Give thanks to Biloxi: Its golf courses are back in business

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

What better way to give thanks on Thanksgiving than by helping out an old golf buddy? One who's a little down on his luck, through no fault of his own. One who's doing everything to help himself but who could use a helping hand.

Shell Landing Golf Course
Shell Landing was one of the first Biloxi - area courses to reopen after Hurricane Katrina
Shell Landing Golf CourseGreath Southern Golf Club in Mississippi
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Biloxi, Miss., didn't get as much sympathetic media spotlighting as its gaudier cousin to the west, New Orleans, but it was actually hit harder by Hurricane Katrina in terms of sheer force.

The Mississippi coastal landscape was ravaged, casinos were tossed up on dry land, golf courses were deluged. Historic antebellum mansions were destroyed and every manner of structure besieged. And, of course, a lot of people were left homeless.

Nature did its worst, but a year-plus later the biggest problem facing Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is man-made: perception.

"People don't know we're back to functioning normally," said Steve Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. "A lot of times we have to overcome massive amounts of publicity about damage from the storm. There's a lot of negative images in the media and on television.

"Golf is certainly coming back. There are places to stay, restaurants to eat in.".

Actually, some of the golf courses bounced back extraordinarily fast.

Gulf Hills Golf Club, Windance Country Club, St. Andrews Golf Club and Dogwood Hills Golf Course were all back in operation a month after Katrina. Sunkist Country Club, Diamondhead Country Club, Mississippi National Golf Club and the Jack Nicklaus-designed Grand Bear Golf Course followed suit in the ensuing weeks.

Shell Landing Golf Course reopened in October 2005 even though a new hazard protected the seventh green - a beached yacht.

Mississippi's oldest course, the Donald Ross-designed Great Southern Golf Club, was hit very hard, losing its historic clubhouse and operating with two temporary greens. Club officials are considering selling some waterfront acreage to invest more into the course.

The Oaks Golf Club opened in August 2006 with new owners. Broadwater Golf Club will most likely redevelop with a yet-to-be-named new course designer.

There are even two new courses: The Preserve in Ocean Springs, a Jerry Pate-designed public course, and Fallen Oak, a Tom Fazio effort that extends tee-time privileges to guests of its owner, Beau Rivage Resort and Casino.

The problem, of course, was that visiting golfers had nowhere to stay. That situation has changed dramatically, mainly with the help of the casinos and Mississippi lawmakers, who passed a law allowing the construction of casinos on land. Before Katrina they were allowed only off-shore.

The 1,750-room Beau Rivage reopened on the first anniversary of Katrina after a $550 million renovation. Seven other casinos have reopened between Biloxi and Bay St. Louis to the west, all but one with lodging. The Beau Rivage is the area's largest employer, with 3,800 employees.

In all about 10,000 rooms are now available, most of them in casinos.

"In the last two or three months, in our county alone, there have been about 3,000 rooms become available," Richer said.

Many of the construction workers, volunteers and FEMA representatives have moved out, making way for visitors.

Also, condotels are coming along at a fast rate: One has already opened, five are under construction and eight have been proposed, according to Richer and the Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site. Condotels consist of mostly individually owned condos, ranging in size from studios to four-bedroom units, which are put into rental pools and let.

"There's a tremendous amount of condotel activity," Richer said. "These will be great for our golf customers. We expect rooms to reach pre-Katrina levels by 2007. Collectively, we expect to see close to 30,000 rooms by 2010."

In addition, many of the smaller hotels and motels, which did a booming business when early reconstruction efforts got underway, have rooms available.

Word is slowly spreading about the lodging, well in time for Biloxi's snowbird season, which begins in mid-January. Already golf groups are coming back.

There are other signs the area is emerging from the shadow of Katrina. Beaches are open, albeit with signs warning swimmers about hurricane debris. Movie theaters are back in business, as are charter boats to Ship Island, though much of the island is still under water.

The cleanup has been ongoing, and there isn't as much storm debris on land, but visitors will still see remnants of the destruction: vacant buildings and lots interspersed with new high-rises.

Biloxi's plight is not without irony. With the courses opening and no one to play them, they certainly haven't suffered from over-play.

"Many are in the best shape ever," Richer said.

And Harrison County, which includes Biloxi and Gulfport, has dropped its slogan: "Take your life out for a spin."

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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