The Mississippi Gulf Coast: Golf’s Paradise Lost

By: Tim Bibaud

The irony struck me as soon as I opened my email and perused the message from the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s Tourist Board proclaiming the recent additions to its golf course/casino stay and play packages. For the past two years we have taken advantage of this beautiful part of America and its highly underrated golf courses. The packages were very competitively priced, with the casinos being perfect for our highly undisciplined and shaky gambling skills. The food was great and the hospitality wonderful.

The golf course offerings ranged from beautiful new venues such as the highly acclaimed Davis Love lll-designed Shell Landing to the vintage 1908 Donald Ross gem, Great Southern Golf Club. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed warmly and treated to a first-class golfing experience.

We were fortunate enough to stay at the Grand Casino Biloxi and the Grand Casino Gulfport, and these visits offered excellent accommodations along with a wonderful cuisine and even better nightlife.

As the facts slowly filter in from the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina, we are shell-shocked at the magnitude of the terrible tragedies that have taken place in the Southeast. Just as we were shaken to the core by the December 2004 Tsunami in Southeast Asia, we are further reminded that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature, regardless of advance warnings and preparations to contend with such natural disasters.

Only this time it’s different. I have never been to India, the east coast of Africa, the Philippines or any other area affected by the tsunami. I followed the stories from afar and watched, in horror, the numerous CNN film clips detailing unsuspecting people carried away and the destruction of complete towns and villages.

I, along with many others, was horrified at what transpired halfway around the world and felt good about donating to the relief effort. However, I also knew that the daily grind of my own affairs would soon override my concern for the tsunami victims and I would continue to convince myself that things would return to normal in that part of the world and that these disasters are simply part of life. After all, I did not know any of these people and would probably never get to that part of the world during my lifetime. Life would, in fact, go on.

Not less than three months following the great Tsunami of 2004, I found myself traveling to Gulfport, Miss., to partake in a four-day golf-and-gambling safari with three close friends. We played Shell Landing on the afternoon of our arrival and quickly became best of friends with the beer cart girl (she made extra certain that there was an unlimited supply of Coors Lights on ice), and was amazed at how accommodating the staff was. Even though we had arrived somewhat late for our scheduled tee time, we were immediately sent out to play their excellent golf course and were not disappointed. Immaculately groomed with wide accommodating fairways, it was the perfect course for us to start our visit. We then made the short trip back to Gulfport to check into the Gulfport Grand Casino.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast is home to a number of casinos that are officially located in the Gulf of Mexico. Large hotels are attached to the mainland, and the casinos offer everything you’d expect to find in Las Vegas. Plenty of good food, gambling and entertainment are for the taking. The Gulf of Mexico appears to be a benign brown-colored expanse not capable of feeding and bolstering such monsters as Katrina. This was actually discussed one evening at dinner as I attempted to visualize the fury of the storm surge hurricanes produce. We had never witnessed so much as a wave or a swell during our visits to the Gulf, which appeared to be a large lake incapable of such fury. I only wish this was true.

During our stay we played some other good courses, including The Bridges, an Arnold Palmer-designed course in Bay St. Louis and The Oaks in nearby Pass Christian. Both of courses are staples of the casino golf packages. These are solid and entertaining tracks where hospitality is taken very seriously by the staff.

It was probably fitting that the final course we played was the Great Southern Golf Club. A 1908 Donald Ross design, the course is located approximately 200 yards from the Gulf of Mexico in Gulfport. I was enamored by the square fronts on most of the greens along with the deceptive undulations that so typify Ross putting surfaces. We again remarked at how exposed the golf course was to the Gulf’s breezes. But I could not visualize this huge water body actually being churned up and threatening this beautiful old design. Again, I could not have been more wrong. The Great Southern Golf Club now appears to been swept into the Gulf of Mexico.

The casino hotels where we’ve stayed for the past two years have announced on their websites that they’re closed indefinitely. Pictures from Gulfport and Biloxi indicate that the massive barges which housed the casinos may have been moved as much as a mile from their previous locations. The reopening of these establishments is not a concern, as the energies of the citizens of Biloxi and Gulfport are focused on their own survival and in putting their lives back together.

I said earlier that this disaster is different from what I felt following the tsunami. I have been to this area and liked everything about it. I ask myself if Ron, who dealt me all those great cards at the blackjack table, and his six children are safe. I remember him telling me that he enjoyed seeing the Gulf of Mexico in the morning when he awoke.

Is the starter at Shell Landing, who originally hailed from Boston and was the consummate Red Sox fan, on dry ground? I can now put faces on the people whose lives have been turned upside down and I ask myself if I would have the inner strength to survive such a situation. That is what makes this disaster so heart-wrenching. I only pray we can assist in rebuilding what has been lost.