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|The 15th hole at the TPC Louisiana features a large fairway bunker with six small island fairways. (Mike Bailey/TravelGolf)|
NEW ORLEANS - There are several golf trails in the United States. Each of them has a few stellar golf venues surrounded by regional culture. But if you're looking to combine two of the passions shared by most golfers - enjoyable golf and food - you'd be hard-pressed to come up with anything better than Louisiana's Audubon Golf Trail.
This is the perfect trip for a foursome of guys who like to eat a lot, gamble a little and perhaps "hit the clubs," as Sergio Garcia might say.
"We want people to know that we're no longer under water," said Eric Kaspar, director of golf at Black Bear Golf Club in Delhi, referring to Hurricane Katrina of 2005. "We're back."
And back in a big way. While a couple of private clubs may still be closed, public-access golf in Louisiana is alive and well, and there may be no better way to sample it than by hitting the Audubon Golf Trail.
Formed in 2001 to promote golf tourism in the state, the Trail has grown from six courses to 12, and they stretch from New Orleans all the way to Shreveport near the Arkansas and Texas border.
How well does the program work? While golf rounds have remained flat for most of this decade, rounds along the Audubon Golf Trail have grown by 4 percent each year.
That could be due in part to the cooperative nature of the endeavor. The Trail is heavily marketed throughout Louisiana, neighboring states and through national media. In return, each course must satisfy a set of criteria, such as minimum yardage, maintenance standards, food and beverage, golf shops and service. Each course is also connected to the Audubon Golf Trail tee time network.
The Audubon Golf Trail, as you might guess, is named for naturalist/artist James Audubon, and all the golf courses are also members of the of Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary for golf courses, a program dedicated to protecting the environment and preserving the natural heritage of the game of golf.
The marketing strategy for the Audubon Golf Trail is "Great golf, among other things," the latter of which really sets this apart from other states.
And there's no better place to start than New Orleans.
This is where you'll find Audubon Park Golf Course and the TPC Louisiana. It's also where you find some of the best jazz and blues clubs, and restaurants in the world.
For example, you could stay at the J.W. Marriott, which backs up against the French Quarter, walk down a few blocks toward Jackson Square and try the Creole platter at the Gumbo Shop or the catch of the day at the Redfish Grill. And never, ever leave without ordering dessert, especially the bread pudding.
Gambling is legal in Louisiana and there are also plenty of casinos, whether it's floating on the Mississippi or on an Indian reservation, such as the Paragon Resort and Casino near Alexandria, where you can also play Tamahka Trails Golf Club.
The trail is as diverse as the culture, both in terms of food and golf.
Home of the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic, the TPC Louisiana in Avondale near New Orleans opened in 2004. It closed for a year after sustaining damage by Katrina, but is back and open to anyone who wants to tame Pete Dye's 7,600-yard minefield of bunkers and water hazards.
With the help of Steve Elkington and Louisiana native Kelly Gibson, Dye designed a course that truly does test the best players in the world while allowing the average player an enjoyable experience.
TPC Louisiana has five sets of tees and can be played as short as 5,100 yards, but you'll still have to deal with dozens of different sized bunkers and waste areas. One lengthy bunker even features six small island fairways in it, so you might catch a break there.
Audubon Park Golf Course is the only course in the collection that doesn't meet the minimum requirements of being a par 70 of at least 6,600 yards. It's exempted because of its excellent condition, history and charm and provides a perfect starting point a trip on the Trail.
This century-old golf course was redesigned by Denis Griffiths and reopened as a 4,220-yard par 62 in 2002. The course features 12 par 3s, four par 4s and two par 5s, which come at the end of both nines.
In excellent condition, the course is part of the larger Audubon Park, which also features a zoo and hiking and biking trails. It's also located in the heart of uptown New Orleans, right next to Tulane and Loyola University. The layout is set among four lagoons and hundreds of old live oaks draped with Spanish Moss. The clubhouse restaurant is also among the favorite eateries in the area, which is saying a lot considering its competition.
About an hour or so west of New Orleans is Carter Plantation in Springfield. Home of the Southeastern Louisiana University golf team, Carter Plantation is PGA Tour player David Toms' first solo design. The Louisiana native incorporated plenty of water hazards and bunkers in this 7,050-yard par 72 design.
The facility also offers a top-notch restaurant, banquet facilities and meeting rooms as well as 63 golf villas, providing excellent stay-and-play opportunities.
Cypress Bend Golf Resort and Conference Center is located in Many, La., on 186,000-acre Toledo Bend Lake, which is known for its legendary bass fishing. The golf course features 10 holes along the lake.
Opened in 1996, the course was designed by Dave Bennet. The sunset behind the 17th hole is as good as it gets. Cypress Bend also features an on-site hotel and conference center, and restaurant with views of the lake, and a spa.
The Island, which is located in Plaquemine just outside the state capital of Baton Rouge, is literally surrounded by water as its name might suggest.
This par-72 course, which was carved out of an old sugar plantation, stretches out to more than 7,000 yards. It features water on all but one of the holes as well as 54 bunkers, which no doubt helps to give it a course rating of 75.3.
Listed among Golf Digest's top 100 of America's greatest public courses for 2007-2008, Gray Plantation includes 94 bunkers and 60 acres of lakes.
Located in Lake Charles near the Texas border, Gray Plantation was designed by veteran architect Rocky Roquemore, who took advantage of the natural surroundings of the Calcasieu River.
The golf course is known for its par 3s, two of which feature island greens. The clubhouse is a raised plantation house surrounded by marsh. The back porch is a great place to have a drink and recount the round.
Perhaps there's no greater place to gamble a little on and off the course than Tamahka Trails in Marksville near Alexandria.
Located at the Paragon Resort and Casino, which is an operation of the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe, master architect Steve Smyers coupled a "new school" design with an appreciation of Scotland's legendary courses. And by that we mean scores of bunkers, many of them massive on this 230-acre tract.
With more than $150 million recently invested in renovations in the resort, the Paragon Resort and Casino provides an excellent stay-and-play option. Rooms are modern, spacious and comfortable, featuring $5 Internet and flat panel TVs. The resort also has six restaurants and bars, a movie theater and casino with off-track betting.
OakWing Golf Club, which opened in 2002, is a 7,043-yard links-style course that blends the natural beauty of Louisiana bayous, lakes and tree-lined fairways with rolling hills and undulated greens.
Centrally located in Alexandria, the course was designed by Jim Lipe, who incorporated risk-reward features on almost every hole.
Up in the northwest part of the state, you'll find Olde Oaks Golf Club. Designed by Shreveport native Hal Sutton and Kevin Tucker, Olde Oaks features 27 holes, each nine with its own namesake characteristics - The Oaks, The Cypress and The Meadows.
You might also run into the former Ryder Cup captain at the course since Sutton has offices in the clubhouse.
Designed by Robert von Hagge, The Atchafalaya at Idlewild in Patterson joined the Audubon Golf Trail in 2006. This 7,533-yard course has five lakes and 10 native wetland areas that cover nearly 40 acres.
Not surprising, The Atchafalaya at Idlewild boasts the highest course rating in the state at 77.6/144, but with five sets of tees, all golfers should be able to enjoy this beautiful layout, which is home to more than 40 species of indigenous flora.
To the northeast near Monroe, La., you'll find Black Bear Golf Club. Located in Delhi, this Roy Bechtol/Randy Russell design opened in 2006 and was listed at No. 5 on Golf Digest's Best New Affordable Courses for 2007.
Black Bear lies on approximately 300 acres atop the Macon Ridge near Poverty Point State Park overlooking a 3,000-acre reservoir. The course generally follows the Bogzag and Cypress creeks, which bisect the property. The course's namesake black bears are often seen roaming the fairways.
In the heart of Cajun Country you'll find The Wetlands, one of the Trail's newest members. The Wetlands, which is located in Lafayette, offers a link-style design that wraps around several inland lakes and marshlands.
The course, designed by Frank Burandt and opened in 2006, is a natural home for various species of birds and other wildlife. When the wind is up, this course can be a bear. Double greens on both nine's finishing holes feature a bricked bulkhead.
May 19, 2009
Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in the Houston area. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 20 years in the golf industry. Before joining the TravelGolf Network team in 2008, he held positions at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Read Mike's golf blog here and follow him on Twitter at @Accidentlgolfer.
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