"You folks don't move much, around here, do you?" I ventured.
"Nope," he said in a charming southern drawl. "When the sun moves, I move."
That's your entrée into how I spent my summer southern vacation - drinking bottles of water, sweating buckets, and loving every minute of it. To you, a craving for such heat might sound perverse, but not to a San Franciscan. You remember Mark Twain and his coldest winter, right? Mississippi is the uber-opposite. Think sauna---with sunshine. Think really nice, hospitable, funny people with some of the best food, anywhere. It's like a foreign country. And, you don't need a passport!
Your biggest hassle may be getting there. My particular trip took longer than a flight to Europe because, after legs from San Francisco to Atlanta and then Memphis, our commuter connection to Columbus, Mississippi never left the tarmac. Stranger yet, that pilot turned out to the one and only Jake Pavelka---yes, the guy from ABC's The Bachelor. His public address announcements had style. When that plane broke down, the hunk might as well have said, "It's not your fault. It's the hydrolics."
Where is my rose?
I love Mississippi golf because by American standards, it is difficult to find a better value. You get world class courses at extremely reasonable prices. I first learned that during a trip to Biloxi on the Gulf Coast in 2009.
This visit, to the central heart of the state, provided a different, more enveloping feel. If trees could play the blues, they probably would. Give me Mississippi John Hurt anytime.
OLD WAVERLY: The Golf Club of Mississippi
West Point, Mississippi
We played our first round at Old Waverly, not far from the Alabama border. For a weekday fee of around $120, it is as deep and richly traditional as the south can offer, and considerably more course than we normally get to play. Old Waverly used to be exclusively private. Among other prestigious tournaments, it has hosted the 1999 US Women's Open along with the 2006 US Women's Mid-Amateur Championship, but in 95 degree heat with 95 percent humidity, it will test any man.
We checked into the antebellum clubhouse, bought a bucket hat, hit a few balls, filled up on ice water, and off we went. About three holes in, we were asking, "They fought a war in this stuff? Wearing wool?"
Ugh - yes. That's when we knew it was time to man-up. Designers Jerry Pate and Bob Cupp crafted a 7-thousand yard masterpiece with elevation changes, water, eminent playability, and fairness. Trust me. Californians would kill to play this course and these holes.
My favorite is the short, par-4, 6th, which ranges from 305-408 yards. It is certainly not the most picturesque hole on the course, at least not from the tee. But, like that girl next door who you passed up, only to watch her grow more interesting with time, this downhill, dogleg right can either crush your spirit, or place you on top of the world. It's all about the second shot, downhill from a probably uneven lie, across a pond, to one of the prettiest greens, anywhere. Between the oaks, the pines, the native grasses, and the sheer terror of your backswing, it's a classic 'round in one shot'.
Except for the fact that twelve more holes follow. A cerebral golfer will think, carefully, when choosing a route on the 450-582 yard, par-5, 9th. And then, he will negotiate plenty of water on the back nine, which culminates with the the 320-445 yard, par-4 18th. It swings left around a lake and bunkers to a picturesque, elevated green.
DANCING RABBIT GOLF CLUB:
The Oaks and Azalea Courses
These two golf courses designed by Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate are a bargain hunter's delight. For that, we may thank Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. They have built two, large hotel casinos in at the Pearl River Resort in Choctaw; The Golden Moon and Silverstar. If gambling provides the bread and butter, these courses are the honey. We like loss leaders, especially when subsidized by casinos. It's bizarre enough to find Las Vegas style gambling and amenities in the deep south, but courses this good? Heaven.
In season, with reservations, director of golf Mark Powell told me four guys can rent a house on the course and get one round, each, for $600 per night, TOTAL, for the group. I took a room with a Jacuzzi in the lodge above the clubhouse, with a private golf cart standing by for trips to the range (hit 'em anytime), the casino, or one of the courses. It's decadent. From March through November, packages with a hotel stay and a round begin at roughly $168 for a weeknight. And no, that was not a typo.
The food isn't bad, either. Miko restaurant in the Silver Star Hotel and Casino, offers five-star service and cuisine for reasonable prices by San Francisco standards. Live like a king. Spend like a father on a buddy trip with a budget. What's not to like?
A golfing connoisseur will find the two courses to be refreshingly different, even in the heat. The Oaks isn't exactly wide-open, but wide enough, with inspiring bunkers in challenging places, assuming you choose the proper tees. Golf Magazine voted The Oaks #7 among the nation's "Top 10 Underrated Courses," which may seem a dubious distinction until you play it. The Oaks has enough water, terrain, and quirks on its Bermuda greens to make a guy want to play it again and again.
My favorite hole, by far, is the 394-536, par-5, 4th. Accuse me of being non-traditional, if you must---it's only the 10th handicap. I like the 4th, however, because of its intellectuality. Imagine all the excitement of a short, par-4, but in a par-5. A good drive challenges a large, right-side bunker. If you hit your ball far enough, the green, and a possible eagle, is enticingly close, but you will have to carry your shot all the way to succeed. Otherwise, hit a precise mid-iron up the right side, but beware more bunkers. A bold, deft shot sets up a cinch approach, assuming you execute.
As for The Azalea, well, that was just plain and simply my favorite course of the trip -- and this comes from a guy who couldn't swing a lick, that day. Have you ever hear the word 'sensuous' applied to a golf course? You have now. It's curvy, sinewy, beguiling, charming, teasing, and drop-dead gorgeous, especially in spring, we're told, when all abloom. As you may know, I rate courses for Golf Digest, and was relieved to learn that my fellow panelists share my exquisite taste. They voted The Azalea among the "Top 100 Greatest Public Courses in America."
In the tradition of many great courses, this is due to no one single golf hole --more like the sweet, flowing sum of them. We're talking Mississippi Blues in a golf course -- rhythmic, soulful, and capable of stirring all of a player's emotions in eighteen separate games.
You know you're in for a special round from the first tee, which beckons to a narrow, but straight-away Bermuda fairway leading to a bent grass green, 415 yards uphill. The hole has but two bunkers, both on the left side. When you get to the top, look back down the fairway. The day, and the views, will only get better.
The par-4, 9th, can play as long as 439 yards from the tips. You will tee across wetland, split a right-side bunker and pond to the left and then take dead-aim at a narrow green straddled by a stream running past on the left. It looks good. That gurgling water sounds even better. I think I doubled the darned hole, and still loved it.
MISSISSIPPI AS A DESTINATION VALUE
Even if you count your pennies on a trip like this, you cannot lose (at least, as long as you don't gamble too much). Most days (if Jake The Bachelor is not breaking the plane), the airline trip takes roughly eight hours by San Francisco. Round trip airfare cost a bit more than $500. That, plus a car and rooms will be your big expenses. Call any of these courses in advance. Ask for package deals. Split a room if you must. The casinos, especially, tend to bend over backwards for your business.
Put simply, Mississippi golf is one of the last great bargains in American golf.
Trust me on this. Bring your buddies. Go.