Tunica County turning into legitimate golf vacation destination

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

ROBINSONVILLE, Miss. -- Want to play nine or 18? Or how about 21? Here, in the self-proclaimed "Casino Capital of the South," you can do any of the above on a smooth green surface and have a great time.

Links at Cottonwoods G.C.
The Links at Cottonwoods is one of three excellent golf options in the Tunica County area.
Links at Cottonwoods G.C.Tunica National golf course - 14thHarrah's Tunica hotel
If you go

With the grand opening of the Tunica National Golf and Tennis, this tiny enclave just 30 minutes south of Memphis, Tenn., is transforming into a legitimate golf destination with three solid 18-hole courses.

And when you're done with a day on the links, by night the green felt of the blackjack tables awaits at any one of the area's nine casinos. It's a golf-and-gambling combination that adds up to a hole-in-one, assuming you come home with some money left in your checking account.

Tunica County has become one of the nation's most unlikely tourist destinations. In 1991, at the time casinos became legal in Mississippi, it had just 20 hotel rooms.

Nine casinos and 13 years later, the community, once all flat delta farmland, is bustling with activity. The county used to lead the nation with a 22-percent unemployment rate, but now luxuries like shows, concerts, gourmet restaurants and big events like the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight -- all spurred on by the casinos -- are an everyday fabric of life. Only Las Vegas and Atlantic City attract more gamblers than Tunica County's 15 million visitors annually.

With 14,200 slot machines and 465 gaming tables, gambling will always be the top draw, but golf is gaining.

Must-play golf courses in the Tunica area

The Cottonwoods, a Hale Irwin design, is part of the Grand Casino's 2,200-acre entertainment complex. Irwin, not yet known for his design work, did well with the flat terrain he was dealt.

The 6,952-yard design opens with a benign 329-yard par-4, then never lets up. Its five water holes are stellar, with the daring par-4, 356-yard fifth and the two par 5s -- the dog-leg left, 549-yard seventh and the dog-leg right 512-yard 17th -- truly memorable.

The 6,923-yard River Bend Links is the county's most unique experience. Architect Clyde Johnson did his best to create a pseudo-links course, complete with a144 pot bunkers, nine lakes and fairway mounding. The land, an old cotton field, is completely devoid of trees, leaving it exposed to harrowing winds from the nearby Mississippi River.

The course, jointly owned and operated by the Harrahs, Hollywood and Sam's Town casinos, gives out Strokesaver yardage books, the kind more commonly found on trips to Scotland and Ireland,to authenticate its links-like experience.

Tunic County golf: Solid seconds

In due time, the Tunica National Golf and Tennis Center might be ready to challenge Cottonwoods and River Bend for area supremacy but not yet. The 7,210-yard Mark McCumber, which opened in early 2004, needs some maturing. The $12-million facility does have the infrastructure to grow into something special.

A 360-degree driving range, the state's largest practice range, and a six-hole, par-3 practice course will provide a perfect home for a golf academy, which has yet to open.

The four indoor tennis courts are the state's only indoor, climate-controlled Har-Tru clay courts.

Tunica-area lodging

With only three courses, it's a much easier decision where to play golf than it is choosing where to stay among the 6,300 rooms at nine different casinos. Each casino has a theme, so go with what your heart desires. The Sam's Town brings country and western to life. Harrah's sells year-round Mardi Gras. Hollywood might be the most popular with its movie memorabilia, including a copy of the Bat Mobile and a three-story King Kong replica. The Horseshoe has a blues hall-of-fame/museum.

Tunica County off course

If you can't shoot a good score on the links, maybe you can shoot straighter at Willows Sporting Clays, a shooting range at the Grand Casino.

The 120-foot, 400-passenger Tunica Queen paddlewheel boat offers four cruises daily and nightly dinner cruises up and down the mighty Mississippi. A cocktail hour cruise, complete with the sun dipping in the horizon and a slight breeze blowing, is a can't-miss experience.

Once you're off the water, head to any of a number of nightly shows at Sam Town's River Palace Area, the Gold Strike's Millennium Theater, the Bluesville Showcase Nightclub at the Horseshoe Casino or the Grand Casino Event Center. National names like Kenny Rogers and Michael Bolton, who seem to tour the casino circuit nationwide; are regulars. Dancers and magicians also grace the stages.

The Paul Battle Jr. Arena & Exposition Center, the state's largest arena floor with concert seating for 6,000, holds horse and trade shows, bullriding exhibitions, tractor pulls and conventions.

And don't forget nearby Memphis, with its zoo (memphiszoo.org), the NBA's Grizzlies, and rockin' Beale Street.

Tunica County dining

Much like Vegas, buffets are the meal of choice for many visitors on a budget (they're saving their money for that next big slot pull), but there's food at every turn (38 restaurants in the nine casinos).

The best of the bunch might be Jack Binion's Steakhouse in the Horseshoe Casino with its steaks, Maine lobster and veal.

Tunica County: The verdict

None of the courses in Tunica County can match the state's top golf destination -- Dancing Rabbit's Jerry Pate/Tom Fazio gems in Philadelphia, which are two of the nation's undiscovered treasures. Nevertheless, with reasonable prices, and good package deals with area casinos, River Bend, Cottonwoods and Tunica National are all fun to play. More importantly, there's good variety from one course to the next.

Combined with the all-night casino action and the proximity to Memphis, a weekend getaway to Tunica County looks all the more appealing.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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