A recipe for grand golf: the Mississippi Gulf Coast

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

GULFPORT, Miss. - A behind the scenes look at the recipe for one of this country's hottest golf destinations: two table spoons of Jimmy Buffett, one cup of Jack Nicklaus, one genteel casino boss (this is the south, after all) and a pinch of Donald Ross.

Season to taste and serve with a little Love III.

Sounds like a risqué dish for a state where cotillions, church on Sunday andcollegefootball are a way of life. But sometimes eclectic ingredients makefor the tastiest meals.

When it comes to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, golfers are the ones enjoying the feast.

Golfing and gaming by the Gulf

Around the time when a smooth-talking Arkansas governor was packing his bags for the inner beltway, the good citizens of Mississippi decided to stake the state's economic development to the gaming industry.

State leaders blessed the course of action, and left it up to the countiesto, er, roll the dice on their gaming futures. One of the first MagnoliaState regions to roll out the black jack tables and slot machines and hangthe "ya'll come on in sign" was the Gulf Coast.

A dozen Las Vegas-style casinos sprung-up amid the antebellum homes and along 26 miles of sugar white beaches, providing a truly unique juxtaposition. For sheer historical shock value, it's now possible to take in a front porch view of Jefferson Davis' post Civil War home, Beauvoir, while gazing out at an 400-room luxury hotel and casino.

If Davis -- always an astute observer of American socioeconomic trends -were alive today, he would have been quick to point that where there'sgaming, golf is soon to follow.

The best example in these parts being the Grand Bear Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus signature course in Saucier that is an exclusive stay-and-play option for guests of the Grand Casino in neighboring Gulfport. Depending on what you read and who you ask, the course is typically cited among the top two or three in the state.

And with good reason.

Grand Bear's setting amid the haunting cypress wetlands and pine trees ofthe Biloxi and Little Biloxi rivers is something out of a Mark Twain novel.Each hole unfolds like a new chapter - an intriguing presentation ofPinehurst meets Augusta. And with play limited to Grand Casino guests GrandBear typically sports near-perfect conditions.

For those looking for write-home-about-it daily fee golf sans the gambling,head for Shell Landing Golf Club in nearby Gautier. Shell Landing comescourtesy of Davis Love III's white-hot design firm and flaunts the best ofwhat we've come to expect from DLIII: huge swaths of playing surface, 3-clubdeep greens that are slicker than a bathtub and deep penal bunkers.

In addition to its strong design (a knee-buckling 7,024 from the tips), Shell Landing is also the beneficiary of a slam-dunk location. The rolling, pine-packed layout bobs and weaves through protected wetlands and reed-choked marshes with power and grace (a la a DLIII golf swing). For sheer storytelling value, the Gulf of Mexico (unbeknownst to most who play here) sits just beyond the 193-yard par-3 17th.

High-end daily fee/semiprivate golf along Mississippi's Gulf Coast is by andlarge a product of the '90s building boom. But the picturesque peninsula isnot without its history.

The Great Southern Golf Club, a circa 1908 Ross design that iscertifiably the oldest course in the state, is situated near theBiloxi/Gulfport border and is a must-play for golf history buffs or those insearch of a fun play within oyster shell tossing distance of the Gulf.

The stately circuit recently underwent a $1.2 million renovation that shouldkeep it in the good graces of the traveling golfer for years to come. Ross'6,238 yards are a refreshing break from the 7,000-yard "championship"courses architects feel compelled to design today.

If these three markedly different Gulf Coast offerings whet your appetite like a dozen raw, the Gulfport/Biloxi metro area has plenty other pickings. The Arnold Palmer designed Bridges Golf Club at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis, as one local starter explained, is a "marsh were a golf course broke out." The course's 18 holes are connected by 21 wooden bridges spanning 17 lakes and 14 acres of wetlands (an unprecedented hole to bridge to lake to wetland ratio).

Rounding out the upscale stuff is the Oaks Golf Club in Pass Christian. One of the Gulf Coast's newer offerings (1998) The Oaks is the proud product of Landmark National (La Quinta, PGA West, Kiawah Island Resort) and radiates a similar air of high service levels and pristine conditioning.

Alas, Gulf Coast golf was not built on $100 greens fees. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to spend that on room, board and golf most seasons. Quality courses like Mississippi National and Windance usually sneak in under the $60 ceiling and "value" venues like Dogwood Hills Golf Club and Pine Bayou rarely charge more than $30.

Attention traveling golfers, dinner is served.

Where to Stay

The Grand Casino in Gulfport is the place to be 24/7 and more importantly, ensures access to the Grand Bear. Traveling golfers can chose from the 400-room Grand Casino Hotel or the 600-room Oasis Hotel. The entire complex is a self-contained experience, boasting some 105,000 square feet of gaming space, shops, eight restaurants and a nightclub.

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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