Reading the greens, and more, in Mississippi

By John Gordon, Contributor

JACKSON, Miss. - For the uninitiated, a first foray into Mississippi likely begins with several preconceived notions, most drawn from unreliable pop-culture pap such as John Grisham's novel, A Time to Kill.

Revealing my personal literary preferences (all Grisham and I share are the same initials), I entered the Magnolia State prepared instead to recast John Berendt's spooky, steamy, and quirky Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. My report would be titled Midday in the Garden of Golf and Weevils, I had decided. (Hold the e-mails. We know Berendt's bestseller was set in Georgia, but we must be permitted some poetic license if we are to make these outrageous puns.)

After landing in the state capital, Jackson, your humble correspondent and a motley crew of alleged writers from lesser publications traveled a couple of hours south to Natchez, a faded Southern belle trying valiantly, and with considerable success, to regain her former luster.

Natchez, literally a John Daly drive across the fabled Mississippi from Vidalia, Louisiana, was home to a third of the country's millionaires, back "when cotton was king," as the locals are fond of saying. (An aside for those with culinary curiosity: The Louisiana town is not the home of the sweet onion of the same name. Those hail from Vidalia, Georgia.)

A century and a half ago, Natchez was a hub of activity, both commercial and nefarious.

"At Natchez, the riverboatmen and farmers equipped themselves for the long overland journey" to Nashville, Tennessee, some 500 miles northeast, writes Bern Keating in his book The Mighty Mississippi. "Many of them bolstered their courage" with a drunken visit to the saloons, gambling houses and brothels of Natchez-Under-The-Hill. On the ledge at the foot of a 200-foot bluff below Natchez City, the assembled riffraff "clamored through the streets until dawn with dancing and revelry, gouging matches and knife fights."

Gouging matches?

Squint a little and the images of an octet of journalists, assigned by various publications to explore the golfing and cultural attractions of the region, blur into a modern rendition of Keating's description. Substitute "pro shops" for "brothels" and "sandbagging" for "knife fights" and, well, the parallels are astounding.

"Drunken 'saloons' gambling houses' riffraff." Yep, it works, even if you don't squint all that hard. Due to the hospitality of Janet Leach, Mississippi's golf marketing manager, and the generosity of various bailbondsmen, the eightsome remained at liberty during their weeklong stagger through the southern part of the state. That was indeed fortunate.

Overshadowed by the state's more opulent Gulf Coast, this region offers much to attract visitors with golf, but more than golf, on their minds. Times have changed for Natchez, once the biggest port on the Mississippi between New Orleans and the Ohio River. Cotton no longer is king (Damn those boll weevils!), and the gigantic barges plying the Mississippi pass it by without a thought.

The Natchez Trace, a famous sunken roadway wending its way to Nashville that once was a major commercial thoroughfare, is merely a tourist attraction. The town's most infamous and, not coincidentally, most popular brothel burned down in a tragic fire not so long ago. But the citizens of Natchez have refused to let the harsh realities of the modern era relegate their beloved town to an historical footnote.

After a night spent in the restored grandeur of the Radisson Natchez Eola Hotel, a driving tour revealed a town determined that it "shall rise again," as the saying goes. Many of the town's antebellum structures, several of them grandiose plantation mansions, have been painstakingly refurbished.

The most outstanding examples are open to the public during the "Pilgrimages," organized tours that take place in March, April and October. The town's rich and often violent past is revisited on the weekend prior to Halloween during the interactive and impressive Angels on the Bluff cemetery tour. Also in October, the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race dots the sky with dozens of colorful hot-air conveyances.

More to the point of this particular exercise, however, is the recent emphasis on golf as a tourist magnet. Duncan Park is a public 18-holer right in town. Its par-71, 6,300-yard layout is Bermuda grass tee to green and the fairways are framed by azaleas, dogwoods, crepe myrtles and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. At $12 weekdays and $15 on the weekends, this Brian Ault design is an ideal spot to warm up after arrival, or to cushion the budget after an unfortunate night at the casino.

Beau Pre Country Club, a semi-private Mike Young-designed course three miles outside of Natchez, opened in 1999. Young, a Georgia-based architect, used its location on the banks of Second Creek to full advantage, particularly on the back nine. The closing holes are scrutinized by an imposing 90-foot clay bluff and encircle a small lake.

Beau Pre's $50 weekday, $60 weekend rate includes a cart.

Narrow fairways flanked by trees, extensive unmaintained natural areas, and copious bunkering make the front nine a test, as is evidenced by the very first hole, a 440-yarder with out of bounds right. A tee shot of at least 230 yards will clear the knoll bisecting the fairway and leave a mid-iron to the generous green, one of Beau Pre's trademarks.

However, it is the final four holes that define the Beau Pre experience. Every one of the par-4 15th's 350 yards hugs the lake on the right, requiring a precise tee shot which must also avoid a gaping bunker in the middle of the fairway. Once that task is accomplished, a sand wedge will complete the job. At 169 yards, the 16th is an excellent par-3, necessitating a mid- to long-iron over the lake to a multi-tiered green.

The green on the 410-yard, par-4 17th is one of the smallest on the course, and reposes under the shadow of that towering bluff. An enormous waste bunker guards the right perimeter, while heavy rough and scrub define the left. The final hole is a reachable par-5, but deep bunkers protect its elevated green, making bogey or worse a more certain possibility for those willing to gamble on hitting it in two shots.

At more than 6,900 yards from the tips, Beau Pre is no pushover, especially if the wind is up. Weaker players will benefit from moving up to the most forward of the four sets of tees, which shortens the layout to 5,100 yards.

After a cocktail in Beau Pre's modest but comfortable clubhouse, we straggled down the road to the elegant Monmouth Plantation. Dating back to 1818, Monmouth's stunningly beautiful mansion has been voted "one of the top 10 most romantic places in the USA" by both Glamour Magazine and USA Today. Totally renovated, this national historic landmark contains many superb furnishings and accoutrements which belonged to the original owner, General John Quitman, one of the state's early governors. Then it was off to Dunleith, just moments away.

If anything, Dunleith raised the bar that had been set extremely high by the exquisite Monmouth. Another national historic landmark, Dunleith is almost 150 and resembles nothing more than a Greek Revival temple. The main structure, glistening white in the late fall sun, is enveloped in colonnaded galleries and surrounded by authentic outbuildings across its scenic 40 acres of woodlands and bayous. I was fortunate to stay in an expansive suite named for the famous Confederate leader, Jeb Stuart. (The locals regard him as a hero in that long-ago unpleasantness they label "The War of Northern Aggression.")

Suffice it to say that the general would not have been disappointed by the accommodations which included a canopy bed, games table, fireplace, sofa, easy chairs, and writing desk. Bowing to the demands of the modern traveler, the owners, Michael and Joy Worley, have added full private bathrooms with whirlpool tubs to their 19 rooms, along with TVs and other such niceties.

Already used as a backdrop for major films such as Showboat and Huckleberry Finn, Dunleith received one of the highest endorsements possible when one of the golf writers on our tour reserved "and actually paid for!" a suite to be used on the occasion of his upcoming wedding anniversary.

Dunleith's Castle restaurant, like many establishments hereabouts, offers an eclectic menu, where Chef John Terranova fuses fresh local ingredients with traditional themes. Start with the sauteed jumbo lump crabcake with frazzled leeks and tomato bearnaise sauce before sashaying your tastebuds through a stir fry of shrimp and duck sausage with red onions, concasse tomatoes, fresh fennel, cannelini beans and arugula, finished with sherry and shrimp stock. It is served, as are most meals down here, with grits - tasso cheese grits, to be precise.

The superb menus at Monmouth and Dunleith are rivaled by several restaurants in Natchez. Farraddays, for example, occupies a historic building overlooking the Isle of Capri Casino and Hotel in the once-notorious, now increasingly gentrified, Natchez-Under-The-Hill.

Part of an upscale chain, the restaurant features award-winning dishes from its various venues. A recommendation would include corn-breaded crab cakes with Cajun remoulade sauce, followed by a blue cheese-stuffed Black Angus filet with a port wine demi glace, all capped off with to-die-for deep-fried strawberries.

Such forays to the groaning board called for a workout the following morning so off we hied to Quail Hollow Golf Course, an Arthur Hills design in Percy Quin State Park near McComb. Golf Digest rated Quail Hollow among the top 10 best new affordable public courses when it opened in 1996, but the bulk of that credit must go to the excellent design. Conditioning leaves much to be desired, and the amenities are minimal, although the recent switch to Billy Casper Golf Management should fix that.

Even with that caveat, Quail Hollow is ranked the fifth-best course in the state, and the 6,700-yard layout will improve on that, given time.

During my visit, 18 holes and a cart cost $25. Attractive and comfortable golf villas make an ideal base for a golf-focused group and a nine-hole short course allows for some much-needed iron practise. Our next stop was the 36-hole (soon to be 54-hole) Dancing Rabbit facility in Philadelphia, in the shadow of the Silver Star Resort and Casino, also built by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. It is ranked second in the state behind Old Waverly, site of the 1999 Women's U.S. Open. Towering pines line the fairways which buck and roll through the hilly countryside.

The course may be set up a little too strong for its clientele.

The handicaps in our group ranged from 3 to 25 but even the better players admitted after the round that it would have been more enjoyable to play from the white tees rather than the blues.

We should have been forewarned, of course, by the sign at the first tee proclaiming that the Stimpmeter reading was an ungodly 12 feet - faster than those at most PGA Tour stops. That speed, combined with undulating bentgrass greens, made three-, four-, even five-putts possible. Throw in four-inch Bermuda rough that devoured balls that rolled mere inches off the fairway and you can bet our round was memorable, but for many of the wrong reasons.

Dancing Rabbit is a very worthwhile outing that would be further improved if the operators would ratchet down the sadism level from the present 10 to, say, 7.

After four three-putts, I was more than ready to side with Mr. Grisham.

It is a time to kill! Now where is that superintendent?

John GordonJohn Gordon, Contributor

John Gordon has been involved fulltime with golf since he became managing editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, in 1985. In 1991, he was recruited by the Royal Canadian Golf Association to create their Member Services and Communications departments, and to revive Golf Canada magazine, their national membersmagazine which had been defunct for a decade. After successfully relaunching Golf Canada and serving as its inaugural editor, he was named executive director of the Ontario Golf Association. He returned to fulltime writing in 1995.

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