There are two things to remember about playing golf along our southern coast. One, there will be some wind to contend with (often quite a lot) as you are just a hop, skip and a jump from the Gulf of Mexico. Two, the bunker sand here is commonly very soft and very heavy. Be sure to bring your sand wedge with plenty of bounce on it … or you will remain in those pearly white hazards.
A few miles north of Gulfport, in Saucier, is where you’ll find Fallen Oak — in my opinion one of the prettiest courses on the planet. Built exclusively for guests of the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, Fallen Oak is a Tom Fazio design that opened in 2006. (Amazingly, this lovely layout debuted just a year after Hurricane Katrina caused such devastating damage to the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi.) Site of the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic on the Champions Tour the last couple of years, Fallen Oak is as challenging as it is gorgeous. You will wind your way around ponds, streams and wetlands. Several thousand oaks, magnolia, pines and other hardwood trees are among this course’s highlights. How challenging? From the back tees, Fallen Oak measures a whopping 7,487 yards and features a slope rating of 142 and a course rating of 76.5. This is no course for shrimps. I learned even the best senior golfers in the world don’t take it on from the tips. The 2012 Resort Classic was played this past March (won by long-hitting Fred Couples) and it measured a still sturdy 7,054 yards. However, players of all abilities can experience the fun and flair of Fallen Oak (ranked the No.1 course in Mississippi by Golfweek) as four other tees are available that range between 6,938 yards and 5,362 yards.
To the west of Gulfport, in an area that likes to refer to itself as “Mississippi’s West Coast”, are two other fine courses: The Bridges and The Oaks. The Bridges, in Bay St. Louis, is the home layout of the Hollywood Casino and the only Arnold Palmer Signature design in the entire state. As you can probably tell by its name, the main hazard at The Bridges is water. You will contend with 17 lakes and 14 acres of marsh and wetlands. To take you through the attractive moss-draped live oak and pine trees — there are 21 hand-made wooden bridges that span an entire mile. With this much water including the bay, the wind plays a factor. The good-sized greens at The Bridges play smaller and the back 9 (every hole of which seemed to play straight into the wind) was an absolute bear. From the tips, The Bridges measures 6,841 yards (three other tees are available) and is ranked 8th best in the state by Golfweek.
The Oaks Golf Club, in Pass Christian, opened in 1998 and was designed by Landmark, Inc., the same company that built the infamous Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. However, that is where the similarity ends. By all accounts, the Ocean Course is harder than a Rubik’s Cube and meaner than a recently jilted grounds crew cup cutter. The Oaks is pretty, playable and fun. Does that mean “easy”? This course is good enough to host two mini-tour events and a first stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School. The Oaks did so in 1999, 2000 and 2003. It is no pushover from the tips — or any other tee. Tall trees and thick vegetation border many of the holes here and the topography is rather rolling. On certain holes, it reminded me a bit of courses I’ve played in northern Michigan — minus the ski lifts. Water and wetlands are two other common features at The Oaks but the forced carries, fortunately, are kept to a minimum. The main challenge of this golf course, I thought, came from the putting surfaces. They’re not unfair but they’re hard to read. They had me shaking and scratching my head more than once. Four sets of tees are available at The Oaks, ranging from 7,006 yards to 4,691 yards. Golfweek ranked The Oaks the 7th best course in Mississippi.
Having already played and greatly enjoyed the two courses co-designed by Jerry Pate at Mississippi’s Dancing Rabbit Golf Club near Philadelphia, I was anxious to see and experience Pate’s solo effort at The Preserve in Vancleave, northeast of Biloxi. I was not disappointed. Unlike many course architects in recent years, Pate, the winner of the 1976 U.S. Open, seems to understand two things: 1) overall there aren’t that many amateurs who are very good at this game (golf writers among them), and 2) golf should be a pleasure not a punishment. Perhaps Jerry knows what recreational golfers really want is a challenge and a chance. They get both at The Preserve, the 4th best layout in the state according to Golfweek and the home course of the newly renovated Palace Casino Resort (the only smoke-free casino in Mississippi). Refreshingly, this gorgeous golf course — located along the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge — measures a mere 6,774 yards from the back tees (very short by today’s standards). Mind you four other tees are available. Because of the prevalent wind (I can tell you it was really stiff on the day I was there) The Preserve can play much longer. There are nearly 70 beautifully shaped bunkers, numerous wetlands and waste areas. The ponds and lakes that come into play on at least seven holes can easily appear as if it is a big number on almost every tee. Look again. Because there’s so much wind, the holes are quite wide, the fairways are well within reach and in most cases, the hazards are on one side or the other. In other words, you have plenty of room to tack your way around the trouble if you don’t get greedy. On a course filled with sensational golf holes, two stand out: the short but stunning par-4 12th and the Augusta National-like par-3 16th. Both are worth a trip to The Preserve. The Preserve is one of many great reasons to tee it up on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
Please visit www.mississippi.org/golf.