Mississippi Gulf Coast

Most golfers from the northeast share the same sentiment come March — winter sucks.

That’s why our group headed south — to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, to be exact — to escape the relentless New England winter of our discontent.

Turns out we’re already planning an encore visit.

While our main focus was to sample the Biloxi/Gulfport region’s world-class golf courses just inland from the Gulf of Mexico’s 62 miles of spectacular white sandy beaches, we also discovered 24/7 gaming action and top-name entertainment at the region’s plethora of casinos. But our most important non-golf discovery was the Gulf Coast’s incredible southern cuisine, where succulent, freshly caught seafood is the star attraction.

Besides the magnificent restaurants at our hotels — the Hollywood Casino Resort, IP Casino Resort & Spa, and Beau Rivage — we had a superb off-campus meal at the Half Shell Oyster House, a local favorite near the Beau Rivage and IP Casino hotels. Around the corner from the Half Shell and directly across from the Beau Rivage is Mary Mahoney’s, another regional institution we’ll include on our next visit.

I could wax poetic forever about the Gulf Coast’s dining options, but the same holds true for the five superb layouts we played — The Bridges, Grand Bear, Shell Landing, The Preserve and Fallen Oak.

I arrived the day before my buddies, stayed at the Hollywood Casino Resort in Bay St. Louis and played its adjacent course, The Bridges. Mississippi’s only Arnold Palmer Signature course, it’s a 6,841-yard, par-72 gem set on the beautiful Bay of St. Louis’ banks among 600 acres of moss-draped live oaks, stately pines, magnolias, and sweeping vistas of saltwater marsh. Twenty-one bridges, spanning nearly one mile in length, traverse water and wetlands containing wildlife, including alligators and snakes.

Water, obviously, is a constant companion. I particularly liked the 188-yard seventh, whose green is tucked left behind water and bunkers; the drivable 283-yard eighth, with a spectacular bay view from the tee; the 190-yard 12th, where wetlands and bunkers squeeze the long, narrow putting surface on both sides; and the tough 427-yard 13th, with its huge, wildly plateaued green.

The Bridges’ 14-story waterfront casino hotel overlooks the bay, as does its signature Bogart’s Steakhouse, where I enjoyed Filet Mignon Oscar and a monstrous, loaded baked potato that was longer than a putt I missed the next morning.

Our first group round was at Grand Bear, a Jack Nicklaus Signature design atop 650 acres of rolling terrain in Saucier (pronounced SO-sure), in the DeSoto National Forest. The six-mile-long driveway ends at a cool, 5,000-square-foot log-cabin clubhouse exuding the character of its wooded surroundings.

The 7,204-yard, par-72 course — affiliated with the Grand Biloxi casino hotel — winds through and around natural 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 lake and is bordered by two rivers with white sandy beaches.

Among my favorite holes is the 195-yard 14th, which requires an intimidating, all-carry tee shot over water. My tee shot finished eight feet from a diabolical back-right hole location but I missed my birdie putt. Gary, on the other hand, rendered my tee shot as ho-hum by draining a 30-foot par putt from the right-hand collection area after overshooting the green left, then skulling his chip across the green.

Our hotel for two nights, the 32-story IP Casino Resort & Spa, is affiliated with Shell Landing, a Davis Love III design in Gautier (pronounced go-SHAY). Love utilized undulating elevation changes unique to terrain less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico. We thought the 7,024-yard track’s back nine was stronger and more visually stunning than the front. The beauty really shines at the 559-yard 16th and the 193-yard 17th, which necessitates an intimidating, all-carry tee shot over marshland to a heaving green backed by three bunkers.

Our IP rooms featured three flat-screen HD TVs — one 42-incher in the living space, one on the wall adjacent to the bathroom sink (I nearly cut my jugular vein attempting to simultaneously shave and watch ESPN SportsCenter highlights), and one on the wall at the end of the bathroom Jacuzzi. My week’s best decision — at or away from a table — was ordering the Shrimp Parmigiana at Costa Cucina, the hotel’s fabulous Italian restaurant.

Our next round took us to The Preserve Golf Club in Vancleave. Jerry Pate skillfully designed this wonderful, 6,774-yard mixture of long and short holes adjacent to an 1,800-acre nature preserve. Majestic, moss-draped live oaks and tall, slender long leaf pines frame the wide fairways and undulating greens. The Preserve boasts a stern three-hole finish — the 225-yard 16th (it might be the only par-3 No. 1-handicap hole you’ll ever play), 308-yard 17th with an all-carry drive to a narrow fairway, and the 462-yard 18th, with an all-carry approach over water.

Making par on the brutish 16th was my day’s highlight, at least until I tasted my post-round Smoked Texas Brisket Sandwich in the club’s Sweetbay Restaurant.

The Gulf-front Beau Rivage, at 32 stories and 3.2 million square feet, is Mississippi’s tallest and largest building, and it features the Gulf Coast’s most table games (93), guest rooms (1,740) and meeting space. Stalla, one of the Beau’s 11 eateries, serves outstanding Italian fare, and I also highly recommend a cocktail or 10 at the new Breeze Bar, located in the center of the 85,000-square-foot casino. I blew $20 in the Wheel of Fortune slots so quickly during a late-evening bathroom run that my buddies hadn’t even realized I had left our Breeze table.

The hotel’s finest amenity, however, is the Tom Fazio-designed Fallen Oak in Saucier. It is for a limited number of daily Beau Rivage guests, who are chauffeured to and from the course, where personal caddies await. We played in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic’s Pro-Am, a Champions Tour event since 2010. Our Fallen Oak experience would have been unforgettable even if my foursome hadn’t been paired with popular Champions Tour rookie Rocco Mediate.

Fallen Oak is superb, especially under 70-degree blue skies. The 7,487-yard, par-72 course, located at the edge of the DeSoto National Forest, features dramatic elevation changes; century-old oaks; deep, artfully shaped bunkers; undulating greens; and menacing winding streams, marshes and lakes — including one hugging the left side of the green at the 493-yard, par-4 18th.

Spending an afternoon at Fallen Oak with Mediate on our trip’s final day capped off a perfect week on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Now we can’t wait to return to sample more of the region’s fantastic courses and restaurants — even if Rocco can’t join us.

Note: All the courses we played are 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 of them, 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.

Planning Your Visit

Fallen Oak Golf Club, Saucier: www.fallenoak.com, 877-805-4657
Grand Bear Golf Course, Saucier: www.grandbiloxi.com, 228-539-7806
Shell Landing Golf Club, Gautier: www.shelllanding.com, 228-497-5683
The Bridges Golf Club, Bay St. Louis: www.hollywoodcasinobsl.com, 228-463-4047
The Preserve Golf Club, Vancleave: www.preservegc.com, 877-674-6539

Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, Biloxi: www.beaurivage.com, 888-567-6667
Hollywood Casino, Bay St. Louis: www.hollywoodbsl.com, 866-758-2591
IP Casino Resort, Biloxi: www.ipbiloxi.com, 228-436-3000

For More Information
Mississippi Development Authority/Tourism Division: visitmississippi.org/golf

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