Four Rounds in Mississippi

April 23, 2009 1:25:15 PM PDT
Golfers tend to be creatures of habit. Whether picking a foursome, or how we mark a ball, we are comfortable with what we know, even when vacationing. For instance, I have always been partial to golf vacations in Arizona, but four days in southern Mississippi have challenged that. As a golf destination, southern Mississippi redefines value within our lower forty-eight states. You get that fabled southern hospitality and graciousness, plus more than twenty courses offering exceptional variety, quality, and increasing acclaim from the golfing press. Most of them cost less than $100 to play, even in high season. Similar experiences in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, or Monterey, would set you back two or three times more.

Shell Landing Golf Club
Gautier, Mississippi
www.shelllanding.com

We based our stay in Biloxi, and began three days of play with a visit to Shell Landing Golf Club in nearby Gautier. This Davis Love III design has earned awards from Golf Digest and Golfweek magazines. It is challenging and playable, with broad fairways, but demanding angles for golfers who can follow a line. The course has five sets of tees, ranging in difficulty from 66.2/109 to 73.2/108.

If you play the correct tee, Shell Landing poses challenges and forces decisions, as on the 467- 565 yard, par-5, third. The hole features a slight dogleg right between inside/outside bunkers. A good player can go for the green with a long, accurate second shot across a fronting lake.

The par-4, 257-412 yard, sixth, is the first handicap hole, and also one of the most picturesque. Wetlands divide the teeing grounds, fairway, and green into three islands, with four penal bunkers placed to the right and left along the route. In those wetlands, you can still see abandoned boats disappearing amongst the weeds. They are remnants from Hurricane Katrina, and one reason why the landscape along this hole that feels like another world.

Shell Landing also has several memorable par-3's, but the last of them may leave the strongest impression. The seventeenth ranges from 110 to 193 yards, across wetlands and a creek, slightly uphill to a contoured green with three pot bunkers behind. The hole is not particularly difficult, but it's a beautiful shot.

The Preserve Golf Club
Vancleave, Mississippi
www.preservegc.com

If you finish early enough at Shell Landing, consider making a short drive and playing a second round at The Preserve Golf Club in Vancleave. This course is sensational, offering a technical challenges and a visual feast. True to its name, The Preserve routes through 18-hundred acres of a dedicated nature area, and is one of only a few golf courses in the world to earn a Certified Silver designation from Audubon International. Golf your ball among bogs, swamps, lakes, Long Leaf Pine Savannah, live oak groves, and native grass prairies. We heard rumors of an alligator in one of the sand traps, but he fled to the woods, apparently, after advance warnings of my errant swing.

Jerry Pate's design of The Preserve has no trick holes, just a variety of very good ones with high shot values. Pate laid out his themes in the first one-third of the course. They set the tone for your day, much like the overture to a compelling opera. He serves par threes, fours, fives, mixing in doglegs, water carries, and direction changes from the wind.

The number one handicap is a par-3. The 154-225 yard, sixteenth, plays right to left. Sculptured bunkers protect the left side, and fortify the front. If the pin is cut left, a shot to the middle of this green will trickle left to the hole. Redan, anyone?

This year, Golfweek Magazine declared The Preserve as one of the best public access courses in Mississippi. In 2006, Golf Digest named it as the sixth best new course in America. This course deserves those honors.

Grand Bear Golf Club
Saucier, Mississippi
www.golfgrandbear.com

This is a Jack Nicklaus Signature Design golf course. Among golf brands, that is like saying a piece of jewelry came from Tiffany's. It's speaks to quality, from the setting, to the conditioning, the clubhouse, and the service. Need we add that the routing is terrific? As with other Nicklaus Signature courses, Grand Bear challenges players from their first tee shots. It allows them to gain a little confidence, and then smacks them down like a hard right from an angry black bear.

Nicklaus was a fader of the ball. That ball flight will serve a right-handed player well for most of the day, but beware. The fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth holes require gutsy draws, or straight shots at the very worst.

The par-5, fifth, which plays 423-603 yards, is the number one handicap, and deservedly so, particularly from the back two tees. Nicklaus divided the fairway in two segments. A generous landing area awaits your drive. Your second must clear a native area, and while that fairway is wide, as well, you will need to leave your shot on the left side for your approach.

The course offers five sets of tees, ranging from 4800-7200 yards. Such variety makes every hole fair, and each is a gem, even the supposedly less memorable ones. The 284-418 yard, par-4, tenth, is a classic dogleg right, with a bunker guarding the inside elbow. There are many holes like this in golf, but as one of its kind, Nicklaus executed the tenth to perfection A good player might carry the corner hoping to gain an advantage, but such a play requires strength and utmost accuracy. The slightest error, right, leaves an uphill approach over a trap, which guards the green's front right side.

My advice...lay back, and hit a wedge from 100 yards. This course provides enough excitement, already.

Grand Bear has earned multiple honors. When Grand Bear opened in 2005, Golf Digest listed it as one of the nation's Top 100 Courses., and then ranked it again among the best new ones. Last year, Golfweek ranked Grand Bear second in Mississippi among courses that anyone can play. After a couple of trips around, you might even play it well.

Fallen Oak
Saucier, Mississippi
www.fallenoak.com

Here is a resort golfing experience as good as any course, anywhere. Tom Fazio designed Fallen Oak. He is the architect of Shadow Creek outside Las Vegas, Martis Camp in the Sierra, and fourteen others on the Golf Digest lists. As one of their panelists, I arrived with expectations. Two days earlier, my fellow voters had ranked Fallen Oak as the nineteenth best public course in the nation, and that ranking reflects mostly the design, which stretches 7487 yards from the longest of five tees.

The service is first-class, but not pretentious. As you arrive at the clubhouse, an attendant takes your shoes, and returns them polished, with new spikes. The club slides your name into a plush locker, and anticipates a player's needs even before he becomes aware of them.

Fallen Oak is an exclusive amenity of the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino, but not a moneymaker on its own. "They pay me to spend millions of dollars a year," said general manager David Stinson.

"That must remove some of the pressure," I suggested. "You don't have to turn a profit."

"It's a different kind of pressure," Stinson replied. "We want every golfer, here, to have a perfect experience. That's our particular standard."

"The course does not open when we treat the greens," said Matt Hughes, the director of grounds. "We want it to look natural, but also to play well." Matt is an aficionado of classic design, and it shows in his maintenance of Fallen Oak. The course does, in fact, play perfectly, and his maintenance is impeccable, but nowhere is it over-the-top or intimidating. This course fits naturally into the landscape of oaks, pine ridges, streams, lakes and marshes.

Every hole stands out, and two of them, in particular. The 447-604 yard, par-5, fifteenth is the number two handicap. It plays long and straight, with fairway bunkers determining your strategies from the tee, and also for your second shot. If you miss your approach short, to the right, a deep grass bunker will minimize your changes for a recovery.

But, Fazio left his best for last. The 375-493 yard, par-4, eighteenth is one of the best finishing holes I have ever played. It is a beautiful brute requiring nerve, strength, and precision around bunkers, and into a green protected by water on the left side. When you bust a drive, and still have a stout four-iron to get home, you know you're playing golf. I took that shot from beneath an old oak tree which if falling down on the right side of the fairway, about 190 yards out.

"That tree is our namesake," Matt pointed out.

They picked a good one.

Travel Packages

There are two primary reasons we can find such golfing values in Mississippi. It has a lower cost of living, and casinos subsidize the courses as attractions.

The Preserve is part of The Palace Resort Casino.

Grand Bear belongs to Harrah's Grand Casino.

Fallen Oak is open only to guests at the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino. It is an MGM-Mirage resort.

The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Biloxi is not affiliated with a golf course, but offers packages.

You can find such deals online, at www.Golfcoast.com or www.visitmississippi.org.

Food

Finally, Gulfport and Biloxi provide epicurean delights that are so sinful, so filling, and so reasonable, that you might add a pound or two just remembering them.

For an authentic experience, visit Lookout 49 in Gulfport. The setting is as comfortable and casual as a short-sleeved shirt, and the food is sensational. Begin with the fried green tomatoes with shrimp in a tomato basil cream. Add a plate of fried blue crab claws with house remoulade. Try to contain yourself through the spicy seafood gumbo. And then, if you're a glutton, order the filet seared and blackened with roasted garlic cream and blue cheese on top.

We also had a very good meals at Vibe in at Hard Rock Biloxi, and at Memphis Q in the Beau Rivage. Vibe serves an ahi tuna appetizer that stops the world. Just order two, and grab fast.

Lastly, it took a trip to Mississippi to discover a rival for The Olympic Club's supposed 'best burger in golf'. Order a plate of thee sliders at Fallen Oak. Each is made from three ounces of Kobe beef, topped with cheese and thinly-sliced, slightly grilled red onions. You get homemade waffle chips, or fresh cut French fries on the side. Combine them with homemade Bloody Mary, and whatever you shoot on that sensational golf course, you will have already scored.


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