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Are You Ready For Some Golf?

Where else but a player's paradise could a golfer find five signature courses designed by a quintet of the most renowned golfing legends in the world?

The caliber of golf playable on the Mississippi Gulf Coast today, all within a half-hour's drive of the beach, could lead one to ponder whether it's accident or sheer poetry that the words "golf" and "gulf" are identical save for a single letter of the English alphabet.

On par with the region's reputation as a gaming mecca, the Coast's claim to golfing destination fame is no idle boast. Its 14 public and private courses and its select trove of new tees and championship layouts put South Mississippi on the sporting map nationally, in the company of Pinehurst, Shadow Creek and Pebble Beach.

A player has not really experienced golf on the Gulf Coast unless he or she has done so lately. Katrina-damaged courses have undergone major renovations and two new major courses have opened in the past year.

Magnolias are calling

Beau Rivage Resort opened Fallen Oak, the latest Tom-Fazio-envisioned luxury golf oasis, for the exclusive use of its hotel guests.

The pristine splendor of Fallen Oak unfolds in a rustic setting that boasts dramatic elevation changes rare on the Gulf and more than 4,000 oaks, magnolias, pines and other hardwoods on a 510-acre tract at the edge of the DeSoto National Forest. The $214 green fee (Sunday-Saturday) includes amenities like well-appointed locker rooms and an Arcadian-style clubhouse. Special touches include getting your shoes shined both before and after a round at the five-teed course that stretches to a hearty 7,487 yards from the back nine.

As promised on the Web site, "You will negotiate wetlands, overcome towering oaks, crisscross pecan orchards and magnolia groves and navigate elevation changes unparalleled on the Coast. Looking out at the 9th and 18th fairways, you can almost imagine the terrain silently observing those who play on it, calling out the challenge, 'I've been here for centuries; now show me what you're made of.' "

In December, Fallen Oak was selected by Golf Digest as the No. 2 Best New Public Course $75 and Over.

Seaside play

At The Bridges in Bay St. Louis, golfers play on the Arnold Palmer signature golf course located next to Hollywood Casino.

The course combines the excitement of risk-taking play with the natural beauty of a seaside setting that was the first in the world to achieve Audubon International Silver Signature status. The course has been ranked among the Top 40 casino courses in the country and in the Top 10 courses in the state by Golf Digest.

Here, a wide range of players, including men, women and junior golfers, can play their own uninhibited game of golf at four sets of tees.

The Bridges' 18 holes take players on a journey through uplands, pine savannah and coastal wetlands, more than living up to the symbolism of its name in raising the level and significance of golf on the Gulf Coast.

Rates are $65 Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; $95 Friday-Sunday; closed on Tuesdays.

Flow with the rivers

In almost any direction that golfers venture to look on the Gulf Coast these days, there is a worthy, championship golf challenge awaiting them. At the Grand Bear, located on 600 acres of prime Mississippi woodlands surrounding the DeSoto National Forest, it's all about the genteel sport of golf as only Jack Nicklaus could have devised it.

The $89-per-person fee includes greens fees and cart on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. A $99 fee applies Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In particular, holes 14 though 17, which wind along the Big Biloxi River, are memorable, Buckley says. Yet the real test of Grand Bear may be the par 5, 5th hole, which Buckley warns leaves no room for error.

Grand Bear has received national recognition and numerous awards, most recently making the Top 10 in Golfweek magazine's Top 21 Casino Courses and the Top 50 in Golfweek Magazine's Best Resort Golf Courses.

More golfing escapes

Even after taking on the combined challenges of Fallen Oak, The Bridges and Grand Bear, the diehard player still can find plenty of hallowed ground to negotiate in The Preserve and in Shell Landing.

When golf great Jerry Pate designed The Preserve, a par-71, championship course that Palace Casino opened on a 245-acre parcel of an 1,800-acre nature preserve, the intent was to create a course second to none.

Golf fees are $120 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and $90 from 1 p.m. on; closed on Monday. The course has been selected by Golf Digest as one of the Best New Courses of 2007 in the "Best New Public $75 and Over" category.

And since it opened in 2000, Shell Landing, designed by golf great Davis Love and singled out by Golf Digest as the No. 5 course in America in the best new upscale public category, also has been a favorite of serious golfers. Rates are $99 Monday-Thursday and $109 Friday-Saturday.

Ready to play?