The nationwide explosion of casino gambling has fueled an interesting side effect -- a nationwide explosion of casino golf courses, often of better quality and at lower prices than their non-casino peers.
In few places is this selection larger, better or more of a bargain than on the Gulf Coast, where famous designers and full-service hotels vie with plush beaches and wonderful regional cuisine for the traveler's attention.
The epicenter of casino golf is the Biloxi/Gulfport stretch of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which certainly warrants a trip in and of itself: There are 14 casino hotels and 32 golf courses, all in close proximity.
The wide, soft and inviting man-made sand beach running 26 continuous miles from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi is the world's largest. This area was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, but the silver lining is that the hotels, courses and even the beach are all better than ever after being repaired or rebuilt.
If money is no object, the best course in the region is also one of the best in the entire East, casino or no casino, Fallen Oak Golf Course, a Tom Fazio design that hosts an annual Champions Tour event. To play, you must stay at the Beau Rivage, a very full-service casino hotel that would feel right at home on the Las Vegas Strip.
Part of MGM Mirage Resorts, it is known as the "Bellagio of the East," and, accordingly, Fallen Oak is the sister course to the Bellagio's fabled Shadow Creek in North Las Vegas, complete with no members, caddies, immaculate conditioning, white-glove service and pricey greens fees -- $300. Dripping Spanish moss, its creeks lined with old oaks and full of deep, sandy bunkers, it is exquisitely Southern and a joy to play, often practically empty and consistently the second highest-ranked casino course in the world after Shadow Creek.
The rest of the region is no slouch and much more affordable. The family-owned Island View is the best casino hotel you never heard of, first class all the way, with an equally underrated golf course, Windance Country Club, that you will be glad you tried. Likewise, Harrah's Grand Casino, rebuilt since Katrina, has Grand Bear Golf Course, a very scenic Jack Nicklaus design that sits in the middle of a vast nature preserve, while Shell Landing Golf Club -- a Davis Love signature design full of large, flat-bottomed bunkers, with several approaches and forced carries over water -- is owned by the IP Casino.
The Preserve Golf Club, designed by Jerry Pate, is owned by the just renovated, reopened and now much more luxurious Palace, and enjoys a pristine, 245-acre site within a nearly 2,000-acre nature preserve.
After Fallen Oak, golf prices drop dramatically, and at around $100, the Preserve is the priciest in the region, yet it's still a bargain. All of these casino courses (except Fallen Oak) offer stay-and-play packages that are often absurdly cheap, often less than $100 per night for golf and a room. In fact, bargain-basement prices sometimes hurt the region, giving it a low-quality image, but these golf courses and hotels are just as good and often better than those in golf destinations charging two to three times as much.
All of these casinos are fully featured with small poker rooms, the full complement of table games and multiple dining and bar options, and because it is a beach, fishing, golf and gaming region, Biloxi and Gulfport attract an energetic crowd that is often ready to go late into the night. Southern hospitality is no cliche, and the dealers and staff here are some of the friendliest any place.
Mississippi's coastal casino golf offerings are superior to its inland ones, mainly around Tunica, with one notable exception: the Native American-owned Pearl River casino resort in Philadelphia, with three hotels and two standout golf courses, both of which have been Golf Magazine's top 100.
From a golf quality and value perspective, Pearl River is easily one of the nation's top casino destinations. The Dancing Rabbit Golf Club features The Azaleas and The Oaks Courses, both designed by Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate and often compared favorably to Augusta National due to the extensive flowers and trees, immaculate landscaping and elaborate stonework throughout. Between the two casino hotels, the rooms in the clubhouse aimed at hard-core golfers and a unique, three-bedroom fairway home with unlimited golf packages, deals abound here and the golf is worth every penny.
Golf and gaming in Alabama and Louisiana
Neighboring Alabama and Louisiana do not have nearly as many full-scale casino resorts or big-name designer golf courses as Mississippi; and the Alabama casinos mainly rely on partnerships with nearby public golf courses. These can offer deals but miss the point of casino golf, which is no-expense-spared, built-from-scratch, subsidized courses.
Louisiana, however, does have several bargain-priced, real casino-golf offerings. The Coushatta Casino Resort features the Koasati Pines Course, nestled in the pristine forest and wetlands of the state's southwest, with more than 60 acres of water on the course. Golf, complete with GPS-equipped carts, runs just $35-$65, and the casino has an impressive array of table games, live bingo and even a 20-table poker room, plus six restaurants.
The L'Auberge Casino Resort on Lake Charles is a notable exception to the smaller casino rule here and probably the nicest in the state, with a full spa, shopping arcade, large pool area and myriad dining and entertainment options, plus a lively casino and large poker room. It's home to the only public Tom Fazio design in Louisiana, Contraband Bayou Golf Club, an impressive layout routed around eight pristine lakes. Guest rates never break a C-note, and most of the time greens fees run just $49-$69, making it a sure thing.