Tom Bailey, Commercial Appeal | November 14, 2016 Photos by Brandon Dill
Mirimichi will do something on Dec. 17 that Southern golf courses just don’t do: Close for the winter months. But then the Millington-area track always was unusual. What other course around Memphis got a $25 million makeover by an entertainment superstar? What other course has converted some of its money-losing acreage into a money-making sod farm? And what other golf facility is home to a free-range llama named Dolly?
Llamas happen to symbolize perseverance, fitting for a golf course that endured back-to-back floods in 2010-2011 and a national golf economy that is flat at best. Mirimichi not only will reopen in mid-March with grounds more refined and beautiful than ever, says owner Fred Edmaiston, the course will be around for many years to come.
“I think it will be here long after I’m gone away,” he says. “I think I’m going to hold on to this as long as I can. And I can a long time.” Edmaiston apparently has the resources to weather losses that climbed above $100,000 in 2015, but will be half that for 2016. He owns Aircon Corporation, which makes air-pollution-control equipment for other manufacturers. He describes Aircon as “very profitable,” having made a profit 38 of the past 40 years.
In his mid-60s, Edmaiston applies his business skills to Mirimichi. He has trimmed the payroll from 48 to 32 employees, closed the money-losing, nine-hole executive course and converted 55 acres into a sod farm of Patriot Bermuda and Zoysia turf grasses.
Two years have passed since Edmaiston bought Mirimichi from Shelby Forest native Justin Timberlake. Timberlake and his family had purchased the old Big Creek Golf Course in 2007, spent millions rebuilding it, opened it as Mirimichi in 2009 and sold the 338 acres, clubhouse and other buildings for just $500,000 in an asset sell. (The purchase price of equipment was never revealed).
In summer 2014 Edmaiston was a Mirimichi member practicing on the range when an employee approached. Edmaiston told the employee that he had heard a strong rumor that the University of Memphis might take over Mirimichi. The employee was not at liberty to respond, but said, ” ‘By the way, how did you know that?’ ” Edmaiston recalls. “I said, ‘If it doesn’t work out, let me know’.”
The sale to Edmaiston’s real estate company, Three Star Leasing, closed on Oct. 31, 2014. The next year Edmaiston was out playing on the course he bought when Mirimichi general manager David Bartlett texted him: “JT is on the driving range.” Edmaiston steered his cart to the practice tee where he started talking to Justin Timberlake’s father, Paul Harless, while Timberlake continued pounding balls. “Then Justin turned around and said, ‘Fred, can we talk a minute?” The two stepped back a few paces. “He said, ‘I want to thank you and my family wants to thank you for what you’ve done. We didn’t have the time and our priorities changed. We love this place.’ “I said, ‘You’re welcome. You know, Justin, I just have got the keys to the place, man. I’m just a steward.’ “He said, ‘Make us proud’.”
7 percent winters
Edmaiston inherited only 37 dues-paying Mirimichi members, and that number fell to six when he offered everyone a full refund because of the sale. Edmaiston is sentimental about Mirimichi. As a native of nearby Frayser he had played many rounds there when it was called Woodstock and later Big Creek. But he also brings a businessman’s approach. His goal has been to cut expenses as much as possible while maintaining good service and conditions, and to find new ways to generate revenue.
The sod farm of high-end, well-irrigated turfs, for example, already accounts for 40 percent of Mirimichi’s revenue and Edmaiston projects it will be fully half the revenue within three years. His daughter, special events director Hallie Biggs, says the Mirimichi will host 15 weddings and up to 60 golf tournaments in 2017.
Edmaiston says he and his managers watch every dime, and discovered something important: Staying open during the three winter months last year represented 25 percent of the yearly expenses, but just 7 percent of the income. “It is very tough to wake up in the morning and snow and ice are on the ground and you say, ‘Mmmm, I’m in the golf business’,” Edmaiston says.
The course’s 18 greens total six acres that must be covered in freezing weather to protect the grass. Edmaiston has calculated it costs Mirimich $1,500 just to uncover and cover the greens for one day. “Plus, during the winter — which is totally absurd to me — (players) go on half-prices. Your revenues are half,” he says.
With the three-month furlough, the staff will shrink to about 10 people, mostly ground crew members. Without golfers on the course, they will have free reign to replace 300 dead trees and flowering shrubs, strengthen some golf-cart bridges that span 1.5 miles of stone-lined streams, and conduct something of a treasure hunt.
The two floods deposited a half-foot of silt, especially on the low, flat front nine holes. In the years since, course workers have managed to find and uncover all but five percent of the 2,800 sprinkler heads that irrigate all 338 acres.This fall’s lack of rain provided a clue to the whereabouts of the missing 140 sprinkler heads: Each is encircled by brown grass. The winter workers will scour the course to find the rest of the sprinkler heads.
Edmaiston is encouraged that floods from adjacent Big Creek are less likely to keep hurting Mirimichi. Timberlake raised the levee about five feet after the last flood, and work has started upstream near Millington on a $60 million flood-control project.
Follow the leader?
Last year, both Adidas and Nike announced they were leaving the golf equipment business. There are roughly 700 fewer golf courses in the U.S. now than there were in the early 2000s, according to the National Golf Foundation. The number of U.S. golfers has remained fairly flat at about 24 million to 25 million the past five years.
All of which suggest that Mirimichi may not be the last public or semi-private golf course to start closing during the winter months despite the Mid-South’s mild winters. “I think we’ll be the first,” Edmaiston says of winter shut-downs. “… Maybe some of these other golf courses around the city will follow what we’re doing. … Because maybe if they want to remain in business and remain profitable they may be following some leads here.”
Businessman and state Rep.-elect Mark Lovell owns Stonebridge Golf Club in Lakeland. “We considered it,” he says of closing Stonebridge in winter, when golf revenue there falls 75 percent. But Stonebridge has sold a number of annual memberships. “We feel like if we’re taking their money we need to be open,” he says. Besides, Memphis winters are mild and getting milder. “There are some days in December it will be sunshine and 50 degrees,” Lovell says.
Mickey Barker, the City of Memphis’ golf administrator, has considered but decided against closing some of the eight Memphis courses during the winter. Staying open, he says, takes advantage of “the number of playable days that we have during the winter. “We basically count on our revenue from April through October for the vast majority of our revenue,” Barker said. “Anything we get now through February is just a bonus.” Play is trending up in the city. The number of rounds played in 2015 was higher than in 2014, and 2016 is trending ahead of 2015, Barker says.
Re-teeing in March
Edmaiston and his top staff — daughter Hallie, general manager Bartlett and Steve Conley, vice president for sales and marketing — plan to reopen in March with promotions and fanfare. They will sell memberships for $300 a month, including range balls and use of golf carts. The message will be: “Better than it ever was,” said Conley. “This is a world-class golf facility.”
Mirimichi may be closing for the winter, but Edmaiston is hardly scaling back or merely holding on to what Timberlake built. He plans to make improvements each year. “For the next three to five years, the plan is to improve, improve, improve.”He’s aware some people feel he made a huge mistake buying Mirimichi.”That’s fine,” he says. “I got a right to make mistakes but I don’t feel this is one of them. I feel this is a diamond in the rough.”