Each March, in the US and in basketball circles across the globe, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament owns the sporting world. And this year, the Ole Miss Runnin’ Rebels got in on the madness, running all the way to the SEC tournament title and a second-round upset over Wisconsin.
Big news for Mississippi, but lost in the sweeping haze of Marshall Mania was the story of one of the state’s best─and perhaps most unexpected─annual athletic contributions: the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a Champions Tour event of rapidly accelerating stature.
This year’s giant trophy went to Michael Allen, who shot an 11-under over three rounds. Good on him, but after playing in the event’s Pro-Am myself, as well as a host of the Gulf Coast region’s other top courses, it’s hard for me to crown anyone but the newly initiated golf-playing public as the Classic’s biggest winners. In more than just March, Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has a whole lot to offer, and word is getting out faster than those Rebels can Run (which, turns out, is not that far).
Looking to test your golfing mettle against beautiful and iconic Dixie landscapes? Like seafood, and/or the staunchly resolvent moxie of the American South? Grab your clubs, head over to www.visitmississippi.org/golf, and get out there.
Where is the Gulf Coast?
The cleverly named Gulf Coast makes no secret of its geographic whereabouts, so you may not have asked this specifically. Still, more details: The region hugs the Gulf of Mexico, and is, clearly, in Mississippi. It is a Waffle-House-laden, gerrymandered fusion of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson Counties, and in colloquial terms, the moniker refers to the counties’ most literally coastal towns. These are the towns that matter as a visitor, anyway, and Harrison’s Biloxi seems to be a worthy settling point from which to explore deeper.
As with any place in the continental U.S. (and the American continent, really), Biloxi is driveable. U.S. Highway 90 and Interstate Highway 10 funnel into the city, so if you’re into driving, or just really despise paying airline baggage fees on your clubs, arrival by car is most definitely an option.
Alternatively, you can fly into Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT), located no more than 15 minutes from the Biloxi city center. Originally constructed as a training hub for WWII fighter pilots (and still one of the nation’s four Combat Readiness Training Centers), Gulfport-Biloxi is today a fully-functioning, if small, civil airport serviced by four major airlines, and a possible fifth in Vision Airlines (possible in terms of qualifying as a major airline; though the outlier in the group of industry goliaths, it definitely provides regularly serviced flights). If you’re flying from somewhere outside the southeastern U.S., you’ll likely need to transfer, but it’ll be painless; there’s a Chick-fil-A at ATL, and my connector from Atlanta was airborne for no more than 40 minutes.
More information on getting to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast:
- Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport route map and servicing airlines
- Rental car options available at the airport
- PDF of the area with public transit routes
Fallen Oak, Saucier, MS
Each year, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic is played at Fallen Oak, and each year, the Tom Fazio-designed golf course uses the opportunity to prove once again why it is annually selected as one of the country’s best. Throughout this challenging par-72, Fazio makes the absolute most of the area’s bounty of magnolia trees, pecan groves and marshlands, cutting through De Soto National Forest with exceptional grace.
Dramatic elevation changes are part of what sets it apart from the Gulf Coast’s other, flatter options, and the greens roll fair and true. The grounds crew is among the best (and friendliest) in the country, and the facilities embrace visitors more like those of a well-manicured Southern estate than a place of athletic leisure.
Still, it’s hard to single out any one element of the Fallen Oak experience as the source of its greatness, and greatness is no overstatement. To quote (the great himself) Tom Lehman, “I would have to say it’s got to be in the very top echelon of the courses we play…There may be a course or two better, but not many.”
So no, you should not miss Fallen Oak (whose 18th hole indeed sports a fallen oak tree), but here’s the twist: To play the course, you must stay at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino (see below). Luckily, the Beau is unanimously one of the Gulf Coast’s best places to stay, and room-plus-golf packages are generous to say the least (you can chop away at the standard $200 green fee, and transport to and from the course by limo is complimentary).
More on Fallen Oak:
- More on Fazio, including a video in which he talks about the course
- Go in-depth on five of the best holes
- Press release announcing Fallen Oak as Golf Magazine‘s 26th best course you can play
Helpful tip: The signature Bloody Mary served at Fallen Oak’s gorgeous clubhouse bar, which looks out on the 18th green, is the best I’ve ever had. No question. As confirmed in this Golf Digest write-up, it’s the vodka─Grey Goose infused with garlic, peppers, onions and a spattering of herbs, aged for six days─that makes the difference. And what a difference it is.
Grand Bear, Saucier, MS
Fazio was not the only one to see the potential in De Soto National Forest, and in fact, not the first either. Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear himself, laid his legendary golf signature on the land pre-Y2K, back in ’99 with the opening of his impressive Grand Bear Golf Course. Indeed, the marsh-laden course is set six miles into De Soto, and the comically winding road in makes the drive feel even longer.
Up on the tee box, the natural world is quick to remind golfers that it hasn’t gone far. A sea of pine and cypress seems to cascade around you on more than a few holes, and the forest’s famed wetlands do their best to coax you into difficult, Jack-worthy shots. For the most part, I managed to tune it out, and I finished having found the course fun and playable for golfers of my, which is to say very little, ability.
I found it curious that the Grizzly Bear tees─and not the architect’s namesake Golden Bear tees─were hardest, but that rambling thought aside, this is a course that makes sense to play. Green fees range from $75 to $109 depending on the season, but many among the cluster of area hotel/resorts offer room-and-golf packages sure to bring that down. It’s also closed on Tuesdays.
More on Grand Bear:
The Preserve, Vancleave, MS
With a name I found somehow fitting of the deep South (and separately, of its protected natural setting), The Preserve presents itself as a golf experience better than most in the Gulf Coast, and in this respect, it delivers. In fact, it was to me the most enjoyable, after Fallen Oak, of the four courses I played on the Gulf Coast.
This Jerry Pate-designed par-71 welcomed me with wonderful conditions, which brought the respectful artistry with which Pate approached his muse into full, playable color. The lively marshes and wetlands (featuring birds, frogs, even a snake) were more prevalent here than in the other three courses I was given for perspective. Crossing them meant employing the services of countless wooden bridges, which reverberated rhythmically to the wheels of each passing golf cart as if emphasizing the beauty with which Pate has sewn the natural environment and the game together.
That said, it’s a tough play for the less-than-good golfer. With many long, uphill carries, it feels longer than its listed 6,775 yards, and the bunkers are tough (though not as tough as Fallen Oak’s). But it’s a great play, and for $90 to $115 (less with a “Stay & Play” package), you can get in on the action for a reasonable rate.
Helpful tip: Carts at The Preserve come equipped with an incredibly helpful “GPS Visage” system, which shows and actually tells interested parties how to play each shot in real time. I found the “Flyover” function particularly helpful.
More on The Preserve:
- A hole-by-hole look at The Preserve
- “Stay & Play” packages at The Preserve
- Win a free foursome at The Preserve!
Shell Landing, Gautier, MS
Opened in 2000, Shell Landing is just over a decade into what will surely one day become an impressive history. It’s not Fallen Oak─few courses in the country are─but it’s a nice play, and one the Gulf Coast is sure to lead with as its stature in the golfing community continues to rise. Most impressively, this par-72 returns a notably incredible value for its green fee, which starts at just $55 during the week.
Hole after hole, Davis Love III, the mind behind Shell Landing, treats challengers to his course to the full might of his creative arsenal, and there’s no doubt the artistry betrays the green fee. Players of all skill levels will encounter shots they’ve never seen before, not to mention many they’d rather not see again. Just three holes in, you’ll collide with a 565-yard par 5 whose green is preceded by a nasty water hazard; unless you’re an unusually big stick, getting on in two is just not happening. Number 6 is a fight as well, especially, as I found, with the wind blowing into you. The greens are both tauntingly big and deceptively fast.
Shell Landing is as challenging as it is fun, and as generously priced as it is scenic (especially on the back nine, which cuts effortlessly through thick marshlands). Luckily, the replay fee is just $35.
More on Shell Landing:
Where to stay
Beau Rivage, Biloxi, MS ─ The classic Biloxi tourist address goes simply by “the Beau” in these parts, and if you stay here, you certainly won’t have the place to yourself. Vegas regulars will recognize the architecture immediately as Bellagio-esque. In its early stages, in fact, the “beautiful shore” was to bear the name of the world-famous resort chain (which, too, is owned by MGM Resorts), and it was only thanks to a last-minute Italian holiday by a higher-up that inspired the switch. Even without the moniker, the Beau retains the Bellagio’s look and layout, and is flush with amenities vying to eat up your days and nights.
Helpful tip: Tucked into the back of the pulsing chaos of the Beau’s casino is Stalla, an Italian dining experience that claims its inspiration from the Northern Italian countryside. Instead of waiting in the long lines for the buffet, venture out here and check out any and all of the red meat options─particularly the ribeye.
Helpful tip: If you’ll be using the valet at the Beau, opt for the service inside the parking garage instead of the one in the front. It’s much, much faster.
Helpful tip: Among the many shops inside is one called Impulse, whose name makes no secret of its purpose. I bit for one of “Anita’s Pecan Pralines” cookies, and though it was the nutritional equivalent of eating straight butter, it tasted memorably amazing.
IP Biloxi, Biloxi, MS ─ The IP Biloxi is described as the more hip option between these two Biloxi giants (admittedly not the only two), though to me the demographics didn’t seem to be all that different. The rooms here are a little bigger, and swankier, with the suite I called home even insisting that I needed a television above the jacuzzi. Like the Beau, the IP features a world-class (or at least top-shelf American) casino alongside a bevvy of shopping and dining options. Unlike the Beau, it’s not across from a Waffle House.
Helpful tip: You can check-out of the IP using only your in-room TV.
Off the links on the Gulf Coast
- Half Shell Oyster House, Biloxi, MS, which has the look, the vibe and most importantly the seafood to warrant highlighting it in an area known for its water-based culinary scene. Here, I was introduced to Oysters Rockefeller and the spot’s signature “Cinnamon Roll Bread Pudding,” both of which were silly good.
- The Shed, Gulfport, MS, which locals and “ShedHeads” claim has the best barbeque in the country. The brainchild of a mid-20s Ole Miss grad─which aesthetically has the feel of a yard sale rolled into a place of business─has blossomed into a family-run phenomenon that shouldn’t be missed. There’s music every night, as well.
- Beauvoir (Jefferson Davis Museum and Library), a possibly fascinating look into the life of the man who once led an autonomous South (and who hailed from Biloxi). I didn’t make it, but if you’re into Civil War history, you may want to.