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.
Many examples of this -- including some of the oldest, some of the newest and the only casino course to ever host a major -- are spread throughout the vast expanse that is the Midwest.
Casino golf in Indiana
When looking at Midwestern casino golf destinations, it is impossible to miss French Lick, Ind., home to pair of massive, joined-at-the-hip resort hotels that once hosted Al Capone and now are going all gangster on professional golfers.
It is here that a passionate Pete Dye (an Indiana resident) decided to take a hard and fast stand against quickly changing golf club and ball technology, and the growing distance pros hit the ball, with this 8,100-yard assault on PGA Tour drives. The Pete Dye Course at the French Lick Resort features cross hazards 300 yards from the tips to force long hitters to lay-up, and unique "volcano bunkers," mounds whose tops have been lopped off and filled with sand, so you can now play a bunker shot down to a fairway 20 feet below.
It's gimmicky but a gimmick worth checking out, though steep at more than $300 and for hotel guests only.
A much better buy and not to be missed is the Donald Ross Course, which hosted the 1924 PGA Championship, won by Walter Hagen, and recently undertook a $5 million historic renovation. At about $100 or less, it is both a steal and a shot at history, as the only casino course to have hosted a Major.
French Lick Resort also has a nine-hole course and a new 18, Sultan's Run Golf Course, about 30 minutes away, and they offer various packages combining these, which can substantially reduce the cost of the Dye Course.
French Lick is a sprawling resort that includes two grand hotels cut from the Greenbrier or Homestead cloth -- French Lick Springs and Baden Springs -- both rich in history, with a large spa, multiple restaurants and bars, and activities from bowling to hiking to horseback riding. However, the casino itself, located at the French Lick Hotel, is surprisingly small and dated, with no poker and a lot of smoking, patronized by a decidedly older and more staid crowd than most gaming destinations.
For a livelier gambling experience in the Hoosier State, the Belterra Casino Resort in Florence boasts an impressive gaming lineup, with every table game from baccarat to Caribbean Stud, and a lively poker room with regularly scheduled tournaments. This is a real resort, with a wide range of dining choices, including an outpost of Cincinnati's excellent dry-aged Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, a large spa and the impressive Belterra Golf Course -- a Fazio course -- just outside the door.
Showcasing the natural setting of gently rolling hills, lakes and lots and lots of trees, this course is so popular it attracts gofers from Cincinnati, Louisville and Indy. Guests cannot spend over $100 to play and save even more with lodging packages.
Casino and golf action in Minnesota
Minnesota has been a hotbed of high-quality, low-cost casino golf, including the Rees Jones-designed Dacotah Ridge Golf Club, carved through the Minnesota prairie and wrapping around a 14-acre lake, part of the adjacent Jackpot Junction casino owned by the Lower Sioux Indian Community.
The nearly half million-square-foot casino is surprisingly large, with tons of slots, table games and a fine poker room. It has a decent slate of eateries, several bars and live entertainment nightly -- including polka. Prices are dirt cheap with peak season stay-and-play packages with carts from $74, and the most deluxe package, with a high roller suite and two rounds, is $184 on a peak weekend.
The very best casino course in the Land of Lakes is the Wilderness at Fortune Bay, in the desolate northern reaches, near International Falls. Jeffrey Brauer, who gained national prominence with Minnesota's award-winning Giant's Ridge, built a wonderful course with one memorable shot after another, including a terrific three-hole stretch along the shores of Lake Vermillion.
Part of the adjacent Fortune Bay casino, green fees run $69-$96 with lodging packages from $118. The golf is much better than the casino, which is sort of hokey, has slots, bingo and few table games, with fairly mundane entertainment and nightlife options.
Mystic Lake is a sprawling Minnesota resort development less than half an hour from the Twin Cities, on the lands of the Mdewakanton Sioux Community that includes the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, the Little Six Casino, freestanding restaurants, stores, services, an ice center, fitness center, bowling alley, large wellness center and spa, vast organic gardens, a natural food store and an RV park.
The Meadows at Mystic Lake was originally the Lone Pine Course, but when the tribe bought it, they closed it for two years for a total redesign, and the course was essentially all new -- and improved -- in 2005.
Like most casino courses, it is blissfully home free and, instead, surrounded by 11-acres of wildflowers bordering the course, with water on 13 holes and four waterfalls to reinforce this theme. It covers rolling terrain with impeccably maintained bentgrass from tee to green.
But while the casino is modern and well done, it has scant gaming, limited to blackjack, slots, bingo, keno and lottery tickets. Uniquely, food choices are much more varied than gambling, with 10 eateries. The Little Six casino next door is simply a smaller and more intimate version with essentially the same gaming. Nightlife options are severely limited at both, at least if you drink, since the entire community is alcohol free.
Casino and golf action in Michigan
Few of Michigan's casinos feature golf courses, but there is one notable exception worth seeking out.
Way north in the Upper Peninsula lies the low-key Island Resort Casino, which looks suspiciously like an airport hotel. Frankly, there would not be much reason to come here were it not for the superlative Sweetgrass Golf Club, which made every publication's Best New Course list when it opened in 2009. It features one of the best executed island greens in all of golf, a classic Biarritz hole, and lots of wetlands traversed by salvaged railroad bridges. At $75 or less -- often much less -- it is a steal, and that is without the $95 stay-and-play package. In addition, golfers can play nearby Greywalls Course, one of Michigan's top-ranked and most unique golf courses overlooking Lake Superior in Marquette.
Meanwhile, near Traverse City, the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa boasts 54 holes of golf and a sleek, 17-story hotel and spa, owned and operated by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. From the hotel, it's a short shuttle ride to the Turtle Creek Casino, a 24-hour property with blackjack, craps, roulette and other table games to go with 1,300 slots and a brand new poker room.