Random thoughts from a Mississippi golf gorge

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

GULFPORT, Miss - Was that Alice Cooper on the first tee at Grand Bear Golf Club or some other mullet coifed rocker with runny makeup? Turns out it was Cooper, a certifiable golf nut who was in town for a gig at the Grand Casino.

"I think he really liked the course," said Gary Benson, regional sales manager with Park Place Entertainment, purveyors of Grand Bear and the Grand Casino.

Makes two of us. The Jack Nicklaus designed Grand Bear is the sort of track you trek to play; strong design, comfortable layout and not a blade of Bermuda grass out of place. This despite a major run in with Mother Nature.

A few nights later, Todd Jester, the Golden Bear's design coordinator at GB, tells a band of traveling golf writers that Hurricane George tore through the property in 1998 like Nicklaus through Augusta in 1986. After the dust settled, some 3,000 trees were missing.

"It was actually intended to be a much tighter golf course and Jack wanted it to have a parkland style setting," Jester said. "When you get on the back side, the routing is the same but some of the shaping had to change."

Hard to say what could've been, but it says here GB is a better course sans the extra timber. There's more room off the tee (at least it feels that way) and the course has more character because of the extra shaping.

Damn the Huskers, here's to Hattiesburg

A collective hush had overtaken Hattiesburg this glorious Sunday morning in late September. The mighty Nebraska Cornhuskers had come to town the previous Thursday in a nationally televised game on ESPN and put a licking on the town's beloved Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Not even Brett Favre, the school's most famous alum, could have saved Southern Miss from the Husker's reinvigorated Black Shirt defense.

Football's the game here in the "Hub City," but golf's a close second. Hattiesburg isn't a golf destination, nor does it claim to be. But it is a mighty fine place to layover and sample a couple of the state's better daily fee tracks. Both Canebrake and Timberton are inaugural members of the Magnolia Golf Trail - Mississippi's formidable answer to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama.

Canebrake (named for the property's thick strands of indigenous cane) was wrought by Jerry Pate, a former U.S. Open champ and design disciple of Tom Fazio. Pate doesn't deliver as ornate a product as Fazio. But you'd be hard pressed to find one average golfer who takes issue with his thoughtful routings and playable layouts.

Canebrake, case in point, was a pleasure to play. There's plenty of elevation change (you're not on the coast anymore), shimmering blue lakes that come into play, and more than a few tree-lined fairways. Timberton, a Mark McCumber design, is a bit flatter, tighter and tougher. The original 18-holes are what you might call traditional, while the new Lakeside nine is a wacky tapestry of doglegs and blind shots.

The Cornhuskers probably opted for an unoriginal chain hotel during their stay. Traveling golfers have a better option: The Dunhopen Inn. This Colonial style B&B is less than a mile from Timberton and is known locally for its sumptuous seafood and steaks. The Dunhopen is a no-brainer for touring couples, but even the most testosterone toting group of men would be well-served to bed down here. All rooms have cable television and (lavish) bathrooms and the Inn's refrigerator is stocked with cold bottles of beer.

Warm-up with sweet Carolina

Neil Diamond used to warm-up the crowd with a stirring rendition of "Sweet Caroline." You can warm-up your game at Caroline Country Club just outside of Jackson. Caroline is playable (wide open and linksy) and affordable ($44 weekdays, $55 weekends). Design aficionados may find it a cut below Timberton and Canebrake, but there are enough good holes to make up for the lack of any great ones. If your Mississippi golf gorge calls for a night in Jackson, opt for the Jackson Hilton. This full service, luxury edition of the popular hotel chain houses 273 guest rooms and suits and is home to (hands down) one of the best hotel lounges in the South, Fitzgerald's.

When in Jackson

There's not a golf course there - yet - but if you have a few spare hours when in Jackson head to Vicksburg. This quaint town perched on the banks of the Mississippi River and Yazoo Diversion Channel oozes Civil War history.

Confederate soldiers and Southern civilians holed up here for 46 days while Union soldiers attempted to gain control of the river. You can hole up for as long as you like in one of Vicksburg's behemoth casinos where three dollar blackjack tables abound.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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