HATTIESBURG — Right now, a rolling landscape of churned earth is all that can be seen at the northeast corner of the Hattiesburg Country Club.
Within the next few months, those 5½ acres will be transformed into the kind of first-class practice facilities that the Southern Miss men’s and women’s golf teams never have been able to call their own.
Construction is expected to begin within the next week to 10 days on the $270,000 first phase that will create separate greens for short-game work, as well as an all-weather driving range.
“Phase one will be completed this summer, so they’ll be able to use it,” said Brian Morrison, USM associate athletic director for major gifts. “Most of it will be sodded, some of it sprigged, so it should be ready for the golfers by the end of August, first of September.”
USM men’s golf coach Jerry Weeks said the initial phase will create a 10,000-square-foot chipping green, a 6,000-sqaure-foot putting green and a driving range laid with artificial turf.
“That will provide our players the opportunity to hit all kinds of short shots in and around this green,” Weeks said. “We can hit shots from about 80 yards to 120 yards, so all the scoring shots that we need to have, we will have available to us.
“The (putting) green will take a lot of pressure off the existing putting green near the clubhouse.”
Later phases will add an indoor “learning facility,” as well as a clubhouse for USM golfers and coaches.
“We think, ultimately, it could be a significant game-changer for our men’s and women’s golf teams,” USM athletic director Jeff Hammond said.
The project further cements HCC’s status as USM’s new home.
Southern Miss, which had called other area courses home since Van Hook Golf Course was closed in 2004, entered a long-term agreement last fall that will allow the USM teams’ two dozen or so golfers to not only practice but hold tournaments at the private club.
The land for the new facilities was purchased and then donated to the university by club members. Private funds raised by the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation will be used to cover construction costs.
HCC member Kim Bradley, who served on a HCC committee with Chris Inman and Forrest Roberts regarding the project, said Weeks, who spent 25 years as HCC’s golf professional and director of golf operations before becoming USM’s head coach was instrumental in getting the project across the finish line.
“Jerry Weeks has been there 25 years at the country club and everybody believes in Jerry,” Bradley said. “Everybody does. He makes everything credible, he makes everything right, and that’s why it’s such a super mix because he’s the one standing there. He’s the one making the presentation, and he has a lot of credibility with the members of that club.
“This is a very important step, and it’s been on the board for a long time, but it just had some hurdles to hop. But when Jerry became the golf coach, this was one of his priorities, and he’s worked hard at it. Getting it through the (College Board), getting it through legal, you know, like, ‘How can this work?'”
USM women’s golf coach Julie Gallup, who also advocated for the project and had been involved with Weeks in its scope and design, said the new venues will be a boon in recruiting.
“They’ve spent a lot of time making sure that everything Jerry and I have mentioned that we need is fitting into the design,” said Gallup, who will be entering her 14th season at USM. “It’s just unbelievable to think of where we’ve come from when I got this job, where we were out at Van Hook and we were picking up our own golf balls on the range there.
“I feel like Southern Miss golf is a product to offer to the top golfers now, and is a viable opportunity for them to take advantage of, where 10 to 13 years ago, there was such a vast difference in what we had to offer kids that it was hard to land them. This is going to make a difference and allow us to get those upper-echelon players and then with our ability to coach them once they’re here, the sky’s the limit.”
Weeks, who will enter his eighth season with the USM program, said the new facilities will provide the necessary elements to strengthen both programs.
“We had a couple of unofficial visits come in here a few weeks ago, and they saw the cleared area, and were asking, ‘What is that?’ and were very excited about it,” Weeks said. “They played the golf course, and they know how good it is.
“The three elements you have to have are the short-game facility, you’ve got to have a golf course that is accessible and then you’ve got to have a learning center, and those three will be done. We’ll have all the pieces in place to get that quality athlete.”
Fund raising for the project’s second phase already has begun. According to College Board documents, once the indoor facility and clubhouse are finished, the cost will run between $1 million and $1.2 million.
“I believe that (phase two) will go fairly quickly with what they have to raise,” Bradley said. “They already have some big (financial) commitments for phase two, but phase one has to be completed first.”