"You know what they say about golfers," says Bobby Mahoney, owner of Mary Mahoney's Old French House restaurant in Biloxi, Miss. "If you shoot over 80, you have no business playing. If you shoot under 80, you have no business." Mahoney, 62-year-old son of the restaurant's founder, flashes a squinty smile. "There's a caveat to that rule," he explains.
"Restaurant owners can play golf all day and work all night." A 4-handicapper, Mahoney isn't kidding: He plays four days a week and practices the other three.
He's the first to admit he's a lucky man. Not only is the Biloxi weather conducive to year-round golf, with temperatures seldom falling below 50 degrees, but the quantity and quality of its courses have improved dramatically in the past few years. The main reason: demand from visitors to the area's casinos, which started springing up in the 1990s (11 total today).
Most of the area's golf courses are within a half-hour drive from the main drag in Biloxi. Of the four I played on a recent trip, the one I'm most eager to play again is Shell Landing, one of Golf Digest's Best New Courses in 2002. Designed by Davis Love III, it has a South Carolina lowcountry feel, with multiple forced carries over wetlands and waste areas. Its 401-yard sixth hole is a brutal beauty; from the tee, its landing area and its green look like two lonely islands in a sea of marsh.
The Preserve Golf Club is a close second in my opinion. This Jerry Pate design, also a Best New honoree (2007), is a little tighter than Shell Landing in spots but hardly feels boxed in or crowded. Be sure to save some energy for the closing holes, and No. 16 in particular. A rare par 3 that's the No. 1-handicap hole, it's a 225-yarder from the back tees over four yawning bunkers to a three-tiered green.
I also played the Grand Bear Golf Course, a Jack Nicklaus design, and the Bridges at Hollywood Casino, by Arnold Palmer. Both are good courses in excellent condition, though neither struck me as challenging nor as scenic as Shell Landing or the Preserve. Tree-lined Grand Bear is the more centrally located of the two. The Bridges, often an exercise in target golf, is an hour's drive west of Biloxi and about 65 miles from New Orleans.
The pinnacle of Biloxi golf is Fallen Oak, a Tom Fazio design that was among our Best New Public Courses of 2007. I played the course in '07, and it's wonderful, a gently rolling walk among weathered old oaks, pecan trees and marshy wetlands. It's also the priciest course in town, at $200 a round. To play it you have to stay at the Beau Rivage Casino Hotel, the area's most deluxe. Rooms start at about $230 a night on weekends in the peak golf months of spring and fall.