Mississippi Gulf Coast
A Shore Bet Thanks to Great Golf, Casino Hotels

Story by Steve Donahue

The Southeast offers an infinite number of getaway destinations for visiting golfers and their families. One of the best is Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

Home to numerous world-class casinos with 24/7 gaming excitement and headliner entertainment; cultural attractions, stately historic homes amid moss-draped live oak trees and incredible fishing in the Gulf.

The Gulfport/Biloxi region features some of the nation’s finest golf courses and is easily reachable by flying or driving. Flights originating from major airports into Biloxi/Gulfport International Airport (GPT) are available via convenient connections.

Your trip to this fabulous year-round destination doesn't have to be all about golf. Mississippi has 62 miles of white-sand beaches along the Biloxi/Gulfport area’s Gulf of Mexico shoreline, so there is plenty of room to frolic in the cool Gulf waters. The area is also home to numerous world-class casinos with 24/7 gaming excitement and headliner entertainment; cultural attractions such as the Mississippi Blues Trail and Mississippi Country Music Trail markers; stately historic homes amid moss-draped live oak trees; and incredible fishing in the Gulf, whether out in one of the many charter boats or along the shore. You’ll also undoubtedly embrace the Gulf Coast’s delectable seafood dishes, which are prepared and on your plate often within an hour after the catch arrives at the dock. That’s fresh.

Besides the top-notch selection of restaurants (not to mention gambling opportunities) at the Hollywood Casino Resort, IP Casino Resort & Spa and Beau Rivage — where our group of golfers stayed — we had a superb off-site meal at the Half Shell Oyster House, a local favorite a short walk from the Beau Rivage and IP Casino hotels. I heartily recommend the Fried Green Tomatoes & Crab Cakes appetizer, and Bacon & Pecan Crusted Redfish main course. A Bubba Watson drive away and directly across the street from the Beau Rivage is Mary Mahoney’s, another must-visit regional establishment.

TOP PHOTOS: The Preserve and Fallen Oak are ranked in top seven best courses to play in Mississippi by Golfweek and Golf Digest.
BOTTOM PHOTOS: Grand Bear and Shell Landing also made the list of best courses to play in the Magnolia State.

Gulf Coast summer golf means you’ll experience refreshing shore breezes at some of the region’s most highly acclaimed courses. We played five, all ranked among Golfweek’s top seven 2013 “Best Courses You Can Play” in Mississippi — Fallen Oak (No. 1), The Preserve (No. 2), Grand Bear (No. 3), Shell Landing (No. 6) and The Bridges (No. 7). All, except for The Bridges, are also among the publication’s top-50 Casino Courses 2012. Meanwhile, Golf Digest includes Fallen Oak (No. 3), Grand Bear (No. 6), Shell Landing (No. 7) and The Preserve (No. 9) in its 2013-2014 “Best in State” ranking, which also includes private courses.

Fallen Oak, designed by Tom Fazio in Saucier (pronounced so-SURE), is the premier amenity of the Beau Rivage, our home for two nights. The course was built solely for a limited number of daily Beau Rivage guests, making Fallen Oak and Las Vegas’ much-ballyhooed Shadow Creek the only layouts built exclusively for MGM Resorts International guests.

You won’t soon forget the experience. Like at Shadow Creek, Fallen Oak golfers take a 35-minute limo ride to and from the course, where personal caddies await. The 7,487-yard, par-72 course, located at the edge of the DeSoto National Forest, features wetlands, century-old towering oaks, pecan orchards and magnolia groves while traversing dramatic elevation changes.

Fallen Oak features many potential — and prominent — pitfalls such as deep, shapely bunkers, heaving greens and beautiful-yet-penal winding streams, marshes and lakes. Trouble lurks everywhere on the 493-yard, par-4 18th — a line of deep, left-side fairway bunkers and a lake hugging the green’s left side.

The Gulf-front Beau Rivage —next door to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino — is, at 32 stories and 3.2 million square feet, Mississippi’s tallest and largest building, and features the Gulf Coast’s most table games (93), guest rooms (1,740) and meeting space. Stalla, one of the Beau’s 11 restaurants, serves outstanding Italian fare. We sampled multiple appetizers and main courses, with four varieties of Pizza, Rigatoni and Lobster Ravioli among the favorites. I also recommend a cocktail at the new Breeze Bar, a great people-watching hangout located in the middle of the 85,000-square-foot casino.

Jerry Pate, whose eight PGA Tour victories included the 1976 U.S. Open and 1982 PLAYERS Championship, designed The Preserve next to a 1,800-acre nature preserve in Vancleave. Despite the site’s size limitations, Pate’s 6,774-yard, par-72 track’s adeptly designed holes are framed by moss-draped, majestic live oaks and tall, slender long leaf pines, while wiry grasses of various textures and colors pop in the rough areas. Southern cypress swamps, marshy wetlands and pitcher plant bogs are also scattered throughout, adding beauty to the course, which boasts a fantastic three-hole finish — the 225-yard 16th, 308-yard 17th with an all-carry drive to a narrow fairway and 462-yard 18th, with an all-carry approach over water.  In fact, the 16th might be the only par-3 No. 1 handicap hole you’ll ever play. It’s a brute, where your all-carry tee shot must clear a field of native vegetation and massive, deep green-front bunkers. My par highlighted my morning, at least until I finished my post-round, Smoked Texas Brisket Sandwich in the club’s Sweetbay Restaurant.

The excitement builds as you approach Grand Bear, thanks to a six-mile-long driveway that ends at an impressive 5,000-square-foot log-cabin clubhouse exuding the character of its pristine wooded surroundings.

The beautiful, 7,204-yard, Jack Nicklaus Signature design — affiliated with the Grand Biloxi casino hotel — winds through and around 650 rolling acres of cypress wetlands and towering pines and hardwoods, with packed pine-needle rough, undulating putting surfaces and deep bunkers. Grand Bear also features a 6.5-acre, stocked manmade lake and is bordered by two unique rivers with white sandy beaches.

Nicklaus’ gem boasts many marvelous holes, with my favorite the 195-yard 14th, which requires an all-carry tee shot over water. I hit my tee shot to within eight feet of the brutal back-right hole location, but was lucky to make par after a horrid birdie attempt.

ABOVE: The Bridges, located in Bay St. Louis adjacent to the 14-story waterfront Hollywood Casino Resort, is the state’s only Arnold Palmer Signature course.
BELOW: Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is a 12-story hotel with 326 rooms and suites with swim up bar and cabanas, five restaurants including Ruthʼs Chris Steak House. The casino offers over 1200 slot machines, 56 table games and poker room.

The IP Casino Resort & Spa is affiliated with Shell Landing, a Davis Love III design in Gautier (pronounced go-SHAY). The 7,024-yard, par-72 track’s rolling topography — unique for terrain less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico — frames each hole and, as the round progresses the scenery evolves from pine trees surrounded by blue stem grasses to coastal marshlands and then into pine savannahs.

Most us thought the back nine was more visually stunning and had more bite than the front, and not just because we spotted a baby alligator on the edge of the 14th hole’s green-front pond. The beauty really shines on the 559-yard 16th and the 193-yard 17th, an intimidating, all-carry tee shot over marshland to an undulating green backed by three bunkers. The club recently eradicated massive amounts of overgrown brush that, over time, had obscured views along many fairways and behind some greens, opening up incredible marshland vistas — particularly behind and alongside the 16th hole’s putting surface.

Besides great views of Biloxi’s Back Bay and the Gulf beyond, we loved our contemporary rooms at the 32-story IP because of the three flat-screen HD TVs in each room. There was one 42-incher in the living space, one on the wall adjacent to the bathroom sink (take it from me — never shave while watching TV) and one on the wall at the end of the bathroom Jacuzzi. The IP’s 70,000 -square-foot, two-story casino includes more than 1,900 slots, 60-plus table games and a 13-table, non-smoking poker room.

Be sure to dine at the hotel’s Italian restaurant, Costa Cucina. I opted for the outstanding, Gulf Shrimp Parmigiana. Also drawing our group’s kudos were Seafood Cannelloni, Shrimp Scampi and Snapper Livornese (main courses), and Gulf Coast Bread (topped with blue crab, shrimp and mozzarella cheese), Meatballs alla Marinara and Seafood Stuffed Portabella Mushroom (appetizers).

The Bridges, located in Bay St. Louis adjacent to the 14-story waterfront Hollywood Casino Resort, is the state’s only Arnold Palmer Signature course. The 6,841-yard, par 72 gem is set on the beautiful Bay of St. Louis’ banks among 600 acres of moss-draped live oaks, stately pines, magnolias and sweeping saltwater-marsh vistas. Twenty-one bridges, spanning nearly one mile in length, traverse water and wetlands harboring wildlife, including gators and snakes.

Clearly, water affects play on numerous holes, often on multiple occasions when water cuts across fairways and/or guards green fronts. Among my favorite holes are the 188-yard seventh, whose green is tucked so far left behind water and bunkers that it resembles a dogleg-left hole from the tips; the drive-able 283-yard eighth, with a spectacular bay panorama behind the green; the 190-yard 12th, whose long, narrow putting surface is squeezed on both sides by wetlands and bunkers; and the 427-yard 13th, the No. 2 handicap hole with a huge, wildly plateaued green.

The Hollywood Casino Resort overlooks the bay (I witnessed one of my favorite sunsets across the bay from my room) and features 291 well-appointed guest rooms and suites, and table games, live poker and more than 1,200 slots ranging from a penny to $100 denominations. You’ll love the signature Bogart’s Steakhouse, where my Filet Mignon Oscar was topped with fresh lump Gulf crab and chopped artichokes, and my loaded baked potato was football sized.

That dinner confirmed what I had already experienced — a golf getaway to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast ain’t small potatoes.

                                                                                                      #  #  #

Steve Donahue is a veteran freelance writer and editor who has played nearly 900 golf courses in all 50 states and 10 countries. He is based in Watertown, Conn.  He can be reached at steve.donahuecomm@gmail.com.

Mississippi Development Authority/Tourism Division
501 North West Street
Jackson, MS 39201

Fallen Oak Golf Club
24400 Highway 15 North
Saucier, MS 39574

Grand Bear Golf Course
12040 Grand Way Blvd.
Saucier, MS

Shell Landing Golf Club
3499 Shell Landing Blvd.
Gautier, MS 39553

The Bridges Golf Club
711 Hollywood Blvd.
Bay St. Louis, MS 39520
866-758-2591, ext. 4561/228-463-4047

The Preserve Golf Club
8901 Highway 57
Vancleave, MS 39565

Beau Rivage Resort & Casino
875 Beach Blvd.
Biloxi, MS 39530

Hollywood Casino, Bay St. Louis
711 Hollywood Blvd.
Bay St. Louis, MS 39520

IP Casino Resort
850 Bayview Ave.
Biloxi, MS 39530