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From Mary Mahoney's hurricane guts to Alabama's Barbara Walters, people make a Gulf Coast golf vacation special

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Post-Katrina life, and golf, in the Gulf Coast rebuilding smoothly thanks to the character of its people.

Mississippi Gulf Coast - Golf Nature
The people make the Gulf Coast's golf even better.
Mississippi Gulf Coast - Golf NatureCraft Farms Golf - Cotton CourseMary Mahoney's RestaurantKiva Dunes Golf Club

BILOXI, Miss. - Bobby Mahoney's guts are up on the wall of his restaurant for all to see.

The water mark from Hurricane Katrina reaches more than three quarters up the first floor wall. As those dirty, murky waters raged, Mahoney watched from his apartment above the Gulf Coast of Mississippi dining institution that bears his family name. He never really thought of heeding the evacuation order. He's a Mississippi man, and he wasn't about to get reports from some stranger on how Mary Mahoney's, a loved placed in these parts that's been almost as much a character in John Grisham novels as some of those courtrooms, held up.

So Bobby rode out Katrina - and lived to joke about it.

"Katrina could have given (famous 1969 hurricane) Camille three strokes a side," he roars. "I came up with that one."

Mahoney is always laughing at something and getting you and everyone else who strolls into his place to laugh right along with him. If his guts are up on that white wall, his heart comes out of his mouth every night. It doesn't matter if you're President George W. Bush (Mahoney's was one Gulf Coast spot W. found post Katrina), Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington or just a tourist with no chance of making it into one of the framed photos that dot the walls, Bobby will court you with unabashed down-home charm.

He's one of the reasons this section of coastline - that stretches from Bay St. Louis and Biloxi all the way into an Alabama Gulf Shores that reaches across the Florida border - carries such a powerful draw for those who've been here.

It's hard to explain to golfers who've yet to stray from the Scottsdale, Pebble Beach, Myrtle Beach, Pinehurst golf vacation circuit. The golf is good here, often crazily reasonably priced for its nature and water wonder. The people are better.

In fact, you'll probably come back for the characters.

They're not all larger than life like Bobby Mahoney. Some just come up large under life's most trying times.

Billy Baumgartner found himself the head golf professional of a golf course under 15 feet of water after Katrina. It didn't take long to figure out he wouldn't be giving any lessons or welcoming any golfers to the first tee of the Bridges Golf Club at Hollywood Casino anytime soon.

So Baumgartner did what any no-whine Gulf Coaster would have done: He jumped on the first bulldozer offered to him and started work on the crew cleaning up the course. No heavy machinery experience? Who cares?

"It's not what I ever pictured myself doing when I set out to become a golf pro," Baumgartner said. "But at that point, you're just worried about paying your mortgage and putting food on the table for your family."

Baumgartner did both while the Bridges golf staff formed a bond unlike any other staff in the country. There's just something about knocking hurricane mud out of your nostrils for eight months that trumps any corporate retreat paintball games or catchy unity slogans.

John Wayne might have been born in Iowa, but spend any time in the Gulf Coast and you'll swear these are his real people.

The toughness and refusal to wallow in self pity is not what keeps golfers coming back, though. That comes from the warmth, the inability to allow anyone to stay a stranger for long. Sick of being treated like a number in a golf cart parade?

Meet Barbara Walters. Not that you'll have much choice. Step into the Island House Hotel lobby, and the lady with big white hair and a bigger personality will meet you and make sure that you're enjoying the sugar-white sand beaches right outside the towering Island House's back door.

People in the Alabama Gulf Shores affectionately call the general manager of the Island House "our Barbara Walters." Truth is, you don't have to be Rosie O'Donnell to understand that you'd much rather talk to this Barbara Walters.

"I really like this area because of the people," said Mike Howe, a first-time visitor from Madison, Wis., who came to the region in a retirement relocation scouting trip with his wife. "They're some of the friendliest people we've found anywhere.

"And in Wisconsin, we know about friendly people."

Biloxi belles in togas, too

That's not to say that everyone is as friendly as your grandmother.

Sometimes they're as friendly as a college co-ed at a toga party informing you in a sweet, Southern drawl, "My butt's hanging out of this thing." No one's guaranteeing that you're going to be invited to a toga party in a corner suite at the brand new, Katrina-rebuilt-and-reborn Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (conveniently right across the street from Mary Mahoney's).

But this approaching-middle-age golf writer was after having gone through college in a toga-less stretch that Cal Ripken Jr. could appreciate. Just stopped in the hallway and invited. That's not happening at Disney World.

"Only on the Gulf Coast" is a phrase that could apply when you meet the older brother of reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Brandt Snedeker and come to the realization that he's arguably the more accomplished of the siblings. Say hello to Haymes Snedeker, the youngest judge in Alabama when he was appointed at age 28 and still the youngest four years later.

"I showed Brandt the way, probably made things a little easier for him," said Haymes, a star SEC golfer at Ole Miss himself who was long considered the more talented golfer among the Snedeker boys. "But he's taken it to a level I never could have imagined. It's all him."

They're truly modest in these parts, too. That's why you can find yourself playing with a big University of Alabama booster at Kiva Dunes Golf Course - a wide-open waterside wonder of an Alabama Gulf Shores resort - who's talking great golf bargains.

Jim Walker's wearing a Shadow Creek hat - the $500-a-round Tom Fazio theater in Las Vegas. He coughs up way more than that in regular contributions to his beloved Crimson Tide. Yet, he drives three hours from Birmingham to play Kiva (an amazingly-under-$100 course), because he knows there isn't anything else like it.

"A lot of people talk about Destin (Florida)," Walker said. "But I've found the golf's much better here and not as expensive."

Walker shrugs. They don't raise dummies in the Gulf Shores.

They do raise characters and sweet toga-party organizers. Sometimes people get a lot out of golf. And sometimes, the people make the golf.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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