The greats played at Great Southern Golf Club - you can, too but beware the greens

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

GULFPORT, Miss. - Playing the Great Southern Golf Club here in the shadows of the gaudy, modern casinos is like waking up from a dream into a living museum.

You get the idea when you approach the club on U.S. 90, driving past the high, stately porches of Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis' old mansion just to the east of the course, which receives the warm breezes off the Gulf of Mexico like a blessing or curse, depending on what the wind brings with it.

Great Southern is the birthplace of Mississippi golf, built in 1908 to give the Yankee tourists something to do when they stepped off the old L&N Railroad besides drink bourbon and lay in the sun. Why not a golf course?

The railroad track still runs through the course; you have to look both ways before heading to the tee box on No. 9, and the rumble of the train reverberates through the centuries-old oak trees, twisted and weathered with age. You half expect someone to invite you onto the veranda and offer you a mint julep, complaining about carpetbaggers.

The course is an old Donald Ross design and has been through all the turmoil and tumult that weather and politics has thrown at it in the 20th century and beyond. It's survived both World Wars, Hurricane Camille, multiple ownership changes and the USGA. Somehow, they managed to satisfy golf's stern, ruling body and keep Ross' peculiar square greens.

The names that have put down divots here are famous and revered: Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen and Babe Zaharias, and, oh yeah, Woodrow Wilson. The former president played the course every day when he spent his Christmas vacations here.

Mary Mills, the 1963 U.S. Women's Open winner, is the club's most famous member and Hall of Famer Micki Wright won the tournament in Mills' name. In the 1945 Gulfport Invitational, Snead battled Byron Nelson to the wire, finally edging him in a sudden-death playoff on No. 1. They were playing for war bonds.

Of course, modernization took care of the oyster tee boxes and sand greens, which were converted to grass a few years after the course opened. In 1999, Great Southern was renovated by Brian Curly, who took pains to keep Ross' square greens and still satisfy the USGA's specifications.

Yes, the greens.

"You're going to see some greens out here you've probably never seen before," said Iowan Ben Flan, playing with buddy and Gulfport veteran Pete Wherble. "They can be brutal."

Right as rain. They're minuscule, first of all, with a nod to the architecture of that time. They're undulating, hump-backed with deep swales in the middle of some and wild, unexpected slopes in others.

Putts you thought were good swing wide and keep going. They are elevated and fall off sharply at the edges, accepting only the gentlest of approaches. They are close, though smaller, cousins to the greens of Pinehurst No. 2, where the pros will be playing the 2005 U.S. Open.

"Everybody, when they look at the scorecard and see the yardage, they say, 'Man, I'm going to tear this place up,' and they end up shooting 80," head pro Tracy McGuire said. "If you miss these greens in the wrong places, it's a very tough up and down."

The course measures only 6,236 yards from the back tees, but Ross, the cagy strategist, has his usual assortment of refined tricks, including the inevitable bunkers in all the right - or wrong - places.

No. 6, for example, is a 250-yard par-4 - a 6-iron for Tiger Woods - but there are big oaks both sides of the fairways, a small, elevated green that slopes sharply left to right and bunkers left, front and behind. You don't hit the ball right here, it will come back to you and re-introduce itself.

Ross proved again that size doesn't always matter in golf.

"I think that's the way he designed it," McGuire said. "You've got to be accurate off the tee, good on your approach shots and good with the putter. You've just got to hit a bunch of different shots."

The Verdict

No golf visit to the Biloxi area would be complete without a round at Great Southern, with its history and Ross design. Don't expect a high-faultin', state-of-the-art facility with ball boys wiping down your clubs and expecting a tip; the clubhouse is modest and there is a friendly, cozy grill. There's no driving range, but there is a 100-yard practice hole off to the side.

However, the original clubhouse is being renovated and will deepen the place's historic charm. They've already spent half a million dollars on phase one, and phase two is expected to begin in June, with plans to expand the building and add wraparound porches so guests can sit on the back and watch the golfers deal with Ross' legacy.

The conditioning is a little rough in spots - the course hosts more than 30,000 rounds a year - but hey, the green fees are only in the $55-$70 range, cart included. Not bad for playing this little Ross gem.

Places to Stay

U.S. 90 from Gautier north to Bay St. Louis is chock full of every kind of accommodation, from small mom-and-pop motels to big resorts. Some are right on the beach and others are across the busy street. For an affordable place right on the beach and near golf and nightlife, try the Quality Inn Emerald Beach and its hot breakfast buffet.

For you gamblers, try Isle of Capri Casino or Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis.

Places to Eat

Cucos' Border Café in Biloxi has great Mexican food and a nice, little bar where you can drink margaritas and forget about how you bungled a 250-yard par-4. The Shed has some of the best Southern barbecue this side of Memphis.

Fast Fact

A group of local members, also shareholders, bought the club in 1996 and changed the name from Broadwater Sea Course back to its original name.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment