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Mississippi's 'Golf Coast' offers above-par deals

Fallen Oak Golf Club<br>

Fallen Oak Golf Club

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Updated: November 5, 2010 12:16PM

Mississippi's golf industry wants the world to know the Magnolia State was slimed by very little of BP's oil spill - and it's offering golf deals to entice skeptical Chicagoans to grab their clubs and head south.

"We saw hardly any oil, but the news media made it sound like we were covered with it," says Kevin Drum, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Golf Association. "Because of perception, not reality, we lost an entire season."

To lure players back, through November, the association is offering a Visa gift card good for $100 in Gulf seafood at local restaurants to every player who books a stay-and-play package of at least three nights. The promotion is funded by a $250,000 grant from BP.

It's fitting that Chicago golfers get a piece of that action because it was Chicago and the Illinois Central Railroad that put Mississippi golf on the map back in the 1920s. "Travel today, golf tomorrow" rail packages along the Panama Limited (later renamed the City of New Orleans) got Chicago golfers to the course 21 hours after they left Union Station.

Some of Mississippi's earliest courses were designed by Tom Bendelow, the so-called "Johnny Appleseed of Golf," who designed 600 golf courses in 35 years, including Olympia Fields Country Club, South Shore Country Club, Medinah and Lake Shore Country Club.

Today, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Golf Association's 20-plus properties include layouts by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Fazio, Mark McCumber, Davis Love III and Jerry Pate. The association's website features 50 hotel partners and its online booking engine lets you plan your visit and get firm stay-and-play quotes within 72 hours - no credit card needed until you're ready to book.

These ain't your grand-daddy's daily-fee courses. Fallen Oak Golf Club, designed by Fazio, would be a worthy neighbor to Steve Wynn's Shadow Creek Golf Course for Las Vegas high rollers. Fallen Oak is an amenity of MGM's Beau Rivage Resort & Casino Biloxi, accessible only to hotel guests. It might see 30 rounds a day, which makes for immaculate conditioning.

"Tee times here are a mere suggestion," says David Stinson, Fallen Oak's director of golf, who once worked at Olympia Fields.

Each spring, Fallen Oak Golf Course is home of the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a Champions Tour event. It cost a whopping $55 million to build and features Augusta National-style drainage and below-ground greens aeration that can return the course to playability within hours of a drenching rain. Greens-reading caddies, whose services are included in all packages, make even the lowliest muni hacker feel like a Vegas high roller.

Another must-play golf course along the Gulf Coast is The Grand Bear near Saucier, Miss. The Nicklaus-designed course is surrounded by the quietude of DeSoto National Forest. The Grand Bear and its high-ceilinged, log-cabin clubhouse built with massive timbers imported from Montana are about 30 minutes outside Biloxi.

Another winner: The Preserve in Van Cleave, Miss. It's a Pate design set in 1,800 acres of marshlands. Tim McDonald of Travel got it right in 2007 when he labeled The Preserve "wilderness with golf clubs."

The course is certified as environmentally friendly by Audubon International and you can see why. Its 6,775-yard length is inhabited by deer, red-tailed hawks and cranes, with plenty of water to test your nerves.

Dan Vukelich, a former Chicagoan, is a free-lance writer in Albuquerque, N.M.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by the Mississippi Development Authority.

?$100 Visa gift card good for local Gulf seafood for any player booking a Mississippi Gulf Coast golf package of at least three nights;

?$209 nightly stay-and-play package at Beau Rivage Resort & Casino-Biloxi; includes double-occupancy room, round, cart and caddie at Fallen Oak Golf Course;

?$125 a night stay-and-play package at the Palace Casino & Resort in Biloxi; includes double-occupancy room, $10 food voucher, $10 slot credit, weekend round and cart at The Preserve Golf Course;

?$84.50 a night midweek package at the Grand Biloxi Casino Hotel Spa; includes double-occupancy room, one round with cart at the Grand Bear Golf Course;

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