Gulf Coast Trip, Day 7: Living Large in Mississippi and Gator Gazing in Louisiana

Today turned out to be a productive (and expensive) day, with the two biggest-ticket courses I had planned for the trip. I ventured from the southern tip of Mississippi and into Louisiana, getting to sample two great golf courses.

For those of you who don’t quite understand my quest to play all 50 states–and especially those who might wonder why anyone would travel through Mississippi just to play golf, I submit to you…

Fallen Oak Golf ClubSaucier, MS5/2/14

There are actually supposed to be a few really great courses in this state, but on most every list I looked at, Fallen Oak was ranked as #1. It’s a really new course, being an undertaking by MGM Grand as a complement to their Beau Rivage Casino/Resort in Biloxi. It’s a semi-private course, open only to club members and guests of the resort. That’s why I shelled out the dough to stay there last night, but I’ll admit it was a cool place right on the beachfront.

The cost was around $280 for a one-night stay and play package. I’m not sure how it splits up between golf and the hotel, but it’s a hefty price tag. Fortunately, the course lived up to the hype.

I had an 8:26 tee time, but they let me know in advance there was a group of eight set to go off first at 8:00. They told me if I got there earlier, I could probably get off ahead of them. When I showed up, I was the first guest there and after entering the gates and walking up to the clubhouse, Fallen Oak really evoked a private club feel. It’s a nice place in a very remote location about 20 minutes north of the hotel and at the edge of the DeSoto National Forest.

As I strolled into the member’s locker room to get prepared, I noticed a small grouping of lockers with a lot of recognizable names, most with strong Mississippi ties. Pro golfers included Fred Couples, Jason Dufner and Boo Weekley. Pro athletes included Archie and Peyton Manning, Bo Jackson, Todd Helton, Wally Joyner, Andy Ashby, Clyde Drexler, Danny Ainge and Andy Roddick (surprisingly no Brett Favre since Hattiesburg is not far away, but maybe he’s not a golfer). Another “dignitary” that really stood out was Larry The Cable Guy, and yes, that’s what the tag says. Not his actual name, which I’m proud to say I do not know.

Also, one plate just said “El Diablo.” I assume that’s someone of note, but I do not know who that is. Otherwise, I guess they just keep a space open for the devil when he drops by, though I’ve always heard he prefers to go down to Georgia instead.

Anyway, as for the course itself, Fallen Oak is a special place. The course was actually in mid-construction when Hurricane Katrina hit, but ironically I guess that cleared out a lot of unwanted trees anyway, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

The course was designed by renowned designer, Tom Fazio (or “Radio” as my phone’s auto-correct posted on Twitter), which automatically means a big price tag for admission. I’ve played a number of Fazio courses now and they are all ridiculously expensive. But when someone wants a high-end course, they often call Tom.

Fazio used the natural landscape to carve out a beautiful course. It feels like it belongs there amongst the woods and marshes. There are some slight elevation changes on the back nine, but nothing too significant at any point. Most holes are pretty easy to figure out the proper strategy and the key is avoiding the trouble.

The main sources of trouble at Fallen Oak are the very distinctive bunkers throughout the course. They are deep, menacing and feature steep grass-covered faces with all sorts of gnarly mounds and knobs. They are very neat looking and, to me, had an almost “prehistoric” feel.

The good news is the bunkers are mostly easily avoided. They will eat up errant shots, but it does take a bad shot to find one and I suppose you get what you deserve. Fortunately, I never hit into one. I had plenty of bad shots, but was always able to miss away from them!

The greens at Fallen Oak are big, but they didn’t go crazy with the undulation. They are firm and fast, though, so you may experience a three-putt or two.

Almost every hole here is great, so I’m not sure there’s any I need to highlight any in particular. It really is an exceptional design from 1 through 18.

The course was in very good overall shape. They just had a Champions Tour event here in March, so the course is looking and playing nice. The tee boxes were pretty thin, and there were some thin patches throughout the fairways, as well. They were not immune to the rain storms, but the bunkers looked to be back in good shape. The only areas that are still affected are the spots around the bordering trees where it would normally be a nice bed of pine needles. For the time being, these sections are kind of a sandy, clumpy mess, but the workers were cleaning them up while I played.

The greens were exceptional. Some of the nicest surfaces I’ve putted on in awhile, rolling at about 10.5 according to the starter. They were smooth, quick and true.

If you are down in southern Mississippi for any reason and don’t mind spending a few extra bucks for a quality stay and play experience, Fallen Oak and Beau Rivage is a nice resort combination. I wish it were cheaper and closer to home, but I’ll just have to file it away as a great representative for Mississippi on my Bogeys Across America tour.

Some pictures from Fallen Oak Golf Club (5/2/14):

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Fallen Oak was the only course I officially had planned for the day. I wanted to leave my options open because I’m staying in New Orleans tonight and wanted to have time to see some sights in a Crescent City very different than the one I grew up in.

By getting off first at Fallen Oak, that left me with some more options. I was considering another nearby Mississippi course that looked nice (Grand Bear), but I didn’t have any data service on my phone out there and couldn’t Google Map it. I also considered a cheaper course down in Gulfport called Great Southern Golf Club. It was very inexpensive, easy to locate and the only course I could find that actually had waterfront views of the Gulf. It’s a very old course, which had some appeal, but also looked pretty plain. I drove by it just to check it out. It looked quite crowded and not really worth the hassle.

So I moved on and decided to alter my plans for tomorrow a bit in order to play a big name course at a much-reduced rate…

TPC Louisiana • Avondale, LA5/2/14

I originally had a 6:30 tee time here tomorrow morning, but was always bothered by the full price tag of $229. I’ve seen this course on TV during the PGA Tour Zurich Classic (which took place last weekend) and it never looked that awe-inspiring. Still, if I was coming through Louisiana, you can be sure I was going to play the state’s most well-known track.

Also, you know I am a big Pete Dye fan, so knowing he designed this course added some appeal. I hope it might be one that looks and plays better in person. For the most part, that turned out to be the case.

What bothered me about that full morning price was knowing that their twilight rate (starting at 3:00) was a much less offensive $89. That’s still not cheap, but it’s a pretty massive difference. I decided to take advantage of that cheaper rate and I’m glad I did. For $89, I was satisfied with the TPC Louisiana experience. For $229, I would have felt somewhat short-changed.

After calling ahead to change my reservation, they put me at a 3:16 time. I checked in around 2:40, but by then there was no starter on duty and nobody seemed to be monitoring anything. The first tee was wide open and nobody seemed to be getting ready to head out, so I just went over and teed it up. It took a few holes before I caught anyone, but even once I did the pace was pretty good and I finished in about 3.5 hours.

Early on, I was definitely feeling underwhelmed, but the course layout ultimately grew on me. I will say it seems like one of Mr. Dye’s more “tame” designs. The landscape here is flat as a pancake, and he didn’t quite move as much earth as he might normally do. I’ve played other courses of his with similar terrain, and he usually goes nuts with all the mounds and undulations to create contours on otherwise flat plots of land.

That said, the most distinctive features at TPC Louisiana are the sand traps. Like you’ll find at many Dye courses, there are big waste bunkers running along the edges of many fairways. On holes without water hazards, the course will generally have a big bunker to provide the visual intimidation.

Around the greens, there are what I’m calling “mogul pot bunkers.” They are just small mounds with a tiny, nasty pot bunker in the front half. These definitely help with the overall look and feel of the course and get in your head a bit on approach shots because you really don’t want to be in one of them.

There is also plenty of water in play at TPC Louisiana. And whether it’s a water hazard or waste bunker, Dye provides a sense of discomfort when standing on the tee. You are tempted to bite off as much as you can, but it’s hard to tell exactly what’s out there. Without any prior course knowledge or a yardage book (no GPS on carts either), I never felt confident on the angles I was taking and it often caused me to swing timidly and put myself in a less-than-desirable position off the tee.

I’ll admit that one of the biggest draws of TPC Louisiana for me was the prospect of seeing some alligators. When you watch the tournament on TV, they show a ton of them just hanging out along the edges of the water hazards.

I was determined to see at least one and get a picture or two. I caught my first glimpse of one on the 3rd hole, but it was in the water with just its eyes above the surface. Ultimately, I saw three of them hanging out between the 9th and 18th greens and in front of the grandstands that are still in the process of being torn down. One slipped away into the water when I approached, but I got some pictures of the other two.

I didn’t see another until the 18th hole. Though it was a poor tee shot, I’m glad I hit my ball into the narrow strip of bunker that lines the water all the way up the right side of this par-5. Not too far from my ball, a pretty big one was just sitting there with his mouth open a bit. I saw another’s eyes in the water not too far away. Up by the green, I noticed a group of four hanging out at the other end of that long bunker. Then, I saw one of the original ones I photographed still up by the grandstands. Add it up and that’s seven gators on one hole! That made my day.

There are some good holes here. The finishing stretch of 16-18 is easily the strongest point on the course and makes sure you walk away on a positive note (not your score, but impressions of the course). Another one I really liked was the par-4 6th hole, which is a Pete Dye special. The hole is a big dogleg left with water running all the way up, tempting you to cut off as much as you can.

The course was in good overall shape, as you’d expect after the pros were just in town. The fairways were firm and tight. The greens were firm, smooth and fast. And, the bunkers were full of perfect fluffy white sand.

Depending on the price you pay, TPC Louisiana is worth the visit if you are in New Orleans. It’s always fun to play a course you get to watch the pros play on TV and it’s a design that does work a little better in person than on the tube. Don’t expect to be blown away by any great scenery (or service for that matter), but it’s a very good overall course that’s unfortunately way overpriced because of the TPC name and PGA connection.

Some pictures from TPC Louisiana (5/2/14):

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While in New Orleans, I had to take a trip down to the French Quarter. I walked the length of Bourbon Street, which is an interesting scene. I can only imagine how crazy it is during Mardi Gras, but even on an average Friday night there’s no shortage of debauchery there.

I ate at a restaurant on Bourbon called Old N’awlins. Unfortunately, I do not drink, nor will I eat any seafood or shellfish, so typical NOLA dishes have no appeal to me. I did get some great blackened chicken fettucine and it was delicious. I would have liked to sample some alligator sausage, but all they had available was an expensive side order. I really just wanted a bite to say I tried it, but oh well.

With TPC Louisiana off the table for tomorrow, I am not sure what I plan to do yet. I might just relax and sleep in before heading up toward Baton Rouge for my planned afternoon round at The Bluffs, or I may try and squeeze in another course in the morning. We’ll see.

Day 6: Magnolia Grove (Crossings, Falls & Short) [Alabama]

Days 8 & 9: Carter Plantation, The Bluffs and Black Bear [Louisiana]

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