By David Droschak
The last time North Carolinians were captivated by the state of Mississippi was during Hurricane Katrina, which blew away lavish casinos, leveled homes and basically stunned a region along the Gulf of Mexico that over the last decade had begun carving a unique golfing travel destination niche.
Often overshadowed along the Deep South coast by pristine Florida beaches to its east and the raucous Big Easy of New Orleans to the west, the proliferation of gaming casinos, combined with top-notch golf (and of course some great food) was taking hold in a state we all grew up learning to spell in fourth grade when Katrina changed the Mississippi landscape forever on Aug. 29, 2005.
Tourism ground to a halt as cleanup took center stage. While the coastal casinos regrouped, and in a strange twist of irony began counting their losses, golf courses in the area were faced with a daunting task as hundreds of thousands of trees were felled by the nasty storm.
Fallen Oak, the sister course of the famed Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, was set to open a few months before Katrina blew through Biloxi and Gulfport, sending architect Tom Fazio and his crew into redesign mode rather quickly.
“Some holes were completely covered with timber,” said Fallen Oak superintendent Matt Hughes. “You couldn’t even drive a cart down some fairways. Just tree clean-up took three months, working from sun-up to sun-down every day.”
Like most people who experienced Katrina, Hughes will remember the storm’s date forever. In addition to a massive and tedious golf course clean-up chore he was facing, Hughes and his wife Katie lost their home and all of its possessions when 9 feet of water surged through the couple’s neighborhood. After the hurricane, Katie moved back to Ohio on a temporary basis while Hughes moved into an RV in what would become the sixth tee at Fallen Oak to begin the course’s recovery stage.
“We had a trailer and a grill and that was about it,” Hughes said.
So it’s understandable Hughes shakes his head in amazement of the beauty and serenity of Fallen Oak today as it celebrated its three-year anniversary in November. The total price tag for this resort course was $50 million — $17 million of which came after the storm as part of the monumental cleanup, tree replanting venture and redesign efforts.
“We stopped counting at 4,000 trees that we lost,” said Fallen Oak general manager David Stinson. “It could have very well been 8,000-10,000 trees. We didn’t want to open it until it looked like it had been here forever.”
Overall, more than $10 million was spent at Fallen Oak to move massive oaks already on the property to different locations on the course, enhancing an already stunning site.
“If you look at the aerial photography we are surrounded by pine trees and just this plot of land has a lot of amazing hardwoods. It’s like a little oasis,” Hughes said.
If you didn’t live through the storm, there are few reminders, if any, that much is out of place at Fallen Oak, which derived its name from a large fallen oak branch that guards the right side of the 18th fairway and can be seen as you sip your drink or snack on a Kobe beef slider at the sunken bar in the ultra modern clubhouse.
In fact, Hughes likes to tell the story of how the now famous tree had to be protected before and after the storm.
“We had to wrap it up in yellow tape so people wouldn’t cut it up or haul it off thinking it was garbage,” Hughes said of the massive branch that hugs the ground.
In addition to a natural setting second to none along the East Coast, which includes Fazio’s striking “finger bunkering” and superior course condition, Fallen Oak prides itself on subtle customer service. Set a tee time and your name will be engraved on a locker, your golf shoes shined and forecaddie ready if you so desire.
“We kind of call it unadulterated golf,” Stinson said. “We are surrounded by the DeSoto National Forest on three sides, so there are no houses, no vertical intrusions, we don’t have tee signs. It’s simply just the landscape and that’s the way Fazio wanted it. It’s just a pure golf experience.”
Golfers must stay at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi in order to play exclusive Fallen Oak, all but guaranteeing you won’t be waiting on another foursome during your relaxing round. Rooms during the winter at the 32-story waterfront casino range from $119-$159 a night, while golf costs an additional $200.
“You are able to get a four-star, four-diamond hotel at a very reasonable rate because of the gaming that is attached to it,” Stinson said. “You’re getting Ritz-Carlton like accommodations, so that is an enticement. Then you’ve got the all-world food here and the whole culinary aspect of the resort that you can’t necessarily get on every golf trip, and then you couple it with golf. Fallen Oak is a golf experience.”
Another great resort course in the Biloxi area is the Grand Bear, a Jack Nicklaus signature course that is reasonably priced during the winter months at $50 on the weekdays and $75 on the weekends.
The Grand Bear was originally associated with several coastal casinos before the storm, but is now open to the general public. Ranked as one of the top 10 casino courses in the country, Grand Bear has generous fairways and is nestled in 1,700 acres of forest land with several holes featuring sand bar views along the Little Biloxi and Big Biloxi rivers. A serpentine six-mile ride through a portion of the DeSoto National Forest enhances the anticipation of what’s about to unfold in front of you.
“We allowed Jack to take the property and build the best 18 holes he could without restrictions,” said Grand Bear director of golf Tolby Strahan. “He built it with no golf hole running side-by-side. We wanted people to come out and have a real good experience, so we wanted to make it as player friendly as we could make it.”
If you head toward Gulfport, the two best courses to fire at the pins are Windance and The Oaks, while you should set up shop at the 562-room Island View Casino Resort.
Windance was designed by tour pro Mark McCumber, and while shorter than Fallen Oak and Grand Bear, its layout variety and sloping greens make for a thinking man’s day on the course. Don’t miss the gumbo after your round if it’s on the menu that day.
Windance’s reputation was enhanced through the years after hosting Ben Hogan and Nike Tour events with such winners as Jim Furyk and Tom Lehman.
Further west along the coast toward New Orleans is The Oaks in Pass Christian, Miss., another shorter course that offers excellent conditioning and some strategic shots over native wetlands. The Oaks is also home to the “Hooters Beverage Cart Girls.”
As far as food, your trip won’t be complete without heading to The Shed Barbeque and Blues Joint. The restaurant (and I use that term lightly) was built out of junk from dumpsters and street side garbage piles, creating quite a laid-back atmosphere. But it’s the beef brisket, pulled pork, chicken and sausage that really counts here in this Gulfport local favorite.
Going more upscale? You can’t go wrong at Emeril’s Gulf Coast Fish House (the name speaks for itself) in the Island View Casino or BR Prime (stone crab claws and bone-in pork) at the Beau Rivage.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is just an hour and 40 minute air trek from Charlotte or Greensboro to an airport with few crowds, meaning more golf and culinary time and less hassle. High temperatures in November, December and January are normally in the low to mid 60s and most casino room and golfing specials run through mid February.
“What we’ve tried to do along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is produce the best golfing product for the money,” said Janet Leach, the state’s sports marketing manager.