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The Mississippi Gulf Coast Golfing, Gaming, and Good Fishing!
Bill Shelton

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has been referred to as the "Playground of the South." Along the 26 miles of sandy beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, visitors can experience great golf, casino gambling, charter boat fishing, and some of the best seafood in the world! Steeped in the history of the Antebellum South, the Gulfport-Biloxi area has always been known for its colorful, baudy, and often unconventional character. And today, to borrow a phrase from a part-time resident of the area, Emeril Lagassee, they have "turned it up a notch."

Recently the Gulfport/Biloxi area was rated among the best golf areas in the US by Golf Digest magazine in its "Metro Golf Rankings." Categories considered in the ratings include climate, number of courses, average green fee, and course quality. Ranked in the top 20 percent, the area features courses designed by such notables as Donald Ross, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Davis Love III.

More than 280 holes of golf are available along the coastline of the Magnolia State and play is year round. Offering perhaps the best combination of affordable, high quality golf packages in the country, golf tourism in the State increased by 60 percent from 1999 to 2001. Today the Mississippi Gulf Coast could easily be labeled as the Golf Coast.

Golfing the Gulf . . . and Philadelphia

In 1945, Bryon Nelson and Sam Snead completed regulation play in the PGA's Gulfport Open tied for the lead. Nineteen holes later in one of golf's most historic playoffs, Nelson conceded Snead's putt giving the Slammer the title and golf spotlight for the moment. Later that year, Nelson amazed the golfing world by winning 11 consecutive tournaments, a record that still stands.

The classic match was played on Mississippi's oldest golf course, the Great Southern Golf Club, designed by Donald Ross in 1908. Today you can play the picturesque 6200-yard course featuring square greens, gentle breezes, and beautiful vistas of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf Hills Golf Club, a Jack Daray course built in 1927, was a favorite hangout for many movie stars, gangsters and "members of the upper crust" according to Kevin Drum, Executive Director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Golf Association. "The Pink Pony Lounge at the club was frequented by notables such as Elvis Presley who would play the piano for other guests. At one time, the course was so popular that tee times were auctioned off to the highest bidder!" The 6300-yard trek has been totally renovated and is maintained in pristine condition year round.

Mississippi National and Diamondhead are two other older, traditional courses open to the public along the coast. Stretching almost 7000 yards, Mississippi National was designed by Earl Stone while Diamondhead features two championship courses designed by Stone also. As with all of the coast's courses, the courses are playable all year with reduced rates from November through February.

Among the newer courses on the coast are The Bridges and Shell Landing. Opening in 1997, The Bridges is part of the Casino Magic Resort in Bay St. Louis. The Arnold Palmer-designed facility includes a 6900 yard championship course, 21 cart bridges over wetlands, an 11-acre lighted practice area, and full clubhouse amenities. The course has hosted the NGA Hooters tour and has been a Buy.com tour stop. In 1999 it was ranked as the Number #1 course on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Golf Digest.

Shell Landing, a Davis Love III signature course, opened in 2000 and has quickly been recognized as one of the best new golfing venues. The championship, 18-hole, par 72 layout was ranked No. 5 in the category of "Best New Public Upscale" courses by Golf Digest in 2002. Tall pines, marshes, bayous, and wetlands reflect the character of the area and the challenge of this outstanding facility. A southern styled clubhouse with an expansive porch provides a comfortable place to relax after a round on this new addition to the Gulf Coast.

Two other courses provide challenging championship layouts open to the public. Jack Nicklaus designed the Grand Bear, a 7200 yard trek rambling over 650 acres in Saucier and part of the Grand Casino complex. The Oaks, located in Pass Christian, is operated by Landmark National and features perhaps the toughest finishing hole in the State.

Although the Mississippi Gulf Coast offers more than enough golf for even the most avid player, it would be a travesty if you failed to schedule time for a trip to PhiladelphiaMississippi, that isfor one of America's greatest golfing experiences! The Pearl River Resort, a project owned and operated by the Choctaw Indian tribe, is the home of the Dancing Rabbit Golf Club. Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate teamed up to create two courses, The Azaleas and The Oaks, that have garnered the attention of the international golfing community.

The Azaleas, opened in 1997, was recently rated as the 25th Best Resort Course in America by Golfweek magazine. It has also been cited in Golf Digest's "Top Ten New Upscale Public Golf Courses," Golf and Travel's "Top 11 International Hidden Gems," and Golf magazine's "Top Ten Courses You Can Play." Awards aside, it is one of the most beautiful and challenging golf courses in America. The Oaks course opened in 1999 and is sure to capture golfing accolades also. The huge clubhouse facility set amid tall pines is as close to Scarlet's Tara as imaginable! Dancing Rabbit is one golfing experience that you will never forget and definitely worth the 4-hour drive from the Gulf Coast. Two casino/hotels adjacent to the courses offer attractive stay and play packages.

From the Greens to the Games

Gambling has been a part of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for about as long as anyone can remember. But, in 1990 the State legislature made gambling legal with one significant stipulationit had to be on water! With the muddy Mississippi on its western border and the Gulf of Mexico forming the southern boundary, legalized gambling quickly sprung up near Memphis on the river and along the Gulf coast.

Twelve major casinos on the coast offer a Las Vegas style glitz and glitter to the area and have brought a significant boost to the economy of the State. And, these are first class gaming facilities including Grand Casino, Casino Magic and Beau Rivage. Headliners such as Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, and many others appear at the casinos regularly.

With over 18,000 guest rooms, nightlife on the coast is bustling. Accommodations from every price range are available from the low-end chain motels to the four-diamond luxury suites of Casino Magic and the Beau Rivage with in-room amenities such as Jacuzzis and wetbars. Golf packages are available and special deals on dining and entertainment are common.

Speaking of dining, the Gulf Coast has some of the best seafood found anywhere. Biloxi was once known as the "Seafood Capital of the World." Shrimp, crabs, oysters, and the freshest catches of the day make eating an "all consuming experience." From the local restaurants located by the marinas to the buffets of the casinos, seafood is in abundance at a very affordable price. If you seek elegant dining, the Pier 4 restaurant at Casino Magic and Mary Mahoney are well worth the extra bucks.

For the sports minded, dinner at Favre's on the Bayou in Pass Christian is a must. Owned by Bret Farve's family, on any given night you may be greeted by his mother and father, served by his sister or brother, and find everyone in the place is a relative! Plus, the food is excellent.

Going South

Getting to the Mississippi Gulf Coast is relatively easy and inexpensive. Several major airlines including Northwest serve the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. Most flights are connections from Memphis or Atlanta and the fares are typically less expensive than flights to Florida. Although the weather in the winter is cooler (average highs from December through February are in the low to mid 60's), golf is played year round. Most golf packages offer cheaper rates during these months and tee time availability is good. Most courses overseed the dormant Bermuda with a winter rye that makes a nice visual contrast between the fairway and rough. Summer temperatures can climb into the 90's but the Gulf breezes provide some relief.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast may have been overlooked as a golfing destination but that is changing quickly. It is an easily accessible, affordable, quality alternative to Florida and Arizona. Additional information on golfing packages can be found at "http://www.visitmississippi.org" http://www.GolfCoast.com". Most courses and casino/hotels also maintain websites. Maybe its time to schedule a trip to the "Playground of the South."

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