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Best of Gary Trask
Top 10 favorite resort-casino golf courses16 April 2016
So, with the Masters in our rearview mirror and most of the country pulling their clubs out of the basement and starting to make tee times, it's the ideal time of year to present my favorite resort-casino golf courses, all of which were included in Golfweek's annual "Best Courses You Can Play" by state lists, released in March. Notice we use the word "favorite" and not "best" because more was taken into account than simply course layout, playability and condition. We also seriously considered customer service, value, amenities and quality of the affiliated casino.
Keep in mind this is a list of the courses I have been fortunate enough to actually play. So, before you fire off a scathing e-mail asking, "How can you not have so-and-so course on this list?" take a deep breath. Prominent casino courses like Shadow Creek, Wynn Golf Club at Wynn Las Vegas, French Lick Resort, Cascata Golf Course, Turning Stone Resort Casino, Mohegan Sun Country Club at Pautipaug and many, many others didn't make the cut simply because I haven’t stuck a tee in the ground there . . . yet. Believe me, they're on the hit list, and with any luck we can update this article on a semi-regular basis.
10. The Bridges Golf Club – Mississippi
Be forewarned: This list includes a healthy dose of Mississippi courses because I've had the pleasure of making multiple visits to the Magnolia State over the last 10 years, and it remains one of my very favorite golf and gambling destinations. The combination of year-round optimal weather, authentic seafood and music, top-notch courses and casinos, and good old Southern hospitality in Mississippi is unrivaled. A great place to start is the 62 miles of scenic shoreline found on the Gulf Coast, which boasts more than 20 golf courses and a dozen casinos.
The Bridges — an easy one-hour drive from both New Orleans and Biloxi — is the lone Arnold Palmer Signature design in the state, and its name comes from the fact that the course is built on 100% swampland and incorporates a full mile worth of 21 bridges over 17 ponds, set along the banks of the Mississippi’s Bay of St. Louis. Right next door is the Hollywood Casino - Gulf Coast, a Penn National Gaming property with a 14-story waterfront hotel, spa, lazy river and full-fledged casino.
Favorite hole: Playing 283 yards from the back tees, the par-4, eighth hole has great scenery, with the casino and views of the bay serving as a backdrop. You can definitely make birdie here if your tee shot clears the wide marsh and your approach hits a green that is well-protected by bunkers and a hazard.
Don't miss: Bogart's Steakhouse is the casino's signature restaurant that overlooks the marina, where the atmosphere is only matched by the food.
9. Shell Landing Golf Club – Mississippi
Located about an hour from the Mississippi Sound in Gautier, Shell Landing may not boast the same national recognition as its fellow Mississippi courses, but this sneaky-fun, Davis Love III layout is well worth the trip. Not only will you appreciate the generous fairways and large greens, but the layout is easy on the eyes as it winds through marshes and pine savanna trees.
Guests of the vibrant IP Casino Resort and Spa, about a 20-minute drive from the course, receive preferred stay-and-play rates at Shell Landing. The 32-story IP is a Boyd Gaming property and overlooks the Back Bay of Biloxi. Its newly renovated guest rooms are hip and happening, and the resort has slot machines, table games, a poker room, a spa and an outdoor pool with summer cabanas.
Favorite hole: Par-3, 17th. Playing 201-yards, downhill from the tips, your tee shot must carry the marsh, and if you hit it long, three bunkers sit behind the green to catch your ball. It's a challenge, but also entertaining and picturesque.
Don't miss: The IP has a great selection of places to eat, with two AAA Four Diamond restaurants and another AAA Three Diamond venues. I've had two incredible meals in one of those Four Diamond choices, Thirty-Two, which appropriately sits on the top floor of the resort and offers splendid views and a menu full of steak, chicken, salads and locally caught seafood.
8. Lake of Isles – Connecticut
Two Rees Jones-designed layouts — the North Course and South Course — sit on this striking 900-acre piece of land, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation across the street from the mammoth Foxwoods Resort Casino.
While I haven’t played the South Course, which is open only to a membership of about 300 and their guests, the North Course is that classic "public course with a private club" feel, and last month it ranked No. 1 in Connecticut on Golfweek's annual "Best Courses You Can Play" by state list. Both courses surround the 90-acre Lake of Isles, which makes for great scenery. Be sure to arrive early for your tee time because the practice area is outstanding.
Favorite hole: There's nothing like a stern and strategic finishing hole to decide your Nassau, and they don't get much better than No. 18 on the North Course. From the tee box you not only have to carry water, but also decide how much of the fairway you want to bite off before hitting an approach shot to an elevated green.
Don't miss: If you've never stepped inside Foxwoods Resort Casino, seeing is believing. With 344,000 square feet of gaming space, Foxwoods is the largest casino in the U.S., boasting 4,800 gaming machines, 352 table and poker games, 29 restaurants, and four hotels with 2,224 guest rooms. A personal favorite is the center bar Centrale Fox Tower, thanks to a great TV and video poker setup, happy hour specials and tremendous service.
7. Grand Bear Golf Course – Mississippi
You may wonder what you're getting yourself into once you pull off Highway 49 and work your way through a windy, six-mile road that leads to this Jack Nicklaus Signature design, but don't fret. Upon arrival you'll feel a sense of relief as you take in the welcoming log-cabin-like clubhouse and wooded surroundings. This promises to be one of the most enjoyable rounds of golf you'll ever play, with a layout that traverses through the DeSoto National Forest and the banks of the Big and Little Biloxi Rivers.
Favorite hole: The 195-yard, 14th hole is a devilish par-3 that forces you to carry water off the tee, with bailout room on the right, but all kinds of trouble on the left.
Don't miss: Grand Bear's is owned and operated by Caesars Entertainment's Harrah's Gulf Coast back in Biloxi. The Mix & Mingle bar at the recently updated Pool at Harrah's Gulf Coast is a great spot to kick back and relax after golf.
6. Sweetgrass Golf Club – Michigan
Tucked away in Michigan's Upper Peninsula about two hours north of Green Bay, Sweetgrass Golf Club is the amenity course of Island Resort & Casino and hosts an LPGA Symetra Tour event each summer. The casino and golf course are owned and operated by the Hannahville Band of Potawatomi Nation, which recently launched a two-year, $8 million expansion project that will include a second championship golf course, due to open in 2017. If they can duplicate the charming layout and perfect conditions found at Sweetgrass with the second course, they will have hit the jackpot again, because the current Paul Albanese creation is an absolute blast to play.
The history of the Potawatomi is clearly evident throughout your round — beginning with the name, Sweetgrass, which refers to a herb used in Indian peace and healing rituals that is found along the course, and at the 10th tee where a symbolic flame roars in honor of the tribe, which is known as the "Keepers of the Fire."
Favorite hole: They don't get any more dramatic than Sweetgrass's par-3, 168-yard, 15th hole. The dazzling island green, which you get to via a walk across one of the five historic, rescued bridges found on the course, is surrounded by rock and shaped like a turtle, a creature that is held in high esteem by the tribe.
Don't miss: You won't find a stay-and-play package with more value than the wildly popular "Perfect Foursome," which includes accommodations at the resort and rounds of golf at Sweetgrass and nearby TimberStone and Greywalls, which are also ranked on Golfweek's top 15 courses in the state. The stay at Island Resort Casino is about to get even better when the brand new Drift Spa opens sometime in the next month or so.
5. The Preserve Golf Club – Mississippi
I've been fortunate enough to tee it up at The Preserve multiple times, and it has never disappointed. Designed by 1976 U.S. Open champ Jerry Pate, the course is built on a 1,800-acre nature preserve — thus, the name — and is both peaceful and beautiful. A renovation project was completed in 2014 and included enlarging and leveling many tee boxes and installing new greens. As if that's not enough, the customer service and price value is off the charts. No nickel-and-diming here: Bottled waters, warm-up balls and a yardage book are all included in the green fee.
Favorite hole: The Preserve is home to the only course I know of that has a par-3 as the No. 1 handicap hole, and trust me, it's well deserved. I'm not ashamed to say I've had to pull out the driver on the 16th tee box, facing a 225-yard shot that needs to carry a huge hazard and typically features a harsh wind. A par here truly feels like a birdie.
Don’t miss: The Preserve is partners with Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi, about a 20-minute drive away from the course. The resort offers the only smoke-free casino in Mississippi and finished a $52-million expansion project in 2011 that added 38,000 square feet of gaming space, a 300-seat buffet, and a remodeled hotel lobby, spa and business center. The best choice for fine dining is Mignon's Steaks & Seafood, but if there's a game on the tube and your group is looking for a more casual atmosphere, the new Contact Lounge & Sports Bar is ideal.
4. Dancing Rabbit Golf Club – Mississippi
Of the half-dozen Mississippi courses on this list, Dancing Rabbit is the lone one not in the Gulf Coast region — but you won't regret making 90-minute drive east from state capital Jackson to this 36-hole, Tom Fazio/Jerry Pate masterpiece in Philadelphia. The two courses — The Azaleas and The Oaks — are spread out over 700 acres of ancestral land owned by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and provide a tireless mix of beauty and tremendous holes. While The Oaks is more undulating, if you visit right around this time of year, The Azaleas Course is exploding with that blooming, pink flower and will remind you of watching the Masters on TV. The course is renowned for its pristine conditions and things are about to get even better at The Azaleas when a greens renovation project and conversion to Tiff Eagle Bermuda is completed by mid-September.
Favorite hole: The par-5, 527-yard 17th hole on The Azaleas, open only to members and guests of the Pearl River Resort next door, has busted my score a couple of times, but it's still a hole I look forward to all round. Love the risk-reward factor that comes into play here on the second shot as you decide whether to lay-up or try to clear the stream going across the fairway. The green is huge once you hit it, but it can be tricky to maneuver.
Don’t miss: Pearl River Resort is a special kind of entertainment venue with 24/7 gaming in three casinos (Silver Star Hotel & Casino, Golden Moon Hotel & Casino, Bok Homa Casino), a water park, a spa, 14 restaurants (don't miss Phillip M's!) and more than 1,000 guest rooms. But if you are a diehard golfer, you need to book one of the eight guest rooms that sit atop the spectacular Dancing Rabbit clubhouse, which was just completely renovated. Each room has a king-size bed and whirlpool bath, and there's no better way to start your day than by stepping out onto the second-floor veranda, sipping your morning coffee and breathing in the aroma of the freshly cut fairways below. Added bonus: Clubhouse guests are given a personal golf cart (with headlights) during their stay so they can get back and forth to Pearl River.
3. Fallen Oak – Mississippi
Fallen Oak is regularly ranked as the No. 2 casino course in the country, placing behind the renowned Shadow Creek, its MGM Resorts International sister course. The Tom Fazio design is open exclusively to guests of the lavish Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, a magnificent property that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi. The round here may put a slight dent in your gambling budget at around $200, but it's worth the splurge since the entire Fallen Oak "experience" is unforgettable, including a limo ride to and from the course, a caddy, locker room service and use of a world-class practice facility. Now, I haven't even mentioned the quality of the course, but don't take it from me. Check out the praise that has been heaped upon Fallen Oak by PGA TOUR veterans like Nick Faldo, Fred Couples and Paul Azinger, who have all played in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a Champions Tour event hosted each spring by the course.
Favorite hole: The 18th is not only a great "golf hole," but it is visually stunning, with the majestic clubhouse in the background. And about halfway down the fairway on the right-hand side you will see the actual "fallen oak," an enormous tree that crashed down to earth during construction that the designers decided to build around, adding to the bountiful charm of the course.
Don't miss: I'm a sucker for a good Bloody Mary and I still haven't found one to best the Fallen Oak Bloody, served at the sunken-down bar overlooking the 18th inside the 19th Hole, which was ranked by Golf Digest as one of the best in the country. The vodka used for the drink is infused for exactly six days with garlic, herbs, tomatoes, peppers and other spices and sits in a big vat on top of the bar. Of course, the recipe for the Bloody Mary mix is top secret, and this intrepid reporter's request for the secret has been politely denied multiple times.
2. Salish Cliffs Golf Club – Washington
Since opening in 2011, Salish Cliffs has been on the fast track to the top of national rankings from the most respected golf magazines in the U.S., earning top 10 status on Golf Digest's "America's Greatest Courses" by state list and Golfweek's list of "Best Casino Courses," and once you play the course it’s pretty evident as to why. The greens at Salish Cliffs, located next door from Little Creek Casino Resort on the southern tip of the Puget Sound, less than an hour from Seattle, are supreme no matter what time of year you are visiting, and that's saying something when you consider the erratic Pacific Northwest weather.
The outstanding service received from the golf staff matches the quality of the course, which is a true roller-coaster ride with more than 600 feet of elevation and 360-degree views of the furs and cedar trees that make up the Kamilche Valley. After hosting the U.S. Open last summer, nearby Chambers Bay received a ton of national attention, but take it from someone who has played both courses: Salish Cliffs offers more fun and more value, and will create more thirst for a repeat round.
Favorite hole: The 437-yard, par-4, 14th hole is everything you want from a golf hole. It comes at a crucial time in your match during a testy stretch of holes, and it's scenic, strategic and rewarding — if you play it correctly. Even though the hole often plays into the wind, there's no excuse for missing this wide fairway with your tee shot. But depending on how far you hit the driver, the approach shot will require either a precise layup or a risky crack at carrying a wetland hazard onto a green that is angled from front-right to back-left, making it that much more difficult to hit.
Don't miss: The Squaxin Island Tribe has poured a ton of money into Little Creek Casino Resort in recent years. In addition to opening this brilliant golf course, they have added a spa and an RV Park and expanded the gaming area, but the best new venue is the Skookum Spirit Cigar & Wine Lounge. No better way to cap off a night at Little Creek than by sitting in one of the plush, comfy chairs, lighting up a cigar and taking in some live music, while watching a game on TV with drink in hand.
1. Circling Raven Golf Club – Idaho
Circling Raven is the classic "you-can-play-it-all-day-every-day-and-never-get-sick-of-it" course. Simply put, this is the best layout I have ever played. Designer Gene Bates, also the man behind Salish Cliffs, crafted a design where you face a unique and fair challenge hole after hole, while at the same time you are taken aback by the beauty of the vast 620 acres of wetlands and Palouse grasses the course sits on. A round at Circling Raven is more like an escape, especially on the back nine when all you will see the entire time is you, your partners and the hole you're playing. The staff at the golf course is also as good as it gets in the industry and I dare you to go into the pro shop without coming out with some merchandise.
Circling Raven is about an hour's drive from Spokane, Washington, and is an amenity of the Coeur D'Alene Casino Resort Hotel, which sits right next door and is also owned and operated by the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.
Favorite hole: While I love the strategy involved when playing No. 4 and No. 12 , a pair of par-4s that have split fairways allowing for multiple options off the tee, the 329-yard, par-4 eighth hole takes the honors here. The view from the tee box is extraordinary as the hole is framed by pine trees and offers a generous fairway, once clearing a hazard. A good drive usually leads to a legitimate birdie chance, and a par-or-better score here is crucial since the ninth hole that follows is a bear.
Don't miss: In 2011, Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel completed a massive expansion project that added a restaurant, a bar and hotel towers that offer some of the most unique guest rooms I've ever seen. But the crowned jewel of the project was Spa Ssakwa'q'n (pronounced “SOCK-wah-kin”). I'm not an expert on "spa-ing," but this 15,000 square-foot setting is welcoming even for a novice, and the staff makes you feel right at home. They even cater to golfers with the Circling Raven Pedicure, which serves as a nice treat after a round and is very popular with the male clientele.
Best of Gary Trask