Grand Bear a grand walk in the woods, way from the hustle of the Biloxi casinos

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

SAUCIER, Miss. - The attraction of the Grand Bear Golf Course is that it's off the beaten track of the Mississippi Golf Coast trail. Away from the casinos, high and low rollers, fast food joints and what passes for traffic here. In fact, it's away from everything.

Grand Bear is about a 30- to 40-minute drive from the Biloxi casinos, a relatively long time for a trail with most courses within easy driving distance, and a world away from the casino-atmosphere. If it's serenity you're looking for, a walk in the woods, or you just want to forget about the money you blew at the casinos, it's well worth the drive.

Even when you turn off 49, you still have a six-mile drive down a winding road through deep woods. That's because you're in the DeSoto National Forest, which surrounds the course and gives it its character. Make no mistake, you're in the sticks.

"If you lose a little money in the casino, you can come down here and enjoy yourself," said Toby Strahan, Grand Bear director of golf, who used to work for Jack Nicklaus' design firm.

Nicklaus, of course, designed the course, which opened in 1999. It's not a particularly difficult course, though it tips out at 7,204 yards from the back tees.

It has wide-open fairways for the most part, a trademark of Nicklaus, who loves the open courses of Scotland. And should you really be off the mark and miss the fairways, the packed, pine needle rough is easy to extricate yourself from.

"That was really our goal to do that," Strahan said. "We wanted people to play this course and say, 'If I played better, I would have scored better,' not because the course was too hard."

That isn't to say it's a cupcake; with a slope rating of 126, there are easier courses on the trail. If you like options on the fairway, Nicklaus likes to give you different angles to the green. Also, again owing to the Scottish influence, there are deep bunkers that can be nasty to get out of.

And there are some tough holes, like the 603-yard, par-5 fifth hole. It's a tree-lined fairway, narrow for Nicklaus, with a creek running through the middle of the hole. Your approach shot may land on a fairway that slopes left to right - remember, Nicklaus likes to punish those who don't hit draws like him. Bunker right, but there is plenty of bail-out room to the left and back.

No. 17 is a risk-reward hole. There's a rocky stream to carry off the tee and you can bite off as much as you think you're man enough to: I tried too much, for example, and my tee shot hit the rocks hard and may still be circling Biloxi.

The verdict

Grand Bear is a great place to let your mind and game unwind, but don't come here expecting to be severely tested. Again, the attraction lies in its isolated ambience: you can hear the wind in the trees, the birds singing and all that. The dark river that shows up from time to time is a pleasure to look at, with its sandy white beaches.

"No kids playing, no swimming pools," Strahan said. "We really had a great opportunity here, there were no restrictions from the developers and we could put the course where we wanted it. Most golfing now is driven by development. It's very rare to find an uninterrupted piece of property like this."

Jack Coogan, visiting from New York, agreed. "I just like getting out here because it's so different from the other courses," he said. "If you don't mind the drive, I recommend it."

Some golfers have complained about the green fees, relatively high for the area: locals can play for $99 on weekdays and $109 weekends. Guests at one of the two Grand Casinos get various discounts.

With its isolated location, the course only gets around 22,000 rounds a year, and is in excellent shape. It features lush fairways and fine greens, even without overseeding.

The clubhouse is particularly attractive, with its log construction and wide porches with rocking chairs. If you like photos of the Golden Bear, you'll find them here.

Places to stay

The Casino Magic Casino and Golf Resort is a stationary boat casino, but don't worry, you'll never feel the wakes of passing boats. It has nearly 40,000 square feet of gambling space - more than 1,000 slots and 38 game tables for your gambling habit.

The Bay Tower Hotel, a 14-story, 291-room hotel, is the Mississippi Gulf's newest casino resort hotel. It has more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space. There's a private boardroom, pool, jacuzzi, spa, salon and fitness center.

Plus, there is the Casino magic Inn with 201 additional rooms and a 100-site RV park. For the non-golfer, there are shopping tours to antiques and the art district in Old Town Bay St. Louis.

Places to Eat

Casino Magic has five restaurants: the Jourdan River Grille - the snapper almondine is magnifico - Bienville's Bay Buffet and Tuscany Steaks and Seafood are the three main eateries. Jackpot Java is a small place where you can get a bite to sustain you through epic gambling binges and the clubhouse has a grill.

Fast Fact

The course has five sets of tees, with the juniors being the shortest at 4,700 yards. For the average handicapper, the Grand Bear is the most interesting from the gold tees.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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