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Golf business this time of year? Almost perfect

It’s springtime in Mississippi. Time to grab your bag of sticks and play a few tricks with that devilish little ball.

Those in the golfing industry are reporting that more and more players are making their way to the Magnolia State’s courses. The reasons are many — higher quality courses, better marketing, the appeal of the sport to all ages and backgrounds. Whatever the reason, folks around the state are excited and optimistic that 2007 could be the best ever for Mississippi golf.

Mother Nature smiles

“It really started last year,” said Nathan Crace of Watermark Golf Management, LLC, which manages The Refuge in Flowood. “It really didn’t get too cold this winter. It rained almost every weekend in January, but the weather really turned around in February and March.”

“We opened in 1988, and we saw the best March weather we’ve ever seen,” said Bill Colloredo, general manager of Old Waverly in West Point. “Right now, golf in Mississippi is bigger and better than it’s ever been. And, it gets better all the time.”

Both Crace and Colloredo said the rising quality of the state’s golf courses is a large reason for the increase in players. Crace attributed some of the higher quality courses to the arrival of gaming and casinos’ top-flight courses. But, he pointed to the success of courses in such non-gaming areas such as Jackson and Hattiesburg to illustrate that it was not all purely gaming-driven.

Crace did point to a few negative factors that have increased play at The Refuge. Two Jackson-area courses have closed recently, meaning more players are finding fewer holes to play in the metro area. And, golfers who were to play on the Coast after Hurricane Katrina came to Jackson to play instead, liked it and returned.

However, it is not just visitors who are keeping the state’s courses booked. Richard Walsh is head golf pro at Timberton in Hattiesburg, and said he is seeing more and more local players.

“Golf has really changed in Hattiesburg,” Walsh said. “It used to be that maybe 70% of our business was packaged play — snowbirds from up north. We have really gained members in recent years. We’ve got about 300 members now. Some of that is due to the improved hotel situation here in Hattiesburg. But, a lot of it is that we have so many great golf courses now.”

On the Trail

One recent happening that Walsh talked of with excitement is the retooling of the Magnolia Golf Trail. The Trail is composed of Timberton and 10 other courses scattered across the state marketed and offered as a package to prospective players.

Last month, the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism announced a revamping of the Trail, grouping the courses into two clusters — southern (Timberton, The Bridges, The Preserve, Shell Landing, Quail Hollow) and northern (Tunica National Golf & Tennis Club, River Bend Links, Mallard Pointe, Big Oaks, The Dogwoods, Kirkwood National).

“The Magnolia Golf Trail and its member courses highlight many of our great state’s attributes at value-laden prices,” said D. Craig Ray, director the Division of Tourism.

“I’m excited that the changes will really make the Trail take off,” Walsh said.

Worthy cause

Golf can be rewarding in a number of ways. And, one of those can be playing for a worthy cause. Charitable golf tournaments continue to grow in popularity across the state.

Crace said this rise in popularity is driven by a number of factors. Players can interact, making “giving” that much more enjoyable. He also pointed to the game itself — one doesn’t have to be in top-flight condition to play, and all ages can join in.

“Our biggest event each year is the Mayor’s Cup,” Crace said. “It’s an event that raises money for numerous organizations. It’s always full. You can look out there and see kids 16 years old to 18 years old playing along side folks who are 70 or 80.”

Colloredo wrapped it up in a sentence. “Golf is a game for a lifetime,” he said.

Whether playing for fun or charity, players have to have golf “stuff.” Golf equipment retailers are seeing steady business, as well, and are optimistic that 2007 will indeed be a stellar year.

“We were busy all winter, and now that the weather has warmed up, we are really busy,” said Steven Broadus, owner of Steven’s Golf Shop in Ridgeland. “People are looking at all the new drivers, the new styles and head shapes, and we’re doing a lot of re-gripping and selling a ton of used clubs, too.”

Jeff McIntyre with Nevada Bob’s Golf in Jackson said drivers are drawing crowds at his store. He said the Callaway Golf FT-i square-headed driver is a hot commodity. In fact, it’s so hot that they are back ordered — the next batch will not ship until the end of May — and Callaway has already met its one-year sales goal.

Another sales leader is colored grips. McIntyre said that the grips are longer-lasting than others, but admitted it was more about style than function.

“It’s like fly fishing,” he quipped. “It doesn’t matter how many fish you catch as long as you look good doing it.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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