done.”
Currently, there are about four flights a day from Atlanta into the so-called Golden Triangle area, which is the region between Columbus, West Point and Starkville (the home of Mississippi State).
The ties between Mississippi State and the golf at Mossy Oak and Old Waverly are unmistakable. Less than a wedge from the 18th green at Mossy Oak, just across the dusty parking lot, is the Mississippi State golf practice facility. It features training and meeting rooms, indoor hitting bays and putting areas. There are also several outdoor practice areas, one of which is a massive putting green in the shape of the state of Mississippi.
I went to a Mississippi State football game during my visit (and can still hear the ringing of cowbells), but spent my morning and early afternoon playing golf rather than tailgating. When the cart girl rolled up at 8 a.m. as we played Old Waverly that Saturday morning, it was only fitting that when asked how she was doing, her response was simple: “Just getting ready for the game!” As if there were any doubt what game was in town.
And for those who want to experience a bit more of nature beyond that at Mossy Oak, be sure to visit Prairie Wildlife just down the road.
The property is the brainchild of George Bryan’s brother, Jimmy, who envisions Prairie Wildlife as the “premier wing shooting destination in the South.” He’s taken as much care in establishing a perfect environment as golf architects do in laying out a course.
Three operations span 6,000 acres: grow crops, cattle and wildlife, with Bryan leaving about 2,000 acres of native prairie grasses perfect for hunting quail, rabbits, squirrel and deer. In addition to shooting at targets (which I enjoyed immensely), there’s hunting with beagles, by horseback, on mule-drawn wagons, or your more standard drives. There’s fishing, horseback riding and off-road tours, with on-site accommodations in the form of a main lodge, the 14-bedroom Magnolia House or a rustic log cabin in the woods.
A good bit of the property also serves as a working lab for, what else, Mississippi State’s studies on rodents, insects and migratory birds such as the Dickcissle, which comes to the area from South America to nest.
“When you come here, I want it to be an experience,” Jimmy Bryan says as he stands below stuffed quail and mounted deer heads on the walls in the main lodge. “And there is a lot of crossover with golf. A lot of golfers like to shoot and I think that it will only continue to grow.”
Not surprisingly, there’s a joint promotional effort in the works between the Bryan brothers with Mossy Oak Golf Club and Prairie Wildlife.
It is Nature’s Golf, after all.