Finding Value, Gambling and Southern Charm in Mississippi

Writer’s Note: I’ve never played golf in several U.S. states, but for some reason I’ve been to Mississippi — twice. And that’s not an altogether bad thing, though the second time I went most of the courses were under water. Interestingly, the story below ran in the wake of 9/11, when a lot of people were nervous about traveling by air. Now with people concerned about spending too much cash on a vacation, driving to Mississippi might offer an alternative.

The strangest thing to note about Mississippi is that most of its casinos are on water. Really — the casino part will be on water, while connected to a hotel on land. This is because of some strange law regarding gaming only being allowed on boats. So consequently the casinos are classified as boats as they rest on the water. Strange, but then again, it is Mississippi.

Arnold Palmer's The Bridges GC near the Gulf of Mexico

Arnold Palmer's The Bridges GC near the Gulf of Mexico

Hidden in the deepest of the Deep South is a travel destination that mixes history, golf and gambling to create something wonderful and unique. While it may not have the historical appeal of Florida, Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is a good choice for the traveller or golfer looking for something a little off the beaten path.

It should also appeal to Canadians, because getting there is easy, with direct flights from Toronto to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, and numerous connections through Atlanta.

Once there, you will find an area that has been working hard to appeal to tourists. The crystal-white beaches were always present, but over the past decade the real draw of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has become golf and gambling, or gambling and golf, depending on your preference.

The range of golf courses has improved since Great Southern Golf Club, a sporty layout designed by Donald Ross in 1908, was the only course on the scene. While Great Southern is still the place to find those who like to play high-stakes golf, visitors are more likely to be drawn to some of the area’s newer offerings, such as Shell Landing, Arnold Palmer’s The Bridges at Casino Magic or The Oaks Golf Club.

Shell Landing may be the best of the bunch. Designed by PGA Tour star Davis Love III, Shell Landing is named for the turtles that live in the course’s many marshes.

Wetlands and tall pines are in abundance at this gem, and the best holes, such as the 398-yard 15th, usually bring both elements into play. Big hitters will be rewarded here — but those who can hit it straight will also find this course, challenging and intriguing.

Marshlands are also central to The Bridges, designed by PGA Tour legend Arnold Palmer and within walking distance

Davis Love's Shell Landing is modern, but intriguing

Davis Love's Shell Landing is modern, but intriguing

of Casino Magic. Dozens of — you guessed it — bridges link the course, creating a fine assortment of holes that feature numerous forced carries to undulating greens. Like Shell Landing, the best of The Bridges’ holes use the wetlands — and some fine views of the Gulf of Mexico — for a golf course that is scenic and difficult. Bring some extra golf balls for this one.

If you find The Bridges’ narrow fairways and use of water too difficult, then it is worth the short drive to nearby Pass Christian to tackle The Oaks. A traditional course, The Oaks has few of the quirks one might associate with The Bridges. There are no tricks at The Oaks — fairways are generous and greens are relatively flat. It is simply a fine test of golf and good fun as well.

Golf on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast offers champagne play on a beer budget. Green fees for the area’s courses range from US$45 to US$90, and pale next to those of Las Vegas, where it can easily cost US$200 for a round.

This also means you will have more to lose in Mississippi’s upstart casinos. Gaming is the new attraction in Mississippi, having blossomed over the past 10 years. But like many things in this intriguing state, gaming in Mississippi has its quirks.

All of the area’s casinos, with the exception of those on Indian reservations, have to be on water.

Having grown out of gaming on boats, the Gulf Coast’s casinos are still located on inlets and bays on the ocean, but are now permanent structures that simply rest on water. The hotel portion of each casino is on land, but you usually know when you have crossed into the gaming area of any Mississippi Gulf Coast casino because there is usually a line on the floor where land turns to water.

The best of the casinos, such as the Beau Rivage Resort, have a distinctive Las Vegas feel — without Vegas prices. They have the same shopping-mall-like plazas and array of restaurants.

Travellers willing to head inland a few hours in search of golf and gambling will hit the jackpot, especially those who like history.

It is certainly worth taking a trip inland to Natchez, a small city of 19,000, that is full of charm and has worked hard to maintain its connection with its antebellum past. Fantastic lodging is available at locations such as Dunleith Planation, a magnificent 19th-century home that now functions as a hotel.

With its Gone with the Wind appeal, top-grade restaurant and remarkable rooms ranging from US$145 to US$225, Dunleith is a comfortable connection to the Civil War era.

Close to Natchez is Beau Pre Country Club, an interesting 6,935-yard layout. Wandering through a thickly wooded area, Beau Pre appears at first to be consistent, but rarely spectacular. That changes on the short par-4 15th hole, when it emerges from the forest and gives witness to a remarkable backdrop of incredible red clay cliffs.

On the remaining holes — the par-3 16th, a 169-yard hole that forces players to carry a large pond; the 17th, a 410-yard par-4 that plays toward the cliffs; and the final par-5 18th — Beau Pre shows a magnificence that belies its traditional beginnings.

A little farther northeast, near Philadelphia, Miss., sit the two Dancing Rabbit Golf Courses (the Azaleas and the Oaks) and Silver Star casino, one of the state’s best golf and gambling draws.

The most dramatic golf complex in Mississippi, Dancing Rabbit uses its wooded setting, with large trees and sleepy streams, to great effect. Designed by Tom Fazio, the best golf architect in the business, along with Jerry Pate, a former PGA Tour pro, the project is the work of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The courses appear harmless at first. But by the end of the round, Fazio and Pate have challenged golfers with a wonderful variety of holes.

From the dramatic ninth at the Azaleas, with its difficult tee shot and well-guarded green, to the 455-yard 18th at the Oaks, where an approach shot forces players to flirt with a large pond, both courses offer world-class golf. Green fees start at US$39, topping out at US$96 (depending on the season), making Dancing Rabbit one of the great golfing bargains in the U.S.

Given its unpredictable nature, it should be no surprise that Dancing Rabbit has become the home course of John Daly, the long-driving PGA Tour star, who can sometimes be found playing piano in the clubhouse’s lounge.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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