By Clay Chandler/Mississippi Business Journal
WEST POINT — The golf course at Old Waverly in West Point has consistently been recognized as one of the best in the nation.
What started as a dream 30 years ago has become one of Mississippi’s unique treasures.
Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point marks its 25th anniversary this year.
There is a long list of things to celebrate.
Near the top will be what introduced Old Waverly to the rest of the world — the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open.
It’s the only professional major tournament Mississippi has hosted, and is still considered one of the biggest sporting events to ever happen here.
Media from more than 100 countries covered it. Nearly 130,000 spectators watched it, which is the second highest attendance in the Open’s history.
“After it was over, we received a number of letters from different organizations commenting on the wonderful Southern hospitality,” said former West Point Mayor Kenny Dill, who was in office during the tournament. “It really made a difference in some people’s attitudes about Mississippi.”
The Open’s economic impact on West Point and the Golden Triangle was estimated at $15 million, representing one of the biggest financial boosts a single event has had on the state.
It began with a dream.
In the early 1980s, former Bryan Foods CEO George Bryan wanted to build a championship golf course. Bryan’s original idea was for the course to be part of a state park connected to Waverley Mansion east of West Point in Clay County. The Legislature funded a feasibility study, but that’s as far as it got. Lawmakers eventually decided that the state’s budget was too thin for the project, which would have been one of a series of golf courses at state parks.
Bryan decided then the course would be private. He rounded up 30 founders, each of whom purchased a membership, and hired Jerry Pate and Bob Cupp to design the course on a site east of the city limits that had natural rolling hills and existing lakes dotted with decades-old evergreens.
“From the beginning, Old Waverly was developed as a regional club,” Bryan said. “We built cottages for groups to come stay and play golf for the weekend before we built the clubhouse.”
Growing the club would require a membership that reached beyond the Golden Triangle.
So Bryan targeted an area within a 200-mile radius of the club and started recruiting members. Eventually, the membership recruitment area grew, and Old Waverly now has members from 22 states and several foreign countries. Some of the more famous names on the membership rolls include Jerry Rice, Brett Favre, Archie Manning and former Mississippi State tight end and NFL vet Reggie Kelly, who’s from nearby Aberdeen.
To go with the 1999 Open, Old Waverly has hosted the 2005 USGA U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship and a handful of Southeastern Conference championships.
Perhaps the club’s most significant event was played by amateurs. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi coast in 2005, Old Waverly officials organized the Governor’s Cup, a tournament that raised more than $300,000 for storm victims.
“Old Waverly is a shining example of the beauty Mississippi has to offer,” former Gov. Haley Barbour said in a statement.
Since 2003, $4.6 billion worth of economic development projects have landed in the Golden Triangle, led by advanced manufacturing companies like steelmaker Severstal and Aurora Flight Sciences. Recruiting those industries took a lot of people pulling on the same end of the rope, said Joe Max Higgins, executive director of the Golden Triangle Development LINK.
“Old Waverly has given us a world class facility to recruit and support world class companies,” he said.
Sustaining the club moving forward, Bryan said, will center on its junior golf program. Club pros V.J. Trolio and Tim Yelverton have built the program into one that attracts junior golfers from across the U.S. A cottage is being built specifically to house junior golf campers.
“Golf can teach those life skills to youngsters that are so important to their development,” Bryan said. “Things like discipline, judgment, character and patience are integral parts of the game that can translate to all areas of their lives. Our own grandchildren are growing up on this course.”