BILOXI, Miss. -- The Mississippi coastline is only 80 miles wide, but it sure does pack in the fun.
There are more than 20 golf courses in the region, large casino hotels, great restaurants and miles of white sandy beaches at a price that fits the budget of most travelers.
There's also one of the most popular events on the Champions Tour -- the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, conducted at Fallen Oak Golf Club, an amenity of the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. Last week, I had a chance to play in two pro-ams at the event and sample many of the other golf courses in the area as well as the coastal cuisine.
Playing with the pros at Grand Bear and Fallen Oak
The impetus of this quick getaway was the chance to play in two pro-ams, both in nearby Saucier, Miss. There was one on Tuesday, when my group got paired up with Jay Don Blake, a Utah native who has won three times on the Champions Tour and once on the PGA Tour. Tuesday's event took place at Jack Nicklaus' Grand Bear Golf Course. And on Wednesday, we had Alabama's Steve Lowery, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour, out at Fallen Oak. Both were easy going, personable and, of course, great golfers.
Oddly enough, watching my quirky game must have had the same effect on them. Both Blake and Lowery finished the 2015 Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic at 3-over par, tied for 31st, 13 strokes behind winner David Frost.
Grand Bear can best be described this way: Even if you're not a fan of Nicklaus designs, you will still like Grand Bear, which Nicklaus designed for Harrah's Gulf Coast Casino Hotel & Spa. After all, it's carved out of a wonderful piece of rolling land with a variety of doglegs, generous fairways and large greens complexes with beautifully tiered bunkering. Play it from the tips at 7,224 yards and you've got all the golf course you want. Yet it can play as short as 4,802 yards from the Teddy Bear tees, perfect for juniors or shorter hitters.
Fallen Oak, of course, is where the Champions Tour event takes place. With one of the strongest fields of the year, this Tom Fazio design is a favorite among tour players, and it was made even better with recent renovations. Among them was a complete redo of the bunkers, which included the removal of 21 bunkers, cutting the total number from 84 to 63. The project took most of the fairway bunkers out of play for the amateurs, and it also softened them to allow the pros, if they get in them, to recover.
Lowery applauded the changes and so did the amateurs, which is exactly what Fallen Oak General Manager David Stinson envisioned.
"What we didn't want them to say," said Stinson about the amateurs who play the course, "is it was a wonderful day, but on the 18th hole I had to wedge it out because I hit it in a fairway bunker."
Stinson said he much prefers to hear about great shots into greens out of the fairways or fairway bunkers, which are now shallower than before.
More golf on the Mississippi coast
Generally speaking, to gain access to private Fallen Oak, you have to stay at the Beau Rivage, which is about 20 minutes from the course. Green fees for guests are in the $200 range, but that's hardly typical of the fine golf courses on the Mississippi coast.
You can get online tee times at Grand Bear or The Bridges Golf Club, for example, for less than $55.
The Bridges, in Bay St. Louis, is a challenging Arnold Palmer design built out of a swamp with more than a mile of wooden bridges to get you through the course. Lots of water and marshes, as you might guess, can make it tough on lesser players, but the fairways are fairly wide, making approach shots most critical.
Another premium course in the area is The Preserve Golf Club, a Jerry Pate design that generally costs more than $100 to play. Still, I highly recommend this unforgettable pristine Audubon International layout located in Vancleave. The course does offer accommodations at the Palace Casino Resort, so you can score some stay-and-play deals that aren't much more than the green fees.
Again, with plenty of wetlands, ponds and excellent conditions, this course will challenge the best while allowing higher-handicap players to enjoy it from the more forward tees. It's also reasonably priced with summertime green fees of less than $50 that often include lunch.
Another course worth noting, which we didn't get to play this time around, is Great Southern Golf Club in Gulfport. Originally designed by Donald Ross in 1908, it's Mississippi's oldest course, with views of the Gulf of Mexico from a couple of the holes.
The food, the rooms, the fun
While the golf is exceptional, I honestly don't know what was more enjoyable -- teeing it up or gobbling up the fantastic local cuisine.
One of the neat features at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic is a food setup at the sixth tee by local restaurateurs, showcasing their talents ranging from jambalaya to shrimp & grits to gumbo and fresh oysters, No wonder there was a backup on the tee during Wednesday's pro-am.
Really, the Mississippi coast has a culinary scene that rivals New Orleans, just on a smaller scale.
We started with the restaurant Thirty-Two, located on the 32nd floor of the IP Casino, Resort & Spa. This AAA Four Diamond-rated restaurant offers spectacular views, delectable steak and seafood dishes, and one of the finest wine selections on the Gulf Coast. IP was also the site of the Pro-Am Pairings Party, which featured entertainment and food stations of pulled pork, shrimp, sushi and desserts that encouraged hours of grazing.
Next up for dinner was the historic Mary Mahoney's Old French House, where there's a 2,000-year-old live oak in the courtyard. Not only is the food outstanding at this Biloxi instruction that has hosted celebrities and heads of state, but also the entertainment is top-notch. Mary's son, Bobby Mahoney, a golfer, is there every night, welcoming guests and telling a few jokes.
Mary Mahoney's Old French House features a menu of memorable Southern comfort and seafood that includes some of the best appetizers, seafood, steaks and desserts you'll ever sink your teeth into.
And like IP's Thirty-Two, Beau Rivage has its share of great eats as well. This time it was Stalla, a reasonably priced Italian restaurant that offers a range of seafood, pasta, chicken and appetizers. Stalla is one of several terrific dining options at the 32-story Beau Rivage, which has more than 1,700 rooms, a large casino, entertainment, spa and fabulous pool area.
Much of the same can be said for some of the other casinos, including Thirty-Two, where I was treated to a high-rollers suite that included a wet bar and bathroom with whirlpool and two TVs. Yes, two of them.
Of course, win big at one of the casinos and you can get a fancy suite, too, at a price that can't be beat.
For more information, go to VisitMississippi.org.