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Foil the oil: Gulf Coast golf operators encourage visitors to play away

By Mike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

GULFPORT, Miss. -- As the worst oil spill in the history of the United States continues to threaten the Gulf Coast, golf course operators would like you to know that their show must go on.

The Preserve Golf Club - hole 13
The Preserve Golf Club, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is open for business and unaffected by the oil spill.
The Preserve Golf Club - hole 13Kiva Dunes Golf CourseCamp Creek Golf ClubThe Bridges Golf Club - Saint Louis, Miss.

While the April 20 explosion on British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig continues to harm beaches and send oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, golf courses along the coast are okay -- physically. Still, facilities along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coasts feel the brunt of the negative press and suffer from the fact that tourism is down in the region this summer.

So far, Louisiana has been hardest hit by the oil spill, but the ruptured well, which continues to dump oil into the Gulf, affects many areas, with containment still months away.

Barrier islands protect some coastal areas. Not to minimize the damage, officials say, but the beaches in Mississippi remain largely intact. And golf facilities -- such as Champions Tour site Fallen Oak, The Preserve Golf Club, The Bridges at Hollywood Casino and Shell Landing -- operate as usual, albeit with fewer players. Many potential visitors, no doubt, are scared away by media reports.

"It's affecting us because of the perception people have that the coastal area is covered in oil," said Janet Leach, program manager of sports golf marketing for the Mississippi Development Authority.

That sentiment spreads through the region as Southern states rush to reach potential tourists. The message: A visit to the coast isn't hazardous to tourists' health. There's more to do than go to the beach. Play golf, for instance.

In the summertime, though, families typically visit the Gulf coast for its beaches and water activities. Golfers often come from those families, so fewer summer visitors means fewer golfers.

"Let's say we have 100,000 vacationers down here, and normally one-half of 1 percent play golf," said Duncan Miller, executive director of the Gulf Shores (Ala.) Golf Association. "Well, if we only have half of that, it's going to adversely affect our tee sheets."

As of late June, Miller said, the beaches still looked good, but tar balls from the spill had washed ashore as crews worked on removal. In no way, Miller said, has it is affected golf courses, such as Kiva Dunes Golf Course, Lost Key Golf Club and The Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club.

Plus, Miller said, air quality and life on land remains normal, except for the obvious distractions related to the disaster. "It's almost as if the spin the media has put on it is that it's hazardous to walk outdoors," he said. "That's not the case."

Florida's Gulf Coast hurts too

You may have seen the ads lately on television about the Emerald Coast's pristine beaches of northwest Florida. So far, they haven't been contaminated. And depending on the currents, they could remain untouched, local officials say. Still, a recent media campaign tries to drum up tourism lost because of the disaster.

Jaxon Hardy, head professional at Camp Creek Golf Club near Panama City Beach, Fla., said rounds so far at the Tom Fazio-designed Camp Creek and its sister course, Greg Norman's Shark's Tooth, appear below expectations. Among the reasons, he said, vacationers have canceled golf because other activities are no longer available.

"A lot of people like to come down here to golf and fish," Hardy said. "They might be saying that because they can't fish, they might as well cancel the whole trip. It's really the only thing we can link it to."

Future bookings may be down

As the crisis continues, dire predictions and uncertainty leave tourists, including golfers, to proceed cautiously when planning vacations. Some choose other parts of the country. So far, advance packages for the fall, a prime season for golf excursions, seem down in the Gulf Shores area, Miller said.

Like everything, supply and demand could result in some deals, especially for golfers not in need of water and beach recreation.

Golf in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi is as good as ever. You just might want to leave your boogie board at home.

Mike BaileyMike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in the Houston area. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 20 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @Accidentlgolfer.

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