Max Maxwell has surely dealt with questions whether he comes from the famous line of Perry and Press Maxwell; he has not, but he has enjoyed a successful career as a golf course architect in his home region of Mississippi nonetheless. The Hattiesburg Country Club had existed for more than 40 years when he and associate Nathan Crace arrived during 1999 in order to prepare the club for the 21st Century.
That included adding yardage (bringing it beyond the 6,900-yard mark) as well as rebuilding bunkers so that the tree-lined fairways were not the only obstacle for a scratch player.
The update was important to members who were used to the course’s championship history. Hattiesburg hosted the Magnolia Invitational, famous for being the PGA event held during the same week as the Masters Tournament a few states over. Players who hadn’t yet qualified for the biggest show came to the club from 1968 through 1993; among the notable names in attendance would be future Masters winners Nick Faldo and Craig Stadler, as well as Payne Stewart, who claimed his first professional win at Hattiesburg during 1982.
I hadn’t planned on venturing too far from the Gulf Coast to play golf during my time in Mississippi, as the immediate area has plenty of courses worthy of my time. Sometimes, however, plans change in a nice way. Through the modern miracle that is social media, I was fortunate to be able to arrange a particularly exciting final round of my trip at the lovely Hattiesburg Country Club, located a shade more than an hour’s drive north of the Coast. My host, Mississippi-based golf course architect Nathan Crace, renovated and modernized the 1959 Press Maxwell design in 1999 and acts as a consulting architect to the club to this day. Crace’s career in golf has been an exciting one, from working as an assistant club professional all the way to starting his own design firm, Watermark Golf/Nathan Crace Design; as a kid who doodled golf courses non-stop growing up, I couldn’t help but be excited to get to spend a day discussing the trade with him. The course’s championship pedigree was exciting too; from 1968 to 1993 it hosted the precursor to the PGA Tour’s Sanderson Farms Classic, then known as the Magnolia State Classic, an alternate-field event during Masters week. Future major winners such as Nick Faldo, Fuzzy Zoeller, and Paul Azinger competed in these events; a couple of others, Craig Stadler and Payne Stewart, scored their first (albeit unofficial, as it was considered a satellite event at the time) PGA Tour victories at Hattiesburg. On the amateur side of the ledger, along with the annual Mid-South Four Ball and regional events such as the Magnolia Amateur – a prestigious invitation-only event for top collegians and mid-amateurs – the club has hosted and continues to host numerous state and local events.
One of the first things I noticed about Hattiesburg is that the golf course’s setting is sublime. Perhaps my lack of experience on private clubs in the South is showing, but Hattiesburg felt like Augusta National to me, or at least how I would expect Augusta National to feel. With yellow flags waving in the breeze, visible across the gently rolling landscape between the tall pine trees and large green complexes surrounded by mounds and white sand bunkers along with the occasional pond… never mind the dormant Bermuda turf (which was still fairly firm and playable) or the handful of houses dotting the very edges of the property, I kept hearing the roars and Dave Loggins in my head. (Perhaps the Magnolia State Classic organizers were onto something scheduling opposite the Masters.) As for the course itself, Hattiesburg isn’t going to stretch itself to challenge bombers, topping out at 6,900 yards from the tips. It’s not overly narrow thanks to the significant tree removal that’s taken place over the years – Crace cited a number in the thousands of trees taken out since he began work in the 1990s – but a handful of spots require a certain shot shape to find the optimal side of the fairway. The greens are large but their slopes are mostly subtle, intended to allow faster green speeds without becoming ridiculously difficult. Mainly, Hattiesburg manages to find just the right balance between challenge and playability, a spot on the scale where the fun factor goes way up. Crace himself put it best, “I know I’m biased, but [Hattiesburg] is a special place… I could play it every day and never tire of it.” I, on the other hand, have no such biases but I very much agree that it’s a course I would be very comfortable playing over and over.
Given the tight and fairly consistently rolling property, I was a bit concerned going in that many of Hattiesburg’s holes would blend together. That was not the case, as the layout presented one memorable hole after another. The gentle handshake opening holes lead into the third, a long dogleg-left par five that quite literally tumbles downhill to a Biarritz-style green perched to the right of a pond. Crace’s renovation lengthened the hole by about 60 yards, moving the green to its current location and replacing a stand of pine trees in the center of the fairway along with it. The third green shares the perimeter of the pond with that of the thirteenth hole; about as far from the clubhouse as one can get at Hattiesburg, this spot has the ambiance of another Amen Corner. Following a trio of excellent par fours, particularly the uphill fifth, the smallish green on the par three seventh provides another highlight. Subtly sloping off of a series of mounds and collection areas at its edges and coming to a slight peak in the center, this long and narrow green is oriented at a diagonal to the tee so that the required shot shape is left-to-right, right in my wheelhouse. (Don’t worry, right-to-left players, there is plenty for you at Hattiesburg too.)
The inward nine features slightly more terrain movement if you look hard enough, most notably on holes like the majestic uphill tenth – particularly if the flag is tucked in the small upper shelf in the rear of its green, which is indistinguishable from the long par four’s fairway below. The par five thirteenth forms the other bookend to the pond adjacent to the third green as cited above; however, the orientation of the hole is such that it plays down from a rise in the fairway to the green in front of the pond instead of to the side. Thinned wedges, beware. A quirk in Hattiesburg’s routing takes players right past the clubhouse from the sixteenth green to the seventeenth tee, but the two finishing holes are great enough to more than make up for any awkwardness. The par five seventeenth – most reachable on the course outside of the almost-a-par-four ninth – plays over a pond and a series of ridges to a large green that slopes mostly from front to back, particularly in a tiny section in the farthest back right. Finally, the picturesque eighteenth returns in the opposite direction towards the clubhouse. While the hole forces players to lay up short of the pond – a situation exacerbated by the ever-present tailwind – it offsets such sins with the best green complex on the course. Seriously, this thing is massive – well over fifty yards deep and featuring at least five feet of elevation change from front to back across three distinct tiers, it makes distance control a must.
The term “hidden gem” gets thrown around an awful lot in golf circles, to the point of overuse. If everyone is trying to find or play the hidden gem, is it really hidden after all? Regardless, I try not to use the term unless I really mean it; in the case of Hattiesburg, I very much do. Hattiesburg is absolutely a hidden gem. No opportunity to visit should be passed up. It’s a place I had never heard of before being invited, but ultimately jumped to the top of the list of most enjoyable courses I played on the trip.
Played February 24, 2021
Jeff Kissel visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast for an extended period in early 2021, and wrote about it as a guest on the blog Lying Four; this review was adapted from that story.