Try Some Southern Hospitality


Each year, it seems, some type of business challenge takes place that stymies the opportunity for a full golf season in Michigan — whether it’s job cutbacks, the price of gas, or the weather (like this spring’s extreme rains that severely limited rounds played between March and May).
Now imagine for a moment the financial challenges for golf resorts in Mississippi. The magnolia state experienced devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (despite New Orleans grabbing all the headlines), followed by BP Oil’s broken pipeline, which spewed crude deep beneath the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Mississippi has bounced back well from both, even though the oil spill news coverage was more crippling to tourism. Due to unnecessary, over-inflated national media hype, it seemed to many that the whole state was affected even as the environmental damage was limited to the southern coastline.

“Immediately after the oil spill, Mississippi was given the perception in the national media that oil was washing up on our shores, and that was not the case,” said Mary Beth Wilkerson, director of tourism at the Mississippi Development Authority, last fall. “Golfers can experience very diverse product here with not just great golf, but gaming and the top-name entertainment coming in. It’s also great for cultural and heritage travelers.”
A trio of Gulf coast courses for any golfer’s wish list should be Fallen Oak, The Preserve, and Grand Bear near the entertainment epicenter of Gulfport/Biloxi. I just recently returned from a mid-July trip to the more central part of the state, where Old Waverly and Dancing Rabbit shine just as bright.

Fallen Oak is best known as “the experience.” The course only hosts about 40 players each day on average because only guests of the casino resort Beau Rivage are allowed to play.

It truly is an experience, starting with a required limousine ride from the casino to the golf course 20 miles away, which is part of the package. Upon arrival at the gated property, golfers are greeted by staff who take and clean their golf shoes, then it’s off to the tasteful clubhouse for a good meal or signature Bloody Mary — or both, before golfers head out with their forecaddie on a course that feels like it’s just theirs for the day — except in March, when the course hosts a PGA Champions Tour event.

The Preserve is a Jerry Pate design in which no two holes are alike, making for a nice day of varied strategies and challenging golf. The front nine is tighter than the back, creating a good variety of course management choices. The Preserve is one of the best courses on the Mississippi Gulf Coast due to a good mix of bunkers, water, and marsh areas to please the eye and add challenge to the round.

Grand Bear’s name gives an easy hint to its designer, the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus. As high quality of courses as Fallen Oak and The Preserve are, most of the locals said Grand Bear was their favorite place to play. Situated in lower-lying flat geography, Nicklaus did very well to incorporate what limited elevation changes were available.

For Gulf Coast nightlife there are three casinos to choose from in the vicinity, including the Hard Rock (which was originally scheduled to open the exact day Katrina hit) next door to Beau Rivage.

Across the street from both gambling joints is a local historic landmark and restaurant/bar called Mary Mahoney’s. Urban legend claims that Elvis Presley’s ghost still traverses the stairway up and down from the second floor.

More gaming can be found in Philadelphia, MS, next door to Dancing Rabbit on property owned by the Choctow Indian Tribe. Dancing Rabbit is seen in the media as the home course to PGA pro John Daly. Its two 18-hole courses — the Oaks and the Azaleas — frequently earn high national reviews, especially for being one of the few casino properties anywhere with two-championship courses onsite.

About one hour away in West Point is Old Waverly, a wonderful place for golf buddies, families, or corporate groups to stay and play (lodging is the only way non-members can access the club). Villas are designed with a great room connecting 4 separate bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. The clubhouse, less than 25 years old, was constructed to look like a century-old southern mansion. Old Waverly hosted the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open, won by Julie Inkster, and is close to the college-town amenities of Mississippi State University (MSU).

Michigan golfers would appreciate a few particular aspects of Dancing Rabbit; the rolling terrain and sharp elevation changes are very similar to Up North courses, plus the Azaleas course is the only one in Mississippi with bent grass greens. Yet those aren’t the only similarities. To hear Director of Golf Mark Powell explain, he says the toughest business challenges are consistently what I hear from Michigan course owners as well.

“Probably the biggest challenge we face as a business is to keep up outstanding guest service with the economy our nation has faced,” Powell said in a follow up correspondence. “Higher fuel prices, golf course chemical prices, higher minimum wages, and increasing economic pressures on our employees have made it more and more difficult to deliver the greatest possible golf experience to our treasured guests than ever before It is my job as a manager to find ways to have the best course conditions possible, deliver the best guest service to our guests, and keep my entire staff enthusiastic — and be under budget!”

Sounds like Mark is a Michigander.