Muddy water. Sad-eyed blues singers. Sweltering humidity. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is more apt to conjure those images than visions of emerald fairways and recreational heaven. Well, here's a little secret: These days, the area is booming like it was at the turn of the last century, when the beaches were magnets for American travelers. The regeneration began in the early nineties when gambling was legalized and casinos began opening up on the coastline. With the influx of travelers, developers recognized the need for high-end golf to accompany the Gulf's other prime-time recreation, world-class fishing. The result: Courses popped up all over the region. Golf, gambling and fishing?Sounds like the perfect long weekend, particularly with your buddies.
Biloxi is the place to stay. It's got the highest concentration of action, and everything else of interest is within a forty-minute drive. Fly into the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (non-stop flights are offered from Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Memphis, Tampa and Toronto). Rent a car and drive twenty minutes on I-10 and then I-110 to central Biloxi. Both I-10 and U.S. Highway 90 follow the east-west coastline, so each will become familiar during your stay. Highway 90 is right on the water and directly connects most of the activity, while the interstate is usually the fastest way to the greens.
In a fit of marketing genius, Grand Casino built the Grand Bear Golf Course in 1999 so that hotel guests could enjoy rounds in a private-club atmosphere. Now the Grand Bear is the reason to stay at the Grand Casino Biloxi (or the sister property, the Grand Casino Gulfport), at least for a night. Its 7,204 yards wind through shadow-casting pine trees along the Big and Little Biloxi Rivers, whose white-sand beaches and rambling Mississippi mud water provide scenic (and hazardous) backdrops. The course is as player friendly as a Nicklaus track gets, but prepare for putts with more break than porcelain plates in the bed of a pick-up truck.
Next up, take a ride to Bay St. Louis, a thirty-mile trek from Biloxi down I-10 toward New Orleans. Here you'll find The Bridges Golf Resort at Casino Magic, an Arnold Palmerdesigned course set amid lakes and wetlands. While the track isn't particularly long (6,841 yards from the tips), if you don't hit the fairways you'll likely be swimming with the gators. Check your ego at the starter, aim for the fairway poles and land it on the fronts of the greens; life will be dandy.
For a change of pace, The Oaks Golf Club seems like a transplant from the sandhills of North Carolina. Pine trees line most of the relatively flat, wide-open fairways, with a few live oaks thrown in on this local favorite. You have to be really off your driving game to get into trouble from the tee boxes, so most of the challenge comes on the approaches, as the holes narrow toward the greens.
The newest area designs by Tour pros are Mark McCumber's Windance Country Club and Davis Love III's Shell Landing Golf Club. Windance is a tight, semiprivate 6,660-yard track with undulating fairways that has hosted Ben Hogan and Nike Tour events since opening in 1986. Shell Landing is the newest course in the area--opened November 2000--so it could use some time to grow in, but the 6,978-yard marshland layout is a definite challenger.
If you get the chance, reserve an afternoon for The Great Southern Golf Club, a Donald Ross design built in 1908 just off the beach between Gulfport and Biloxi and given a near million-dollar face-lift by Brian Curley in 1999. While not the most difficult, it's a fascinating layout that features rectangular greens and a surreal mix of foliage: live oaks, pine trees, magnolias and palms. Sam Snead beat Byron Nelson here at the Gulfport Open two weeks before Nelson started his eleven-event winning streak in 1945, so it's a walk through history.