BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI -- When we told our Boston friends we were coming down here to play golf, they all said "Oh, you're going to play that fabulous "Trail?"
Yes, we answered, we are. But we were wrong, at least partly.
"The Trail" is in Alabama, not Mississippi -- so were wrong about that. But we were right about Mississippi courses being fabulous.
Mississippi golf is among the best kept secret of the golfing world.
We played five beautiful courses, all different, all challenging, all superb in design. And there were 165 others we didn't get to.
Too bad Mississippi doesn't have its own catchy golf promotion. It might want to advertise "Mississippi Sweet Tees," or something like that.
Our introduction to Mississippi golf came through the Society of American Travel Writers, which had its annual convention in Biloxi last fall. Whenever the land and the weather of the best convention site lends itself to an SATW golf tournament, the organization includes one within its meeting dates, and this year tournament players got a chance to play on the beautiful Fallen Oaks Golf Course, named for the thousand-year-old oak trees and the namesake live oak tree on its property. Only those who stay at the immense Beau Rivage Hotel in Biloxi may play the Tom Fazio designed course, which has challenging heart-stopping marsh hazards and plenty of other water surprises.
Driving three hours north of Biloxi, we stopped at the Peal River Resort in Choctaw, Mississippi, which boasts the only American Indian owned golf club in Mississippi. The Choctaw tribe owns the club, which has two courses, the Oaks and the Azaleas, both located on the Choctaw Indian Reservation and within a golf cart's ride over to three enormous casinos, which they call "Vegas with sweet tea." Among other things, it offers scholarships for Choctaw golfers. (Also on the reservation is a water theme park.)
Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate designed the two championship golf courses. The Oaks features a mix of Bermuda and Zoysia grass fairways nd Bermuda greens; the Azaleas offers bent grass greens and is called "The Augusta You Can Play" by Golf Magazine. If you play here in March, you'll see the dazzling azalea bushes in bloom similar to those at Augusta. The Oaks is ranked Number 7 on Golf Magazine's "Top 10 Underrated Courses in America" and features many elevation changes with greens that are large, undulating and fast. The fairways cut through a deep pine forest and several holes require players to carry over water.
The Dancing Rabbit Clubhouse looks like an old Southern mansion with one of those massive porches that wrap around the whole building, and there are eight suites on the second floor for overnight stays. Among the restaurants in the nearby casinos is Philip M's, an elegant steakhouse with a beloved chowder.
"They tried to take it off the menu," recalled Dancing Rabbit director of golf Mark Powell, "and it created a fight like the one at Little Big Horn, so they kept it on." Saffron Chowder consists of cream infused with Spanish saffron, complimented with lobster, shrimp and jumbo lump crab reduced to a thick, rich, well-seasoned soup topped with light flaky puff pastry. Ordering it for lunch tends to make you late for your tee time.
We next headed to West Point, Mississippi, and the magnificent Old Waverly Golf Course, founded by George W. Bryan, senior vice president of Sara Lee Corporation's meat division and a local boy who grew up in this area. The championship course was designed by Jerry Pate and Bob Cupp and takes excellent advantage of the landscape.
Champion Bermuda grass is used on the greens because it does not die out in the hot Southern summers. (The golf course is open all year). Old Waverly boasts an active junor golf program, starting young golfers learning the game at age four or five, as well as a junor golf foundation.
Two of the prettiest -- and most challenging -- holes are found on the front nine. The par-4 No. 6 demands a smart, strong tee shot to cross a deep chasm, with a precise swing following in order to stop your ball on a downhill approach near the pin. There is a sweet statue of a club member who died of breast cancer on the next hole, a lovely par 3 that requires an uphill shot over a little waterfall.
The winner of the US. Open in June, 1999, golfer Juli Inkster, was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame, and when she was working up to the contest, she played here at Waverly, setting a scoring record. She beat all previous records by beating by six strokes anyone's previous best, finishing four rounds at 16 under par.
The clubhouse at old Waverly echoes the style of the ante-bellum home six miles away, the Waverly Mansion, which is open to the public for tours
There is a choice of dining options at Old Waverly, and we were treated to an excellent steak dinner cooked by Executive Chef Bubba gross, who devised his own personal Old Waverly steak rub with all the trimmings. We stayed in one of the four-bedroom cottages on Lake Waverly near the clubhouse and course.
Our big surprise was the last course, near Jackson in the town of Grenada in the Hills Region of Mississippi, located halfway between Memphis, Tennesse, and Jackson.
The Dogwoods Course lies in the midst of the deep woods of the Hugh Jackson State Park. A public 18-hole golf course costing all of $35 per round, it feels spacious and open despite the surrounding woods, with wide open fairways moving up and down the gentle hilly terrain. The greens are large as well. Several of the holes on the back nine have views of Granada Lake where fishermen have as good a time as the golfers, finding plenty of crappie, bass, bream and catfish in these waters. The Dogwoods is a nature lover's course, and is the Number 8 course in Mississippi according to Golf Digest. Opened in 2006 and designed by Gary Roger Baird, it is a delight to play and a surprise as to how nicely groomed, given our previous days' plays on perfectly manicured private courses.
While the humble Dogwoods clubhouse is nothing like the extravagant mansions, dining rooms and lounges of the private courses where we played, you can find good hearty sandwiches and drinks there, as well as a practice range, and on the course itself, as much challenge as the elite private places where we tried our hands (and balls).
One other advantage in Mississippi golf that you won't find in Hilton Head, Kiawah, Arizona or anywhere else: the lovely sound of that sweet Mississippi honey-butter drawl on the local lips.