BILOXI, Miss. -- By the second half of our golf trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, my tee shots were beginning to take on the appearance of these short, squirmy hooks, resembling far too closely the shape of the many gulf shrimp I'd been consuming, practically every meal, upon arrival days earlier.
You are what you eat, and maybe your golf game is, too. A Mississippi Gulf Coast golf vacation can best be summed up by gluttonous eating, enabled by friendly folks at cajun and creole restaurants along the coast, plus some really good golf and the option for nightly casino gaming.
Golf is just a sliver of the allure here. Just about every element of a Gulf Coast trip gets overshadowed by Lowcountry cuisine. Consider one of the highlights while playing in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic Pro-Am at Fallen Oak. Pace of play was moving along quite swimmingly, until arriving at the sixth tee box. Here, a local sponsor had stationed a tent at the back of the tee box complete with barbecue, jambalaya, oysters, shrimp and donuts (and drinks, of course) to be enjoyed by pros, ams and caddies alike. By late afternoon, the crowd at the tent had grown and you'd see boisterous folks hootin' and hollerin' after tee shots, their veins pulsating with some combination sugar, booze and potent oyster protein.
Note to golf fans: If you ever want to make chit-chat with pro golfers all day long, during a practice round post up a spread of decadent grub; they'll have to be pried away and sent back onto the course.
Top shelf golf in Mississippi
Fallen Oak presents an opportunity for the tour pros to play a really interesting and scenic, pure destination golf course design by Tom Fazio. Some pros, including the pro I played with, Tom Byrum, were surprised it's a public-access facility.
Fallen Oak was, not unlike Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, conceived with little respect for budget by the team of developer Steve Wynn and architect Tom Fazio. But while the aim of Shadow Creek was to go from desert to oasis, at Fallen Oak Fazio's task was to deliver an experience that celebrates the Gulf Coast Lowcountry: Pecan and Magnolia groves, and the centerpiece is the old oaks, many of which were moved. The massive oak with a fallen branch to the right of the 18th fairway is the king of them all here.
Fallen Oak rivals the best of its breed, those exclusive, member-for-a-day, stand-alone golf escapes. The pleasure is only accessible to guests of the nearby Beau Rivage.
Don't feel, however, if you're priced out of Fallen Oak, you should pass up Biloxi's remaining roster of courses. They deliver similar elements with plenty of relief on the wallet.
Preserve Golf Club, a semi-private course that features holes winding through tall pines on the front side, runs $140 in peak season. On the back nine, the routing really opens up onto the neighboring preserve, and several holes border wetlands. Keep an eye out for a massive, Redan-style green on the par-3 16th hole, and triple-check your distance to the pin on this incredibly deep and sloping putting surface.
Not far behind The Preserve in memorability is Grand Bear Golf Club ($109 weekends), which landed a spot on Golf Advisor's top 50 courses in 2015 and particularly for staff friendliness. Grand Bear is also casino-owned (Harrah's) with a superb clubhouse, service and amenities (but you don't have to stay at a particular hotel to play it). The Jack Nicklaus Signature design is set within the Desoto National Forest; it's a winding, six-mile journey off the main road just to arrive at the clubhouse. Much like Fallen Oak, Grand Bear features holes framed by dense woods. The back nine has a little more elevation change, and a small river runs along several of the closing holes to add a little drama.
Other Biloxi-area golf courses worth playing
Windance Country Club hosted the Hogan/Nike Tour back in the 1990s. It delivers good bargain experience at around $50. Part of the Island View Casino, which offers golf packages, Windance lacks the no-residential component the other courses mentioned here boast, but does the trick with good country club-like amenities, a delicious clubhouse lunch and a challenging design.
Lastly, for a step back in time, head to Great Southern Golf Club ($37), the area's oldest course and a convenient Donald Ross design. It's right across the street from the beach in Biloxi, making Great Southern the destination's only real Gulf-front course.
Stay and play
The casino gaming scene in Biloxi-Gulfport is about as good as it gets outside the state of Nevada, with a tidy collection of properties that offer live craps and roulette. The days of barge casinos are long gone, and casino hotels like the Beau Rivage, Hard Rock and Island View have permanently built 80,000-plus-square-foot gaming floors to go with 1,000-plus rooms on site with great Gulf Coast views of our country's longest manmade beaches.
Casino hotels dominate the accommodation options, and thanks in part to the massive rebuilding efforts since Hurricane Katrina, they are all very much up to date. Beau Rivage and the Hard Rock are two of the largest and best in Biloxi. Not only is the Beau Rivage the only hotel offering access to Fallen Oak, but dining at Italian-inspired Stalla is an excellent way to celebrate low rounds and lucky runs.
Heading down the beach towards Gulfport, the Island View Casino recently opened a new, $58-million beach tower with guest rooms that boast great Gulf views and some nice dining options. The 32-story IP Casino, located just off the water, lures in guests with great dining options and slick guest rooms, plus spa and golf packages.
If you'd rather not stay at a casino, check out the luxurious White House Hotel, a stately looking building overlooking the beach.
For dinner, make sure to book at least one night at Mary Mahoney's, which serves up delicious New Orleans-style cuisine in a wonderful setting. It's located right down in the heart of Biloxi within walking distance of the hotels. Just look for the incredible live oak tree, which has withstood its share of hurricanes. You might run into Bobby Mahoney, who loves telling jokes (he can be seen in commercials on local TV telling some jokes as well).