The golf courses located in the southern portion of Mississippi get a lot of attention, as well they should. Fallen Oak and Grand Bear, a pair of Biloxi-area gems, are worthy of every ounce of adulation they receive.
However, there's much more to golf destinations than those found on the Gulf Coast. You don't have to look too hard to find some outstanding courses in the middle portion of the state, destinations that are worth consideration for any future buddy trip or weekend visit.
A recent trip to the Jackson area produced three excellent courses that are open to the public.
Dancing Rabbit Golf Club: Two outstanding courses
The Pearl River Resort in Philadelphia, Miss., about a one-hour drive from Jackson, is a casino resort operated by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The resort includes two casinos, the Golden Moon and the Silver Star, and features more than 1,000 rooms. The resort also has two exceptional courses at the Dancing Rabbit Golf Club that are affordable, available and quite different.
The two golf courses were designed through the collaboration of architects Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate. The Azaleas Course generally ranks higher, but only by a whisker. The Azaleas features bermudagrass fairways and bentgrass greens. Dancing Rabbit's Oaks Course features Zoysia fairways and Champions bermuda greens. Although they share the same property, the two are quite different.
"I tell people they need to play both of them to get an idea of the way they play," said Mark Powell, the director of golf at Dancing Rabbit. "Some people like the Azalea better and some people like the Oaks. They're both championship golf courses."
The Azaleas Course feels more closed-in off the tee, as the designers force players to play through the prescribed corridors. The course contains ample bunkering and uses plenty of creeks and water to keep your attention. The Azaleas is a place that requires some local knowledge or you risk finding some unexpected trouble.
A perfect example is the 17th hole, a par 5 that plays 459 yards from the middle tees. After hitting a tee shot to a spacious landing area, a player has the option of taking the risk-reward bait and firing a long approach into a bunkered green. Those who lay up will find a generous safety zone and a short approach into a deep green. This hole is considered by many to be the best on the course.
The Azaleas keeps players happy by including five par 4s that measure less than 400 yards from the middle tees. These can create birdie opportunities, if you play smart and don't get overly aggressive. The 15th is only 278 yards from the middle tees and can be attacked, although there are a pair of big bunkers to grab anything that's short or off-line.
The Oaks Course has an entirely different feel. The view of the tee box seems more open, with the hole right in front of you. The fairways seem more forgiving. Middle-tee players get a break here, too; nine of the par 4s measure less than 400 yards.
Shorter hitters will love no. 8, which plays 274 yards from the white tees. The downhill par 4 is quite drivable, but there's a bunker in the right front to catch something that's off-line. And, in case you get too pumped up, there's a lake behind the green that will turn your ecstasy into agony.
Local knowledge helps here, too. That's especially true at the 363-yard 12th hole, where anything hit off-line to the right will catch an embankment and roll down a hill. Even if you find your ball, the trees will block the second shot.
The best bet at both courses is to shoot for the aiming sticks provided in many of the fairways. Those are set up to give you the optimal shots into the green and are especially helpful the first time you play.
Quail Hollow Golf Course in McComb, Miss.
Quail Hollow Golf Course is about an hour south of Jackson. It's not far from a lot of places: New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Natchez and Hattiesburg. The course is located in the Percy Quin State Park, one of Mississippi's original state parks that was cleared and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
The golf course was built by Arthur Hills, who optimized the terrain to create an exceptional venue. You won't believe it's a state park course and the price tag screams value. You're likely to see deer and waterfowl as you play.
The closing holes on each side are outstanding, both par 5s that involve a lake that sits in front of the clubhouse. The ninth hole, 475 yards from the white tees, requires a drive over a tributary and negotiation of a narrow stretch of fairway that's bordered on the right by the lake. The 18th hole, which plays 483 yards from the whites, is downhill and has water on the left side all the way to the green.
The greens were transitioned to bermuda a few years ago and stay in good condition. They aren't as fast as those at Dancing Rabbit, but they're still pretty quick and putt true. You won't be disappointed.
The state also operates Mallard Pointe Golf Course in Sardis, designed by Bob Cupp, and The Dogwoods Golf Course at Grenada Lake, both northern Mississippi golf courses. The nine-hole LeFleur's Bluff Golf Course is located in the Jackson area.
Accommodations and dining
There are plenty of rooms to be found at the Silver Star and Golden Moon casinos. Some of the rooms at the Golden Moon were being renovated on a recent visit. Visitors will find luxurious accommodations at both facilities, plus they're convenient to the gaming tables.
The Dancing Rabbit also offers rooms at the golf clubhouse. These eight suites are on the second floor of the clubhouse feature a king-sized bed and access to a wraparound porch that's perfect for unwinding with a cigar or watching the sunset. Plus, guests at the golf clubhouse have private use of a lighted golf car that can be driven to the Silver Star casino and parked on the sidewalk just outside the entrance.
The culinary highlight is a visit to Phillip M's restaurant, named in honor of late tribal chief Phillip Martin. The award-winning establishment features fine steaks and seafood and some audacious desserts. Other dining options include a buffet and a sports bar. The Club House Restaurant at the golf course serves breakfast and lunch each day and has a veranda that overlooks the 18th green.
There are golf villas and lodging available at Percy Quin State Park. There are also chain hotels closer to Interstate 55, just a few miles away.
Dancing Rabbit and Quail Hollow: Final thoughts
Dancing Rabbit Golf Club gets high marks in every possible area. The staff is friendly and helpful. The courses are in excellent condition; the bentgrass greens were a real treat to putt on, although those bermuda greens were faster and quite true. Plus, director of golf Powell is always looking for ways to make things better, whether it's fixing a bunker or adding a pavilion for golfers to gather after their outing. These are two excellent courses with great amenities. And, if you enjoy playing a little blackjack or a few hands of poker, you'll have a great time.
Quail Hollow Golf Course is exceptional too. It's rougher around the edges than Dancing Rabbit; it doesn't have the same budget. But the greens were very good and the fairways were excellent. It didn't feel like a state-owned golf course. There are limited amenities, but the price can't be topped.
If you get a chance to play any of these courses, you should take advantage of the opportunity.