Gulf Coast offers a perfect setting for golf and football

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Tee it up in the morning, tailgate in the late afternoon and take in anultra-competitive Division I college football game that evening in raucous stadium filled with 80,000 screaming fans. This scenario isn't just plausible - it is probable if you strike out on an extended weekendgolf trip to the "South Coast."

No contiguous collection of states in America meshes high-end public golf and the college gridiron like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Western Florida. As far as the less violent of these two pursuits is concerned, the South Coast is rapidly emerging as one of the most golf-rich regions in the world. Golf and travel publications such as this one have taken notice.

Consider:

Louisiana recently broke onto the "trail golf" scene with the coronation of the prestigious "Audubon Golf Trail." The AGT is a collection of seven environmentally sensitive, Audubon certified golf courses that provide country club-like service, pristine playing conditions and thought-provoking layouts. An eighth course, the TPC of Louisiana at Fairfield, is slated to open in April 2004. This Pete Dye designed dandy will bring the state's tally to more than 160 courses, most of which are available for public consumption.

Alabama is home to the prodigious Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the largest public golf course project ever attempted. The RTJ Golf Trail spans the entire state and includes eight 36- and 54-hole facilities. To the south, the coastal golf hotbed of Gulf Shores features such outstanding layouts as Kiva Dunes. Alabama was twice nominated as the "Emerging Golf Destination of the Year" by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators and the Golf Travel Writers Association.

Mississippi also has two IAGTO/GTWA "Emerging Golf Destination of the Year" nominations in its golf resume. The Delta State is the proud purveyor of the highly underrated "Magnolia Golf Trail," and critically acclaimed bastions of traditional golf such as Dancing Rabbit and Old Waverly. All told, some 140 courses dot the Mississippi golf map, with more than a dozen more in the planning and design stages.

The Florida Panhandle - Emerald Coast in chamber-speak - is the old hand of the bunch. Destin,Ft. Walton and Panama City have been havens for traveling golfers for years. Sun splashed, mega properties such as the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Camp Creek in Seacrest, and the Edgewater Beach Resort and The Hombre Golf Club in Panama City are the quintessential offerings of the Emerald Coast - white sandy beaches, sprawling resort accommodations, and plenty of golf.

Back to college football. The South Coast counts among its institutions of higher learning the football-crazy schools of the Southeastern Conference's Western Division: Alabama, Auburn, Louisiana State, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. Moreover, Western Florida (Tallahassee, specifically) is home to perennial national championship contender Florida State University of the soon-to-be 11 school Atlantic Coast Conference.

With Auburn toping many preseaon pundit's Top 25 lists, Florida States marting from two "down seasons," and LSU and Ole Miss out to challenge for the SEC West title, there's no better time to plan a golf/gridiron getaway to the South Coast. If planning's not your shtick, feel free to tap into our playbook below.

Gulf Coast golf and gridiron playbook

The Game: Kentucky at Alabama, Sept. 13

The Skinny: The probation bowl, if you will, because both programs have been hit with heavy NCAA sanctions of late for various infractions. Still,it's 'Bama, it's SEC football and it's within shouting distance of the RTJ Golf Trail. Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen (6-foot-4, 274 pounds) is worth the price of admission.

The tee box: Tuscaloosa is about an hour's drive from Birmingham,where Oxmoor Valley awaits. Oxmoor houses two regulation 18-hole tracks anda short course. The Ridge Course - routed through a quarry - is an excellent introduction to upstate trail golf with its dramatic elevation changes and rugged, muscular feel. The Valley course speckled with lakes,rolling hills and runs downhill until the 441-yard par-4 18th.

The Game: Auburn at LSU, Oct. 25

The Skinny: One of the best rivalries in the SEC that no one hears about; no one but 90,000, slightly less than sober Tiger fans under the lights in Death Valley. The game could determine the SEC West champ and have national championship implications if the Tigers (Auburn, that is) are still ranked in the top five.

The tee box: Baton Rouge is the perfect headquarters for a foray into the Audubon Golf Trail. The capital city is strategically located midway between The Bluffs on Thompson Creek and the Island - two of the Trail's tastier offerings. The Arnold Palmer designed Bluffs is widely considered one of the top tracks in the Bayou, and Island - with its nine (count them) man-made lakes - is no slouch.

The Game: Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 22

The Skinny: The Iron Bowl may find the Crimson Tide in the unfamiliar role of underdog. Four different head coaches in three years, NCAA rules in fractions, and one of the most highly publicized strip club incidents in recent years has Bama looking for answers - and respect. If this game were in Tuscaloosa or even Birmingham, the Tide could be primed for the spoiler role. But out on The Plains at Jordan-Hare stadium, Auburn and its cadre ofNFL bound running backs should prevail.

The tee box: Check out the RTJ Trail's Grand National facility, with two full size 18 holers and another first-rate short course. The Links Course is regarded as one of the Trail's tougher tests with an 18th hole that is the stuff of local legend (tee shot over water, approach to a toadstool sized green surrounded by boulders). The Lake Course is the beauty queen of the two, with 12 holes clinging to the banks of the lake.

The Game: Ole Miss at Mississippi State, Nov. 27

The Skinny: Depending on Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning's Heisman Trophy Q-rating at the time, the annual Egg Bowl could either be a coronation or a condemnation. The storied rivalry rarely has SEC West title implications. Still, the game is played in front of a rowdy bunch of southern fried football fans on Thanksgiving Day.

The tee box: The Madison/Jackson area is the epicenter of the up-and-coming Magnolia Golf Trail - the Delta state's answer to the RTJ Golf Trail.Whisper Lake Country Club and Caroline Golf Club are the toast of the Madison golf scene. About an hour from the stadium, Patrick Farms Golf Club in Jackson is a stout, 6900-yard test from the tips and the perfect precursor to an afternoon spent tailgating amongst Bulldog and Rebel fans.

The Game: Florida at Florida State, Nov. 29

The Skinny: Gators/Noles was the best rivalry of the mid '90s while Miami was reeling from NCAA sanctions. Some of the shine is gone, what with the Noles coming off their two worst seasons in 15 years and the Gators still trying to find themselves under second-year coach Ron Zook. But if both squads turn it around this season (and it says here they will), this game could have Sugar Bowl (the BCS national championship game)implications.

The tee box: SouthWood Golf Club is the keystone to a 3,200-acre St. Joe/Arvida development located on the eastern edge of Tallahassee. Designed by Gene Bates and Fred Couples, South Wood provides a perfect cross section of this not-so-Florida part of Florida. The 175-acre tract is filled with gracefully rolling terrain and thick strands of ancient oak trees.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


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