Gulf Hills has Elvis, Chicago mobsters and some very different elevation changes

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

BILOXI, Miss. - Elvis a golfer? Hard to picture isn't it? Plaid pants, white shoes, stupid hat. Studying a yardage book. Gripping and ripping. Can't be.

But, there are people who swear Elvis played golf here at the Gulf Hills Golf Club, before he ventured out to perform at the Pink Pony. This was all before he got famous, of course. They'll find the photos one day and the scandal will be out.

It's a documented fact he stayed at the hotel across the street from the Gulf Hills golf shop. Whether or not that's the closest The King ever came to golf, we'll never know, until they dig the pictures out of the archives.

Gulf Hills, started in 1927, is the second-oldest golf club in the Biloxi area and full of cultural history like this. There are the stories of the mobsters who came down from Chicago and bought houses along the course - and the feds who moved in next to them.

There's a fella who still lives in a house along the course who wanted to smoke cigars, so he gave the club $10,000 and they built Rudy's Bar. Just so he could smoke his stogies.

That's why when the members who live in the pleasant and just-as-old neighborhood heard the Taiwanese business group who owned the course at the time was going to sell to a group of developers, they decided to do something.

It wasn't easy because the deal was almost done. But, some of the members got to know the most influential member of the Taiwanese group and persuaded him to give them 60 days to come up with the cash. They did, and thus saved Gulf Hills from becoming just another cookie-cutter, residential neighborhood.

"We had one shot to try and stop it," said Arnold Verhoeven, the driving member of the group. "We told the members they'd have a good place to play golf reasonably priced."

Most of the members aren't even golfers. And the major reason for salvaging the old course may be a little less glamorous than preserving history (read: property values), but the outcome was the same.

So now, it's a member-owned course and they try to stay competitive, keeping green fees reasonable - $55-$70 depending on the season - while trying to keep up maintenance, like taking care of the weeds that sprout up here and there on the course.

With the Mississippi Golf Coast trail, it isn't always easy.

"It's very competitive down here," Verhoeven said. "It's hard to make a go of it."

In the face of the trend toward big business-owned golf courses, it's easy to pull for these guys. And a lot of people appreciate it.

"That bunch right there is from Illinois," Verhoeven said, pointing to a raucous group of golfers. "There's 16 of them and they've played this course every day for 10 straight days. They come down every year."

The Verdict

The thing that sets Gulf Hills apart is the elevation changes, which is rare and maybe unique for this part of the country. "There's not many of them on the coast got this kind of elevation," Verhoeven said. "Some of them move earth around, but all this is natural."

It isn't a particularly difficult course, but there are challenges, with rolling, tree-lined fairways and the elevation.

"These greens have some subtle breaks," said member Robert Cox, on a soggy outing. "Before we got this rain, you couldn't stay on them, they were lightning-fast. It's a deceptive course. If you don't know it and get greedy, you can run up some high numbers real quick. We're a little prejudiced, but the members love it."

Places to stay

The Isle of Capri is one of the bigger casino resorts in Biloxi, built on a floating foundation that ebbs and flows with the Gulf of Mexico tides. It's the first legal gaming operation to open in the South, a $90 million, 45,000 square-foot, multi-level facility with three full-service restaurants and a lounge.

There's 24-hour gambling with more than 1,100 slot machines, video poker and 28 game tables offering craps, roulette, blackjack and mini-baccarat, among other games of chance.

The hotel now has 15 floors with 367 rooms, but is undergoing expansion that will be done in several phases and will include an additional parking garage and 12-story hotel and 374 new rooms, half of which are suites. It's scheduled to open in May of this year. There's 24-hour room service, a health club and spa and a casino barge with 24-hour action, baby!

Elsewhere, U.S. 90 from Gautier north to Bay St. Louis is chock full of every kind of accommodation, from small mom-and-pop motels to big resorts. Some are right on the beach, while others are across the busy street. For an affordable place right on the beach and near golf and nightlife, try the Quality Inn Emerald Beach and its hot breakfast buffet.

Places to eat

The Isle of Capri's Calypso Restaurant has breakfast buffets and dinners with Dungeness crab, baked salmon, fresh-baked bread and pizza. Tradewinds Marketplace has 24-hour service with six different eateries, including muffeletas and po' boys. Farraddays has coconut shrimp, Angus steaks, sautéed salmon and Tuscan Chicken Rimini and fried strawberries, among other exotic stuff.

If you want to get away from the action for a while, your best bet is The Shed, a ramshackle barbecue joint off Interstate-10 that has some of the best barbecue this side of Memphis. It's so good in fact it has won national barbecue awards - bet you didn't know they had that sort of thing.

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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