“An Endearing Jazz and Blues Golf Road Trip Through The American South”
/ Words and pictures – Scott MacLeod
Think about it. Think really hard.
If you were to plan as eclectic of a golf trip as you could imagine, where would it take you?
Chances are, even in the far reaches of your mind it would still bring you to a known golf destination. More than likely with close friends in tow. Familiar faces seeking golf adventure in a known place.
But what if I was to tell you to consider an excursion to Memphis, from the northern reaches to the southern beaches of Mississippi and into New Orleans? How about throwing in a busload of golfers from Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, China, and the Philippines.
Let’s sprinkle in a cotton field, a graveyard tour (in Chinese), a man named Peter Pan, and stop at a hotel where vice grips bring hot and cold water to your shower.
Getting crazy enough for you yet? Or just intriguing?
The fun part…it happened, and it was spectacular.
Where’s The BBQ?
I had one thing on my mind when pal Jeff Bauder and I rolled into Memphis today…where’s the bbq?
As many times as we have made out way through Tennessee, this part of the state was never on the agenda. To us the reputation was as a premier place to get BBQ, southern specialty. I like food. We like food. So, it was top of mind. We were a little early for their annual BBQ Festival (held in May each year) but we figured we could make do.
After dropping our bags off at the historic Peabody Hotel it took all of two blocks to find what we were looking for – at the Blues City Cafe. Amidst an antiquated but charming interior we delved elbow deep into a meal far too substantial for lunch. The full load – hot tamales, ribs, cornbread, mac & cheese. It was the start of what I think will be a calorie-filled eleven days here in the South. Terrible for the waistline but satisfying in a way only comfort food can provide.
The Blues City Café is on the corner of Beale Street so we got a first glance at this famous Boulevard – one where music food and all out partying combine to create something memorable.
As busy as the street was during the day it did not compare to the evening. Tuesday is bike day on Beale Street and all manners of motorcycles were lined up and down the block as pedestrians looked on.
Our curious peek at this favourite thoroughfare was made even more interesting as more and more of our travel party for the week arrived.
Unlike most road trips where Jeff and I travel alone, or maybe with a guest, this one has a very eclectic angle.
Further down the road we will be meeting up with a few golfers enjoying a blues and golf trip in the Biloxi area of Mississippi. It was the original intent of this year’s journey; to be part of that, but trip organizer Claudio DeMarchi threw in a little extra wrench for us.
We are touring as a party this week, a group made up of media and tour operators, mostly from Asia. While we arrived first here in Memphis, the rest of the gang trickled in from destinations like Japan, China, and Hong Kong after some long and arduous travels. Another pair from the Philippines will catch up with us tomorrow I’m told.
This injection of cultural differences should create quite a dynamic. As we sat in the famed lobby bar (with the famous ducks enjoying a swing in the fountain) at the Peabody Hotel, the historic property known all around the Mid-south, sharing a traditional mint julep was the first step in developing our bond. How that plays out over the coming days remains to be seen but I’m sure it will add some flavour to this journey. Not that the revered food and musical cultural roots in the area won’t already.
Sampling local fare at King’s Palace on Beale Street and listening to the Blues played by David Bowen, who used to play with B.B. King, was a fitting end to our first full day of this Blues, Jazz, and Golf tour. A couple of us stayed on for some extra fun at the Rum Boogie Cafe. We were rewarded with more great music and a deeper understanding that here is not just entertainment, it’s a way of life.
Place Of Happy Retreat
I played golf with Peter Pan. The even odder part? It was on a golf course named ‘Mirimichi’, a native American word for “Place of Happy retreat”.
No, you just can’t make this stuff up.
Peter Pan is Bao Jin Pan, a golf tour operator from China but his chosen Americanized name injects a lot of punch lines into a conversation. Or a round of golf.
Before today, and I guess that is the point of this trip, I had never thought of Memphis as a golf destination. Sure, I knew it as a long-time host of the PGA Tour but I had figured it was a one-trick pony. Now I know different.
There are about twenty publicly accessible golf courses in the Memphis area and Mirimichi, a club formerly owned my entertainment star Justin Timberlake, is among the best of them.
Built as an environmentally friendly and sustainable property, the course blew my doors off right from the start. As Jeff and I got to know Peter Pan and shake off the travel rust on our games, we were treated to an impeccably conditioned property as natural as they come.
Manager Steve Conley shared a little knowledge with me about the club’s history. “When Justin Timberlake built this place in ’08-’09 he wanted to build a place with a country club atmosphere but open for everyone. He didn’t have to do it but he put a boatload of money into it. We had some fine private courses in Memphis but nothing like this. It is among the best in the state.”
After touring it for eighteen holes it was hard to disagree. Wetland, forest, creeks, and wildlife set the scene for a great opener to the trip. The only downside? The greens were perfect but just too fast for the average public player.
Of course, that would not stop me from playing again if I was in town, and it certainly piqued my curiosity about the potential of a return golf trip to see what else “golf-wise” the city offers.
With the round of golf done early and left lots of time for exploration in downtown Memphis, a vibrant city known for its musical heritage, we first fuelled up at another iconic restaurant, Central BBQ. Because, you know, you can’t get enough BBQ.
Ribs slow-cooked to succulent perfection over two days gave us the energy to hit the sidewalks and get a feel for this vibrant city that has shaped so much American history. More evidence of that came when we left our lunch and looked north from the entrance way. There, just a block away, was the Lorraine Motel. It’s where Martin Luther King, Jr. was tragically assassinated. It was as real of a reminder as possible about the other side of history that lurks here. One that should not be forgotten but should help educate people years to come.
The King Is The Thing
To many, Graceland is the ultimate in commercialism. That thought was on my mind when I saw it on the schedule for our Memphis visit. It was reinforced even more when we arrived at the many exhibits and gifts shops in the compound across from the mansion of Elvis Presley. But when I looked closer during our tour of the estate today, I began to understand why the man was so loved and mourned by so many.
Throughout the displays of personal items, possessions, and music memorabilia, you could sense how personal Elvis took his relationship with his family, friends, and fans. It was little things like the fact the upstairs of his house was always closed off to guests (family only) or the many stories of anonymous gifts to everyday people.
It was cemented in the meditation garden, the last stop on the tour. Not only does the “King” himself rest there in eternity, his grave is beside those of his family members.
Even the world’s biggest rock & roll star knew it was important to surround yourself with those you love.
It’s an emotional place to visit (at least the mansion side) so don’t hesitate to include it in a visit.
That was the end of an all-too short stop for us in Memphis. As the urban bookend for the front end of our trip it had impressed all, even with a culture that was in stark contrast to the norms of our new friends from Asia. Food, music and fun is a universal language after-all.
On To Tunica
After what seemed to be a lot of tourist time, it was on to Tunica this afternoon to find some fairways. Less than an hour south of Memphis, we broke into the upper reaches of Mississippi, to Robinsonville and the Tunica National Golf & Tennis Club.
As we travelled there the horizon never seemed to stop and the clouds of dust from farmers working the fields seemed to rise endlessly. Those parched fields were the only hope of prosperity in this region until the casinos arrived.
At their peak in 2008/09 some twelve million visitors a year were drawn to Tunica and its gaming houses. Greater competition has reduced that number slightly so the area is leveraging their assets to create diversity. I’m told we’ll witness what that has resulted in tomorrow with a couple stops.
While not as scenic, with a background of fields, the Mark McCumber designed Tunica National course was more than serviceable. It had some fun holes and for the price (green fees max at $65 including tax and cart) and the turf conditions alone, it welcoming.
When you consider the many casino properties available nearby like the MGM-owned Gold Strike Casino where we stayed just minutes away, you have the elements of a strong getaway.
When I realized this morning that today and tomorrow would consist of nothing but travel, I must say I was a bit disappointed. Hours later it is hardly the case.
As far as travel days goes, this one was enlightening. Wandering through cotton fields, recording music at the “Gateway to The Blues Museum”, touring the Tunica River Park Museum, and eating deep-fried pickles at the place they were invented (the Hollywood Cafe where Mark Cohen was inspired to write “Walking In Memphis” is not your average day. And that was just the start.
We worked our way to famous Clarksdale, saw the “Crossroads”, where legend has it that blues man Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play his first blues guitar, and spent some time at the Shack Up Inn, the most unusual hotel I have ever seen in my life. It looks like rustic squalor with a mix of sharecropper shacks as lodging but it was fascinating at the same time. It lives up to their claim of “The Ritz we ain’t”.
Clearly Clarksdale, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, is not a rich place, economically, but it is wealthy in many ways of life. It rewarded us with a chance to hang out at the Delta Blues Museum, the Hambone Gallery, and a chance to walk near abandoned streets of its old downtown area where musicians lingered and played on every corner. It was the antithesis of a modern city, yet eminently more genuine and attractive in its own way.
We’ve just returned from the closer, the Ground Zero Blues Club co-owned by native son and movie star Morgan Freeman and the town’s mayor, Bill Luckett.
While entertained beyond belief by a Blues band, amidst a setting of a club where barely a square inch of wall was not covered in marker messages left by past visitors, Luckett (who is also a lawyer and actor) charmed me with tales of his city, his love of golf, and how they want to share their rich heritage with the world.
Even without golf, it could not have been a more perfect, and perfectly surprising, day.
Homage To B.B.
“Just take a right at the Dollar General and follow the dirt road.”
It seemed like odd instructions for a golf trip but there we were this morning, searching for an original “Juke Joint” in the fields near Merigold, Mississippi – population 428.
Looking for places where one of the great gifts of Mississippi, blues music, was born is one of the many side-trips you can enjoy on a visit the Magnolia State.
It seemed like a mythical place and a dare to find but there we were today, outside Po’ Monkeys, a delta landmark and an example of the rustic music halls where the Blues blossomed.
Music permeated the day, from the usual club in desolate territory to a stop soon after in Indianola, the birth place of B.B. King. As we had with Graceland, we paid homage here to one of the legends of music. The well-laid out B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Centre shares the story of the man and the conditions that influenced him to greatness.
From the legendary we switched to the new and developing talent of Jarekus Singleton tonight, catching his live performance in Jackson, Mississippi at Underground 119. His soulful renditions of classics and energized performances of standards left us buzzing.
By days’ end, if any in our group did not finally appreciate Blues music, they were probably lying.
Letting The Rabbit Out Of The Hat
I finally got here. Years ago, during a visit to Mississippi we attempted to get a tee time at the Dancing Rabbit golf courses, among the highest ranked casino-linked layouts in the United States. At the time, unfortunately, there was a media blackout as they were doing some work on their courses.
This time though, the Choctaw, Mississippi resort was more than welcoming. In fact, they brought us right into their clubhouse where we are staying tonight.
It worth waiting for.
In 2015 Golf Magazine named the Dancing Rabbit Oaks Course as #32 among the Top 100 courses you can play. It’s a fair assessment.
The Tom Fazio design makes exquisite use of the natural landscape and I would be eager to return to see it in full Spring bloom. The same goes for the Azaleas course where we snuck in a quick nine. It is a golfing Nirvana and with eight rooms right in the clubhouse, other accommodations ranging from a fairway villa, to a small hotel, to two large casino hotels, it is even more attractive.
The giddy factor ramped up even higher when we were informed that we each had a golf cart key in our rooms with our own chariot out front of the clubhouse to use wherever and whenever we needed. That included on a paved path all the way to the casino at the Pearl River Resort where special golf cart parking is set aside for the clubhouse guests. Some well thought out details!
It took a lot to wedge me out of my bed this morning at Dancing Rabbit. A day long stop was just not enough, but our troop had miles to cover today. It did get off to a rocky start but, like many times on this trip, curious circumstances led to great discoveries.
After a short tour of the Choctaw nation we had 2.5 hours to cover to reach the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but an uncooperative tire extended that a bit. Fortunately, our coach driver Robert knew exactly where to go. More coincidentally the tire shop he chose to patronize happened to be next to the historic and sprawling Williams Brothers store. This country icon in Philadelphia, Mississippi has supplied every need for locals here for more than a century. Its dizzying mix of grocery store, boot shop, deli counter, and tack shop was overwhelming enough until we found out the owners are the relatives of the Manning brothers of football fame. Their uncle, Sid Williams, kept us entertained with a few stories of the NFL stars while we browsed the aisles and learned the history of the outlet.
It was another quirky happening that this trip has become known for. But not the last of the day.
Things tamed down a bit as we played nine holes at the MGM-owned Fallen Oak Golf Club that plays host annually to the Champions Tour. It was a return trip to the course for Jeff and I. The second helping was just as tasty as the first. Another Fazio creation, it is coveted stop for any golfer in Mississippi and the high rollers that stay at the affiliated Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.
Playing alongside me today was the publisher of Hong Kong Golfer, Charles McLaughlin. He and wife Moira are both of Scottish descent so we had much to discuss. A funny note that came up (since I was Canadian) was that Cahrles told me they had a daughter named Sarah McLaughlin. She too is a singer, and given the worldwide success of the Canadian of the same name she had to choose a stage name. She chose Bishop Briggs, the name of the town where her parents are from in Scotland. Based on the quick demo I was able to listen to, she’s pretty talented. She is pursuing her craft in Los Angeles so we’ll see if the “other” Sarah McLaughlin becomes a success.
This evening, after checking into the IP Casino Hotel & Spa in Biloxi we joined up with the already-mentioned “Blues & Golf Tour” participants at The Shed BBQ. This award-winning BBQ hangout is barely a building on a gravel parking lot with a stage; but what a stage it was. Chuck Jackson, the famed Canadian blues man put on a driving show and kept it going afterwards; jumping on our bus to play some tunes all the way back to the resort.
Time To Mingle
With no travel planned for today, the pace was a little more relaxing here in Biloxi, a city I have come to appreciate more and more over the years.
We headed over to the Shell Landings Golf Club, one of the best on the coast, to mix in some golf with the 70 or so golfers participating in the “Golf & Blues Tour”.
Jeff and I were conveniently matched up with a couple of golfers from Ontario and had a good time guiding them around the Davis Love III design known for some premium conditions.
Immediately afterward the team from the Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast tourism hopped on to our bus for an abbreviated tour of the Ocean Springs, Biloxi, and Gulfport area. Their insight into how the area has recovered remarkably from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, plus the assortment of local malt beverages they brought, was welcomed enthusiastically.
With the sun setting, we rejoined the touring golfers for a sunset blues cruise, a perfect way to see the coast from the water-side. While Jackson, et al, entertained, we consumed more local fare and soaked up the remaining hours we would have in Mississippi.
Let The Good Times Roll
As tired as we might have been when we arrived in New Orleans, this morning the vibe of the Crescent City renewed us.
Known primarily for Mardi Gras and activity on Bourbon Street, Louisiana’s biggest city is much, much more than that. It is a culinary playground with some of the most respected foodie haunts in the nation, from Brennan’s where Bananas Oscar was created, to the world-famous gumbo at the English Turn Golf & Country Cub where we toured this morning.
It is also the former home of the local PGA Tour event, before it moved to the TPC of Louisiana that we played this afternoon.
English Turn is just minutes from downtown and welcomes visitors to enjoy its Jack Nicklaus design marked by small greens and impeccable conditions.
It doubles up nicely for a full golf day with the TPC layout that was crafted Pete Dye. His work is a handful off the back tees but certainly friendly enough from further up. My partner for the day, Golf Digest China Editor Echo Ma, finished with a flourish of pars, leaving us all delighted with the outing. Being that it was our last golf for the trip it was even more poignant.
Now that we are done with golf, from our home base here at the Blake Hotel, just blocks from the French Quarter, we have a day and half left to explore and enjoy. Every visitor, even a golfer, should make the time to do this. Any trip to New Orleans will be lacking without it.
A lengthy roam of Bourbon Street, including famous haunts like the Pat O’Brien’s, where the Hurricane drink has become legendary, is in order. I’m betting our fellow travelers will be enlightened by nights’ end.
After a laugh-filled night last evening, our last foray through New Orleans was the perfect wind-down to a hectic journey.
It was about as chill as you can get.
Sugar and coffee kicked off the day at Café Du Monde, the waterfront institution is best known for the beignets, a tasty french pastry that is a nod to this city’s heritage.
Jacked on sugar and caffeine we were near giddy as we returned to hotel to prepare for the “Hollywood South Tour”. The city has become a popular setting for film crews and our tour included seeing homes used for various television shows and movies, and even at stop at Lafayette 1 cemetery, used for filming scenes for “Interview With A Vampire”.
The odd part though? I was the first to arrive at the bus for the tour and the guide looked at me and asked, “You speak Chinese?” Apparently, they were told our group included all Mandarin speakers. That was correct for just four of us. Thankfully the tour was self-explanatory. That said, I can say I have had a New Orleans cemetery tour in Mandarin now. Check that off the bucket list.
One aspect that I have learned through the years visiting this part of the country is that you never judge a place by its look. I’ve had some of the best times, entertainment, and food in establishments you might steer away from at first look. Trust me, ask the locals and they’ll always point you in the right direction.
I trusted one years ago when I visited Mother’s restaurant for the first time and I was glad to re-acquaint myself with one of their famous Po’ Boy sandwiches today. The cafeteria-style joint might require a long wait to get in most days, but believe me, it’s worth it. Ask for the Ferdi Special and you won’t be disappointed.
After we left Mother’s the realization was upon is that our trip, with a dozen people from five countries, was nearing its end. We had bonded through days on a bus together visiting three different states. A closing Jazz dinner cruise on the Steamboat Natchez gave us a chance for a last formal chat, an exchange of cards and promises to reconnect in the future.
The friendships were sealed afterward as we did what comes best in the French Quarter; we found a hole in the wall Irish bar (yes, Irish) where a trio of musicians was working the crowd.
As I sat there, sipping a local beer and looking back on what had transpired in the past ten days I was left to ponder just what this all meant.
I’m not sure any average golfer would consider taking on the complete scope of this trip; but even copying a segment of it would be fun.
I will tell you this. I’d do it again, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Mirimichi Golf Course
State of Mississippi
Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast
Tunica National Resort & Tennis
Gold Strike Casino
Pearl River Resort
Dancing Rabbit Golf Course
The IP Resort & Casino
Fallen Oak Golf Course
Shell Landing Golf Course
New Orleans CVB
The Blake Ascension