By: Grant Fraser, Senior Travel Contributor @GFraserGolf
If Elvis Presley was a golfer and alive today, he would be proud of the state he was born in more than 80 years ago.
Despite having a population of only 2.5 million, the state of Mississippi is home to more than 140 golf courses. Many have been designed by the best in the business including Tom Fazio, Arnold Palmer, Hale Irwin, Jack Nicklaus and Davis Love III, making Mississippi a hidden gem among the more mainstream golf destinations in the U.S. like Florida, Arizona and California.
Mississippi’s golf repertoire is as diverse as the state itself. To the south, along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, is Mississippi’s Gulf Coast area renowned for its vibrant nightlife, eclectic restaurants, boardwalks, and 24-hour casinos. The area extends 60 miles along the Gulf, encompassing the towns of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and everything in between. With a population of 350,000, the area is flourishing once again after experiencing the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There are now 12 casinos, 13 golf courses, numerous salt and fresh water fishing and boat charters, sumptuous sea food dining options and, of course, the pristine sandy beaches, all of which have contributed to the Gulf Coast’s resurgence.
At centre stage in the Gulf Coast area is the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, a 1,740-room, AAA Four Diamond property owned by MGM International. Unlike its Las Vegas counterpart, many of the rooms at Beau Rivage provide panoramic vistas of the Gulf of Mexico’s “beautiful shores,” which, by choice, happens to be the English translation of the hotel’s name.
In addition to its seaside proximity, the resort features an 85,000 square-foot casino, a collection of 11 different restaurants, and a 1,500-seat theatre specifically designed to host year-round headline entertainment and production shows.
For golf enthusiasts, there are enough good quality courses in the area to keep you satiated for a week or more. Of the 13 golf courses along the Gulf Coast, two of the best are Fallen Oak and Shell Landing. Fallen Oak is the state’s perennial favourite having been named “Best Course You Can Play” in Mississippi in 2018 by Golf Week magazine. Designed by Tom Fazio, access to the golf course is exclusively reserved for guests of Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. Transportation to and from Fallen Oak is provided by the resort as the course is located 30 minutes away. What makes Fallen Oak atypical is its location. Situated in the untouched Desoto National Forest, the site for the golf course was actually selected by Fazio himself, as he was given free rein to sculpt a design exclusively on his terms. The result is a 7,487-yard jewel that extends its way through native wetlands, marshes, pecan groves and hardwood forests. The course opened in 2006 and features five sets of tees making this an enjoyable golf experience for players of all skill levels. You should see the golf legends who compete on the PGA Champions Tour certainly agree, as Fallen Oak has become the semi-permanent site of the Rapiscan Systems Classic, a regular Tour stop for the last 10 years.
An interesting Fallen Oak footnote pertains to the course’s name. Unsurprisingly, the namesake was also determined by Tom Fazio, who, during the initial routing phase, came across a sprawling 300-year-old live oak tree with a large downed limb. Rather than removing the oak, Fazio decided to keep it. Today, this beautiful tree can be found thriving on the right side of the 18th fairway.
The other “Best Course You Can Play” in the Gulf Coast area, according to Golf Week magazine, is Shell Landing, a 7,024-yard layout designed by Davis Love III. Featuring five sets of tees and a 25-acre practice facility, the course thoughtfully weaves its way through the many indigenous marshes and bayous that adorn the landscape. Shell Landing is one of the few courses in the U.S. that remains locally owned and operated, a redeeming quality which is apparent in the course’s conditioning and attention to guest service. The owners are intimately involved not only with the day-to-day operation of the property but within the Gautier community itself.
For the adventurous golf enthusiast willing to explore the rural regions of the state, great golf awaits. To do so requires a four-hour journey north from the hustle and bustle of the Gulf Coast area along highways 59 and 15 to the quiet community of Choctaw. It is here you will arrive at the Pearl River Resort, home of the venerable Dancing Rabbit Golf Club.
The Dancing Rabbit experience is comprised of the 7,076-yard Oaks and 7,158-yard Azaleas courses. Both are Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate co-designs, encompassing more than 700 acres of unspoiled forest and wetland areas. The best of the two is a matter of personal preference as both are fixtures on Golf Week magazine’s “Best Courses You Can Play” in Mississippi list (Oaks No. 5, Azalea No. 6). While the Azalea Course is commonly referred to as the “Augusta You Can Play,” the Oaks Course is equally special.
While the Dancing Rabbit golf courses are the pillars of the Pearl River Resort, other amenities of this ideal stay-and-play destination include two casinos, several restaurants, and three hotels, all of which are within walking distance of each other.
It is worth noting that the Dancing Rabbit name is historically significant. The golf courses and the entire resort were built on the ancestral lands of the Mississippi Band of the Choctaw Indians. The site commemorates one of the most popular assembly grounds on the ancient Choctaw tribal lands, which was named for its location on the banks of the Big and Little Dancing Rabbit Creeks, a few miles from the existing clubhouse. In the Choctaw language, this is the place “rabbits came to dance.”
An hour and half north from Choctaw are two more of Mississippi’s finest golf courses. Located in West Point, Mossy Oak and Old Waverly will not disappoint and deserving of the drive.
Old Waverly, as its name implies, is one of Mississippi’s golf mainstays. Co-designed by Jerry Pate and Bob Cupp, Old Waverly first gained notoriety when it hosted the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open and this year will host the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. Lakes, ponds and creeks are commonplace on the property; however, the most daunting water hazard doesn’t factor into your round until the 18th hole. This is Old Waverly’s signature hole, a 445-yard, par 4 dogleg left, where water extends along the entire left side of the fairway. According to Golf Digest, this is the No. 2 course in the state and No. 43 on their “100 Greatest Public Courses” in the U.S. list.
Located directly across the street is Mossy Oak, the most recent entry to Mississippi’s golf scene. With a name like this, you likely imagine a more traditional design where Spanish moss-covered trees frame the fairways. Don’t be misled by the name as this Gil Hanse course is Mississippi’s version of links golf where fescue grass dominates the landscape blending seamlessly with the terrain’s rolling fairways and elevated greens.
Opened in 2016, Mossy Oak measures 7,212 yards and features a state-of the art practice facility used by the Mississippi State University golf teams. Despite its recent vintage, Mossy Oak has not gone unnoticed as the course recently debuted in the No. 2 spot on Golf Week magazine’s “Best Courses You Can Play” in Mississippi list. What makes Mossy Oak memorable is its unique design. Links-inspired layouts are not common in the southern U.S., which is why the circuitous drive to pastoral West Point to play Mossy Oaks is worthy of the time and effort it takes to get here.
Stay and play golf packages are available as both courses feature on-site golf cottages. The “cottages” at Mossy Oak opened in 2018 and feature tastefully appointed four-bedroom suites accompanied by a spacious kitchen, dining and living room areas.
There are many reasons to make Mississippi your next vacation getaway. Whether it be a family holiday or a golf buddy junket, a sure bet you can make about a destination known for its casinos and beaches is that the golf courses you will play throughout the Magnolia State are among the best in the U.S.
Getting to and from Mississippi is straightforward as flights depart daily from Gulfport or Jackson, the state’s capital.
Where to Stay:
Gulf Coast – Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, www.BeauRivage.com
West Point – Mossy Oak Cottages, www.mossyoakgolf.com/lodging
For More Information About Mississippi:
Visit Mississippi – www.visitmississippi.org
Gulf Coast – www.GulfCoast.org