Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Gulf Coast Golf on the Rebound; Though Mississippi's Recovery from Katrina Has Been Slow, Clubs Have Quickly Come Up to Par for the Course

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Gulf Coast Golf on the Rebound; Though Mississippi's Recovery from Katrina Has Been Slow, Clubs Have Quickly Come Up to Par for the Course

Article excerpt

BILOXI, Miss. - A few blocks north of the beach, in a town whose skyline is dominated by casinos, sturdy live oaks are the only survivors on otherwise vacant, overgrown lots where homes once stood.

Biloxi's scars are an uneasy reminder of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Later came the economic slump and the BP oil spill, but they paled in comparison to the destruction caused by Katrina.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has come a long way back, but recovery is a process that will continue for years.

At the coast's golf courses, however, a visitor will hardly have a clue that a hurricane ever hit. The golf opportunities in the communities of Biloxi, Gulfport, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian are as good or better than ever.

The golf courses were among the first casualties to return to full health. By all means, they were hit hard by Katrina, and thousands of trees were lost, but most of the courses were open by the end of 2005. A few were closed for about a year.

"It was total devastation, like a nuclear bomb hit," said Stephen Miles, director of operations at the Preserve Golf Club.


The Preserve, designed by former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate, was under construction when Katrina arrived. It now is the Mississippi Gulf Coast's second-highest rated course, behind Fallen Oak, designed by Tom Fazio. Those two courses, plus the Oaks in Pass Christian and the Bridges in Bay St. Louis, are ranked in Mississippi's top 10.

As hard as it is to fathom, Katrina did Pate a favor in one sense. In constructing the Preserve, which is surrounded by 1,800 acres of nature preserve, Pate was limited by environmental concerns.

"Some large trees didn't fit" his design, Miles said. "Jerry really fought to have those trees taken down. Lo and behold, Katrina took them down for him. I think everything Jerry Pate wanted blown down got blown down."

The result was a picturesque golf course that has been awarded Audubon International Signature status. Golfers at the Preserve are enveloped in nature, with nary a house or building in sight throughout the course.

Fallen Oak was about to open when Katrina set it back. It recently hosted a tournament on the Champions Tour for the third straight year. The Bridges, Mississippi's only Arnold Palmer design, was under water and covered with a foot of mud after the hurricane went through. The entire surface had to be replaced.


At the Oaks, general manager Russ Bloom said that last year the course hosted its most rounds since 1999, but that was largely due to a discount program for locals. He said the number of golf packages sold now is only 60 percent of what it was pre-Katrina.

"We went from 20,000 hotel rooms (in the area) to 12,000" because of the hurricane's destruction, Bloom said. "We need to get back to where we were. (Developers) need to get their confidence back. There's a risk to having a casino sitting on the coast, but hopefully they're thinking, 'Maybe it was a hundred-year storm.'"

Golf has thrived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since the early 1900s. The Illinois Central Railroad once used the courses as a lure to get people to ride its trains. Its advertising posters in St. Louis and Chicago urged "Golf the Gulf Coast Tomorrow." The train ride was 23 hours from Chicago and 14 from St. Louis.

Gaming was introduced to the Gulf Coast in the early 1990s. Today, casinos dominate nightlife options, from gambling, dining and shows to big-name entertainers. While perhaps not as pristine as some of Florida's beaches, the Mississippi shoreline stretches for some 60 miles and offers abundant sand and sun. …

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