SAUCIER, Miss. - It's a six-mile winding drive through a corridor of pines and birches of the De Soto National Forest to Grand Bear Golf Course. Although just 40 minutes from Biloxi, it's worlds away from the glitz and ching-ching of casino slots. Designed by Jack Nicklaus for Harrah's Grand Biloxi Resort & Casino, the course is located in Saucier north of Gulfport.
At first, Grand Bear looks much like a ski resort, with its lofty log lodge and large patio evoking a rustic, hearty appeal - not unlike the golf course itself, which spreads out through the massively dense forest, where late-afternoon tree shadows stretch across fairways.
Unfettered by land restrictions or real estate requirements, Grand Bear Golf Course sits landlocked in a pristine environment, with holes set apart from one another, none running side-by-side. It recalls the sweeping courses Nicklaus designed in Canada's northwest, with an abundance of wildlife, trees, hills and wetlands.
But this is a kinder, gentler Jack, one that won't beat you up. Nicklaus has likened his track to Pinehurst, with its pine-carpeted roughs, aged magnolias, deep bunkers and rolling immaculate greens. There's also wide landing zones, big bail-out areas and pine-carpeted roughs, which allow you to screw up and still be alive. Even the greens at Grand Bear Golf Course, though subtly undulating, are forgiving.
The outgoing nine flirts with the Little Biloxi River bed, which peeks through bordering trees, a mere glimmer of the bigger brother, the Big Biloxi River, which provides some dramatic finishing holes punctuated by cypress wetlands, live oaks and gum trees. Bermuda grass is used throughout, making for some interesting shots, especially for those used to playing northern courses on different grasses.
Typical of a Nicklaus design, you have choices off the tee as to how to play it. For example, do you lay up or cut the corner of the dogleg right on the 10th, a 418-yard par 4? On several holes, nasty stuff runs across fairways, challenging you to go for it or lay up.
The par 3s are especially fun to play. Take the third hole for example, a pretty 192-yard test with the Little Biloxi River and two very deep bunkers lying in wait for shots too far right. On the par-3, 179-yard seventh hole, you're hitting to a narrow green with bunkers threatening left, right and back. And you'll need to carry a wide span of water to reach the green on the 195-yard 14th hole.
Named the "Best Public-Access Course" in Mississippi by Golfweek Magazine and listed in the magazine's Top Casino Courses for 2008, Grand Bear Golf Course was also included Golf Magazine's "Top Ten New Places You Can Play" in 1999.
Director of Golf Toby Strahan said, "With just $2,500 for a yearly membership, some say they are afraid of signing up for fear of being tempted to play too much. This is a course you want to play over and over again."
In addition to the expansive clubhouse and pro shop, there is a 400-yard driving range, chipping area, beverage cart service, and dining room.
Harrah's Grand Biloxi Casino, Hotel & Spa (www.grandcasinobiloxi.com) is a new 500-room hotel with upscale features like plasma TVs, pillow top beds and high-speed Internet access, along with a 16,000-square-foot spa, outdoor pool with luxury cabanas, and LB's Steakhouse.
When you crave fun and funky along with your pulled pork, beans and rib-sticking barbecue, go to The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint. Cobbled together with bits and pieces of old structures - galvanized metal, old barn siding, tons of dumpster-style junk, and twinkly lights - this super casual restaurant serves up lip-smacking barbecue. If you're hungry, visit www.theshedbbq.com.
November 18, 2009