Golf should be a part of any trip to the Gulf Coast area of Mississippi, where visitors will find some outstanding courses as well as superb accommodations, great restaurants and a quality of Southern hospitality that is unmatched.
The area is home to the annual Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a Champions Tour event that is played each spring. It's a way for the state to show off its quality facilities and for the area's 12 casino resorts to entertain visitors who come their way.
A recent golf trip to the area included four courses that ranged from good to great. Here's a look at them.
Fallen Oak Golf Club in Saucier, Miss.
Unless you want to ruin the rest of your trip, it makes the most sense to make Fallen Oak Golf Club your final destination. Otherwise the splendor and majesty of the Tom Fazio design will unfairly color your opinion of some other fine golf courses.
Fallen Oak has received a lot of attention and positive praise. It's not just hype, either. This is a golf course that is aesthetically excellent and will test players of all skill levels. And if you have a bad day at Fallen Oak, you won't be able to blame the conditions. The course is perfect, from the tee boxes to the verdant fairways and the immaculate greens. One player in our group remarked, "You can't even see where the old cups were replaced."
Fallen Oak is a difficult course, especially if you choose to play it from the back tees at 7,480 yards. Fazio's crew transplanted more than 1,000 trees (most of them mature pines, oaks and magnolias) to make the course unforgettable. The conditions are impeccable, from the Bermudagrass fairways and Bermuda greens, which run smooth and fast.
One of the signature qualities of Fallen Oak is the bunkers. These are strategically placed. They're deep. They seem to encourage the ball to roll toward them. Best advice: Stay away from them.
Fallen Oak was built by MGM-Mirage and is only available to visitors who stay at the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino. Golfers are shuttled to the course in limos, a 20-minute ride, and guaranteed a five-star experience from the time they arrive until the time of their departure.
The club will be closed this summer and will reopen around Labor Day 2014 due to a major bunker replacement plan. About 20 of the signature bunkers will be eliminated in an effort to make the course less penal to its resort guests. The changes won't affect the professionals who visit each year to compete in the Champions Tour's Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic.
Grand Bear Golf Course in Saucier, Miss.
Grand Bear Golf Course, a Jack Nicklaus design, is located in Saucier, Miss., about 20 minutes away from the casinos in Biloxi. Once you turn off the main road, it's a six-mile ride through the Desoto National Forest to reach the golf course.
If you're looking for quiet, this is the place for you. Like Fallen Oak, the only noises you're liable to hear are those of nature. Traffic noise? Forget about it.
Nicklaus routed the course around the Little Biloxi and Big Biloxi Rivers and around wetlands and rolling terrain. The clubhouse features several enlargements of the holes as Nicklaus sketched them, with notes written in the margin. It's interesting to see his instructions -- such as "save specimen tree" -- carried out on a grand scale.
The course plays 7,200 yards from the back tees. It features generous fairways, but features some difficult greens that only Jack Nicklaus could figure out. There are no bad holes at Grand Bear, but it all ends with a long par 4 (401 from the middle tees) that plays up the hill to the clubhouse. Naturally it's the toughest hole on the back nine.
Grand Bear is open to public play.
Windance Country Club in Gulfport, Miss.
You must drive through a subdivision in order to reach Windance Country Club's clubhouse, but there are actually few homes that impose their will on the course. Once you get started, the course seems to blend into the natural surroundings.
Mark McCumber designed the course, which opened in 1986. It plays just more than 6,600 yards to par 71 from the back tees. But don't let the lack of yardage lull you into a false sense of security. There's enough water and sand to keep you honest. And the greens fall into the small to medium-sized range and provide the course's ultimate defense.
Windance was purchased by the Island View Casino Resort in 2007, but it is open to public play. Since the change in ownership, the course has taken big strides forward with the addition of a new irrigation system, a new lake, new native areas and some decorative work. It is the former site of a Web.com Tour event (then known as the Nike and Hogan Tour) and produced some memorable winners -- Jim Furyk, Tom Lehman and Allen Doyle.
Diamondhead (Miss.) Country Club
Located in the small town of Diamondhead, about 45 minutes from Biloxi, Diamondhead Country Club is operated by the property owners association that oversees the two golf courses and learning center.
Diamondhead's Pine Course plays 6,832 yards from the back tees and the Cardinal course is a bit shorter at 6,730. Both carry a slope rating of 72.6, although most residents consider the Cardinal to be the tougher of the two layouts. Diamondhead is good enough to serve as the Tuesday qualifying site for the Champions Tour event in Mississippi.
The Pine Course was designed by Earl Stone. It features narrow, tree-lined fairways and plenty of water hazards and bunkers. The wind is also a factor on the Pine course, where it always seems to be blowing.
Diamondhead's Cardinal Course, designed by John LaFoy, is guarded by a more dense stand of woods, making it less susceptible to the winds. The fairways here seem to roll more than on the Pine and there are more traps with which to contend.
At first glance, the greens at Diamondhead don't appear to be anything special. The conditioning is certainly good enough to get your attention. But there is plenty of nuance in these greens, subtle breaks that will cause plenty of head shaking.
Other Gulf Coast golf courses to play
The Azaleas Course and Oaks Course at Dancing Rabbit in Philadelphia
The Bridges Golf Club at Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis
Shell Landing in Gautier
The Preserve Golf Club in Vancleave
The Oaks Golf Club in Pass Christian
Gulf Coast accommodations
A recent trip included two great hotels: Island View Casino in Gulfport and the Hard Rock Casino Resort in Biloxi. The two top-notch facilities are about 20 minutes apart and both on the Gulf of Mexico.
The Island View features 565 rooms and suites in well appointed rooms that feature flat-screen TVs and plenty of space to move around. The Island View is the only casino remaining in Gulfport and features a steady stream of established musical acts (Marshall Tucker Band) and regional favorites. There are 83,000 square feet of gaming, with 2,000 slot machines and a table-game area.
The Hard Rock recently opened its new Platinum Tower, which features rooms that have glass walls that face the street or the Gulf of Mexico. There are 1,300 slot machines and 50 table games. National entertainers come through on a regular basis; acts that played the Hard Rock over a recent period include Kellie Pickler, LeAnn Rimes and Gary Allan.
Gulf Coast golf: Final thoughts
Go when you get a chance. It's a fun trip to an easy-to-reach destination. The people are friendly, the food is good, and the golf is outstanding.
Like most Southeastern destinations, the ideal times to visit are the spring and fall; things get a little sticky in the summer when the humidity sets in. But places such as Fallen Oak and Grand Bear are worth visiting at any time of the year.