BILOXI, Miss. -- When you think of great golf courses, Mississippi might not be the first state that comes to mind. But this week's stop, the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic on the Champions Tour, is a place that has quietly become a favorite for the professionals.
It's happened for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Tom Fazio-designed Fallen Oak Golf Club. It's only been open a half-dozen years but already ranks among the best on the Champions Tour, as does the experience of staying at the host hotel, the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.
The best part is that you can enjoy the experience, too. To play the golf course all you have to do is stay at the Beau Rivage, which is owned by MGM Resorts International. And if you gamble enough, you might even get to play the course for free. Of course, even if you have to pay the $200 green fee, Fallen Oak is well worth it.
On most days you might not even see another group on the course. The club only hosts 9,000 rounds a year (by design), and tee times are spaced well apart, more than most public or resort golf courses.
Guests are treated like tour players. In the locker rooms, they will find a locker with a gold plate on it displaying their name.
'And we keep those nameplates,' said General Manager David Stinson, 'so that when they return, we can use it again.'
Indeed, at Fallen Oak you really are a member for a day.
The clubhouse overlooks the 18th hole, where the fallen oak for which the course got its name is perched on the right side of the fairway. Inside you can order food and drinks overlooking this beautiful golf course from its sunken bar, ranked among the top 50 19th holes in the country by Golf Digest. And if you're playing and order food at the turn, the staff will happily bring it out to you on the course.
Back to the course: It's a par 72 that can play as long as 7,487 yards. Only PGA Tour players can play it from the tips, and the Champions Tour certainly doesn't play from there. So there are five sets of tees. Pick the right tees and it's extremely playable with wide fairways. Just avoid Fazio's signature deep bunkers and you'll do OK.
It's a lush, rolling landscape covered in oak and pine ridges, magnolias, pecan groves, large lakes, winding streams and wetlands. The course features 10 bridges and the cart paths are concealed to protect the natural features of the terrain. It also features some special technological advantages, like SubAir under the greens, which not only drains them but also keeps them in perfect condition all year long. The course was also sand-capped with eight inches of sand, meaning the fairways drain extremely well. Even after heavy rain, the course is soon playable.
'Condition-wise, the strength of the layout, this is easily in the top five -- if not the best course -- we play,' said Champions Tour player Jay Haas.
Defending champion Tom Lehman is also a big fan of Fallen Oak.
'I think the par 5s out here are especially good. It's not easy to make a great par 5. You can make a hard par 5, but to make one that's fun to play and still strategic isn't always simple,' said Lehman, who set the course record with an 8-under-par 64 en route to winning the 2011 Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic. 'I think they're fun to play and more than anything, that's a key word for the course for me -- it is a fun golf course. Golf is meant to be fun and this is a fun course.'
Stay and play at the Beau Rivage
Again, you have to stay at the 32-floor resort hotel to play the course, but that's a nice experience, too. Its spa, for example, has been ranked No. 1 among MGM properties, and its 1,740 rooms were also recently remodeled. That includes the 95 luxury suites with all the amenities guests would expect from an AAA Four Diamond resort. Plus, the dining, gaming and other amenities are all first-rate.
You just have to find your way down to Mississippi to enjoy it, which isn't hard. It's just a little more than an hour from New Orleans, which doesn't make for a bad side trip.