By Tim McDonald,
No other area in the country, with the obvious exception of Las Vegas, is more associated with golf and gaming than Biloxi, Mississippi.
Whereas Las Vegas has the desert as its backdrop, Biloxi has the wide Gulf of Mexico, which provides beauty as well as hazards for golfers, with the winds that sometimes sweep in from the depths.
The area was pounded by Hurricane Katrina, but bounced back with far more energy and efficiency than its western neighbor, New Orleans. Nearly every golf course was damaged, but they are all back up and running again.
• Great Southern Golf Course is an old, Donald Ross design, and has been through all the turmoil and tumult that weather and politics have thrown at it in the 20th century and beyond.
The greens are minuscule, undulating, hump-backed with deep swales in the middle of some and wild, unexpected slopes in others. Putts you thought were good swing wide and keep going. They are elevated and fall off sharply at the edges, accepting only the gentlest of approaches. They are close, though smaller, cousins to the greens of Pinehurst No. 2.
The course measures only 6,236 yards from the back tees, but Ross, the cagey strategist, has his usual assortment of refined tricks. No golf visit to the Biloxi area would be complete without a round at Great Southern, with its history and Ross design.
• Mississippi National opened in 1965 from a design by Earl Stone, an architect well known in these parts. The course has pretty much kept Stone's original blueprints in place, notwithstanding Katrina, as well as previous hurricanes like Camille and George.
Stone's push-up greens are probably the most dramatic feature of the course; they must be approached with extreme caution. You can almost see yellow warning lights.
The greens are not particularly undulating but they are all, after the first three holes, sloped with varying severity, and all of them slope back to front. Hit it past the flag and you'll be having a three-putt derby.
• Shell Landing is one of the top-tier courses in the Biloxi area, a Davis Love III work that incorporates large, contoured greens - averaging about 12,000-square feet - with arguably more undulation than any other greens around.
It is a visually appealing course, with scads of marsh and only a few homes to distract from the scenery. The fairways have excellent movement to them, and there are quite a few trees, but mostly around the perimeter of the course, so that a nice, airy feel results. It has a great collection of par-3 holes.
• The Oaks Golf Club opened in 1998 and has won various awards, including Golf Digest's list of the 10 best golf courses in Mississippi. There are those who claim that many of the Biloxi-area courses are in better shape than before Hurricane Katrina hit, and the Oaks can definitely make that claim. It also has two of the best closing holes on the coast.
• St. Andrews Golf Club is located in a residential community on the Gulf of Mexico, with two holes located right on the water. The course is 6,533 yards from the back tees, and is known for its abundant wildlife. It's one of the older courses in the area, built in 1968.
• Dogwood Hills is 6,008 yards from the back tees and plays under tall pines and gently rolling hills. Brent Williams designed the course, which opened in 1991.
• Pass Christian Isles is a Tom Bendelow design, opened in 1948. The course measures 6,456 yards from the back tees with a slope rating of 124.
• Grand Bear is one of Biloxi's star attractions. First of all, the setting: Grand Bear is about a 30-40 minute drive from the casinos and the crowds they attract. It's a lovely drive through the Mississippi back roads, and when you hit State Road 49, you still have a winding, six-mile drive through the Southern woods.
The course itself takes up about 600 acres, with many of the fairways banked and with large surrounds around the greens, amidst the 1,750 acres of deep woods surrounding it.
The course rolls and dips, with swales and hollows, and has some decent elevation changes, atypical for this part of the world. It's an idyllic setting, with excellent movement on the course which plays through pine and hardwood. There is water, but not a ton of it. The fairways are tree lined and wide.
It's financed by MGM Mirage and only guests of the Beau Rivage Casino are invited to share the glory. Still, Fallen Oak elevates golf in Biloxi, literally and figuratively. It's one of the few courses in coastal Mississippi with substantial elevation changes, and its mere presence will attract golfers to a place that needs visiting golfers badly. It's that good.
• There are few courses in Mississippi, and the Southeast for that matter, with the kind of surroundings of the Preserve Golf Club. The course itself takes up 245 acres but it is surrounded by more than 1,800 acres of preserve, the Sandhill Crane Refuge and Conservancy. Old Fort Bayou flows at the eastern edge of the course.
This is basically wilderness with golf clubs, and it isn't unusual to see deer, hawks and, of course, cranes, since they have standing reservations.
There are no homes around, and never will be. Any core golf experience is usually a treat, and the Preserve's location sometimes feels so lonesome you want to think about calling in a survival team. From some of the elevated tee boxes and greens, particularly the 14th, it is almost an understatement to call the views expansive.
• The Bridges Golf Club at Hollywood Casino is one of the prettiest courses you'll find, with marsh views virtually everywhere; only rarely do you see evidence it's on the grounds of a large casino complex. There are no houses or condos to mar the views, and the tumbling dice are too far away to hear.
The fairways roll and tumble post-Katrina, the same interesting variety of holes is still there, and the greens are still large and contoured. The tees, fairways and greens are pushed up out of the marsh, and wood bridges take you over the wetlands - more than a mile of bridges - hence, the name.
• Diamondhead Country Club is the Biloxi area's only 36-hole facility. Both the Pines and the Cardinal courses are nicely-wooded and built on rolling terrain, with large, sand bunkers. Both have been placed among the better courses in the state in the past.
As with most other Mississippi Gulf Coast golf courses, Diamondhead re-built after Katrina; it took them four months. And, as in some other cases, the result may be considered better than the original. "The greens are in the best condition they've ever been," director of golf Hoppy Smith said of the Pines course, which opened in the mid-1970s. "A lot of that has to do with the fact we were down and there was nobody playing the golf course."
• Gulf Hills is certainly more open than it was pre-Katrina, but the greens are back to normal as well as most of the rest of the course. Other than the fewer trees, there are few signs of the hurricane.
The course still has some subtle elevation changes, especially on the front nine, and enough big oaks remain to give it a shady, walk-in-the-park feel. Though the course is short, there are a good variety of holes.
It's a fairly easy, well conditioned course, with few hazards, though the smallish, old-fashioned greens can be challenging.
• Sunkist Country Club is a familiar place for long-time Biloxi-area golfers. It opened in 1953 from a design by Frank Steidle. Its playability is what draws a lot of members: The course is short at 6,313 yards and has a benign slope rating of 121. There is water but it rarely is troublesome, and few bunkers.
The greens at Sunkist are indeed small and undulating, and can make your score suffer if you aren't accurate with your irons.
• Windance Country Club is in a "covenant-controlled community" with a private lake, and it winds through the neighborhood, but with a good stretch of holes without any homes along the fairways.
Opened in 1986, the semi-private course is a Mark McCumber design that has some length and enough bite to it to keep it interesting. Windance is 6,660 yards from the back tees, with a slope of 129.
What gives the course most of its bite is its tight, tree-lined fairways, and water hazards that come into play if you and your driver aren't on speaking terms.
Casinos have long driven the business climate in Biloxi, and Hurricane Katrina did nothing to change that. Most of the casinos either have re-built or are re-building, though they have moved inland and in some cases, moved to different addresses. Casinos such as the Island View, Beau Rivage and Hollywood Casino are all great places to stay and hit the slots or poker tables, as well as having good access to golf courses.
Biloxi is a year-round golf destination, rarely getting too cold to play even in the winter months. It can get quite busy in the fall and winter months, with hordes of snowbirds leaving their wintry homes. Green fees vary with the seasons.
For more information on Biloxi golf packages, call 1-800-767-3574.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.