MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis has never lacked great BBQ joints, blues clubs or Elvis memorabilia. What it has lacked are public golf courses. Memphis native Justin Timberlake is hoping to change that in a very big way.
On Labor Day, Timberlake was in town to officially reopen his public golf facility, Mirimichi. Located about 30 minutes from downtown, Mirimichi was formally Big Creek Golf Course. Timberlake grew up a short distance away, and long before he was an international star he caught the golfing bug playing the course. When the course went up for sale, it was in danger of being torn down and turned into a housing development. Timberlake, along with his mother, Lynn Harless, and stepfather, Paul Harless, who had their wedding reception at the course, stepped in and were able to save it.
After extensive renovations, Mirimichi — a Native American word meaning “happy retreat” — opened in July 2009. But that was just the beginning. According to Paul Harless, a positive response from the community led them to accelerate a three-year improvement plan. Instead of gradually adding features over the next few years, they closed the course in January 2010 and added them all at once.
“The new mission was to get it done in six months,” Paul Harless said.
In addition to improvements to the 7,479-yard championship course, Mirimichi now boasts a Callaway Performance Center, an expansive practice facility, an 18-hole putting course and a 9-hole executive course. The changes are part of Timberlake’s overall philosophy of creating a golf facility that meets the needs of everyone from professional golfers to beginners.
Timberlake also wanted to make the course environmentally friendly. Partnering with Audubon International, Mirimichi now boasts an expansive plan to not only limit the course’s impact, but also to enhance the surrounding environment. That means reducing energy consumption in the clubhouse, reducing pesticide applications and regularly monitoring water quality. The Golf Environment Organization (GEO), a nonprofit “working to enhance the economic, social and environmental benefits of golf,” awarded Mirimichi its green certification, the first course in the Americas to receive the honor.
“Mirimichi is what we, as an organization, want every golf course to aspire to,” said Bud Smart, regional director for GEO.
The green makeover extends inside the clubhouse, where patrons can buy eco-friendly hats, and even the business cards from the teaching pros read, “Printed on paper made with 100% post consumer fiber.”
Not all of the changes were strictly for the environment. Timberlake and his team at Mirimichi — which includes General Manager Rich Peterson, Marketing Director Deb Peterson and Director of Golf Greg King — hope to host the U.S. Amateur Public Links and maybe one day bring a major championship to Memphis.
“As far as hosting a major championship, we’re going to wave our flag as tall and as proud as we can and hope that we make some waves,” Timberlake said.
In order to get the course in tournament shape, Mirimichi brought in Bergin Golf Designs and Sanders Golf Construction. The greens were re-contoured and redone with Bermuda grass to allow shots to hold the greens, which can now run at Augusta-like speeds. Four greens were moved closer to the water to add some drama, but King said that doesn’t mean it will be harder on the weekend golfer.
“Yes, when you move greens closer to the water, you do challenge that tournament player,” King said. “But you also provide a safe zone, a bail out, for the average player.”
Some bunkers were moved or eliminated, but the big difference, King said, is the consistency of the sand. Crushed granite, the same eye-blinding white powder found in the bunkers at Augusta National, was used at Mirimichi.
With bunkers on 17 holes, and water coming into play on 12, Mirimichi is a stern test from any set of tees. I played from the Gold Sun tees — 6,447 yards with a course rating of 71.4 and a slope rating of 131 — and quickly found myself in trouble after duck-hooking my drive into the water on the short par-4 opener. Fairway bunkers have to be avoided on almost every hole, so don’t automatically go to every tee with a big stick.
And don’t always think you have to hit a high, soft shot to hold the rock-hard greens. With firm conditions, several holes allow for low, running approaches. Mirimichi won’t be mistaken for a true links course, but it’s refreshing to see a course where shot selection can be as important as club selection. Another nice touch is the shaved grass around every green, which allows players to use short-game imagination to hit bump-and-runs, pitches and even putts from off the green.
Get your scoring done on the front nine, because the back nine, which was remodeled first, gets tighter and trickier. Water comes into play on every hole except the par-4 15th, but it’s no pushover. Fairway bunkers dot both sides, and anyone hitting a squirrelly drive from the middle tees has to contend with the native grass surrounding the hole.
“The front nine and the back nine could be from two different courses,” Timberlake said. “I think it all came together.”
The real gems of Mirimichi are the four par 3s. Water makes your hands sweat on three of them, while the other, no. 3, is a 223-yard behemoth with large bunkers fronting the green. No. 11, Timberlake’s favorite hole, is 181 yards with a green that is nearly surrounded by water. The only dry spot — the left side — has a bunker and a large collection area for anyone with a case of the pull-hooks.
For those players not ready for the championship course, Mirimichi offers its 9-hole, par-35 executive course, “Little Mirimichi.” Consisting of six par 4s, two par 3s and one par 5, Little Mirimichi has five sets of tees ranging from 2,530 yards to 1,698 yards. It’s not only a great way for kids to learn the game, but it’s also perfect for anyone who’s pressed for time but still wants to work in a quick round.
The changes have been met with praise not only from the Memphis community, but from Timberlake’s friends on Tour. John Daly recently tweeted that Mirimichi was his new favorite course. And Memphis native Loren Roberts came through and broke Timberlake’s scoring record on the back nine. It just goes to show even someone like Timberlake can’t have it all.
“I was happy to play second fiddle to [Roberts],” Timberlake said.