A south Arkansas gem

The sun is setting on a glorious spring evening as I have dinner with several of south Arkansas’ top business and civic leaders at Mystic Creek Golf Club in El Dorado. The golf course opened in 2013. Designed by Kenneth Dye Jr., it soon was recognized as one of the best courses in the nation.

Golfweek magazine rated it No. 34 last year on its Top 100 list of public courses. For three consecutive years, Golfweek placed Mystic Creek atop its list of courses the public can play in Arkansas.

The GolfNow website described Mystic Creek this way: “With cathedral pines similar to Augusta, high-flashing bunkers styles similar to A.W. Tillinghast, and domed greens with runoffs similar to Pinehurst #2, Mystic Creek is an unforgettable experience for golfers of all skill levels.”

Last year, Mystic Creek completed its wood, glass and steel clubhouse. It’s yet another architectural wonder. South Arkansas writer Richard Ledbetter described it as looking like “some Frank Lloyd Wright creation.”

Mystic Creek was the dream of El Dorado businessman Pete Parks. It was taken over by El Dorado-based Murphy USA in December 2017.

Parks told Ledbetter: “I was a kicker for the University of New Mexico Lobos. When I finished my football career in Albuquerque, I was looking for something athletic to do when a friend on the golf team introduced me to his sport. I played courses around New Mexico and was impressed by their quality. When I moved back home in 1991, I joined the El Dorado Country Club and played the Lions Club municipal course from time to time.

“They were nice, but I wished we had something more on a level with what I’d seen out west. I realized a top-notch course could act as an economic development tool to recruit industry. Companies don’t just look at the available workforce. They also look at amenities for their managers. I toured a lot of courses around the country, studying their layouts and who designed them. I landed on Ken Dye.”

Parks described Dye as an artist who “could do more with less than any other architect we found.” Parks also planned an upscale residential neighborhood adjoining the course.

“I owned 70 acres by then and sent Ken the USGS contour map,” Parks said. “We put together the El Dorado Properties LLC investment group, and it took 10 years to purchase the necessary land from four owners. The real estate helped pay for building the course and provided a community comparable to what you would see in other cities competing for industry. It would help us hold population by keeping retirees from moving elsewhere and also attract newcomers to the area.

“The total property is 612 acres with 242 of that in the course. The balance is residential real estate. That includes 192 lots of varying size. We have different offerings with buyers building a variety of homes. … The clubhouse was the final piece of the project, and teaming with Murphy was a win-win for everyone. We began logging in 2005 when a timber company still owned the land. They were able to cut out the fairways according to our plan.”

Additional clearing began in 2008.

“Higher-than-normal rainfall during 2009 cost us a whole year,” Parks said. “We spent a tremendous amount of money that year because we had to keep our staff and equipment in place. We discovered our water velocity on the course was significantly faster than expected. We realized we would be chasing erosion for some time if we seeded fairways. So we sodded instead. That took a good deal more funding than anticipated.”

The course began hosting its first events in August 2012 with an official opening in May 2013. In September 2015, Mystic Creek first hosted a Symetra Tour stop for professional women’s golf. Last year’s Murphy USA El Dorado Shootout had a 108-player field and a total purse of $175,000.

Upon seeing the course for the first time last fall, one participant said: “This place is terrific, isn’t it? It’s just so good. It reminds me of Pinehurst.”

The Symetra Tour is the official qualifying tour of the LPGA Tour and is in its 42nd season. More than 600 golfers have moved on to the LPGA Tour and won more than 430 LPGA tournaments.

One former Murphy USA official said the company “loved having a world-class golf course in our own backyard that employees and the community could enjoy. It’s also a great place to entertain friends and vendor partners. The fact that we were already hosting Symetra here was important. We met with Pete Parks and his investors and carved out the course while they kept the real estate development.”

Trailers were used the first few years the course was open as offices and locker rooms. DLR, a nationally known design firm that earlier had done work on El Dorado’s Murphy Arts District, designed the clubhouse with large windows to take in the surrounding landscape. The back deck overlooks the 18th green.

The ribbon-cutting for the clubhouse took place in June 2021. The restaurant in the clubhouse is open to the public.

“Our creek is an overflow from a spring where local people came to get drinking water back in the 1930s,” Parks said. “I was looking for something different that wouldn’t be confused with other courses. With the topography, I considered calling it Timber Hills. But there’s already a course by that name. Our branch was an unnamed tributary of Holmes Creek, so I dubbed it Mystic Creek. The original concept was to provide a world-class golf course with every amenity next door to a beautiful residential neighborhood.”

Mission accomplished in El Dorado.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He’s also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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