SAUCIER, Miss. – Golf architect Tom Fazio is a heavyweight in the private club world. His designs pepper the Golfweek’s Best list of top private courses across the U.S., with dozens of such facilities among the top modern courses in the country.
Wade Hampton Club in North Carolina, Congaree in South Carolina, Estancia in Arizona — those and more than 50 others rank highly, and they’re all private. His courses tend to be part of clubs that excel in catering to their memberships’ every whim.
Fazio also has excelled in building courses for another segment of golf: casinos. Fazio either designed or collaborated on seven of the top 50 casino courses in the U.S. Best of all, these highly ranked layouts are open to the public, albeit sometimes only to guests staying at the affiliated casino resort.
Fazio’s Shadow Creek in Las Vegas has topped the Golfweek’s Best rankings of casino courses in the U.S. for years. The over-the-top desert layout in North Las Vegas is a testament to what might be accomplished when money is no issue, and the layout’s $1,000-plus green fee is aligned with that. The amount of play at Shadow Creek is also limited — stay at the MGM, take a limo to the course, be treated like a star.
But there’s another way to experience the best of Fazio casino golf that shouldn’t be missed, and it’s much more attainable.
No. 18 at Fallen Oak in Mississippi (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
Fallen Oak near Biloxi, Mississippi, is a much more natural layout than Shadow Creek. And the course – operated in conjunction with MGM’s Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, a AAA Four Diamond award winner — might offer the best opportunity for public golfers to experience a top Fazio layout and all the first-rate trappings that generally come with it. Fallen Oak is No. 2 on the Golfweek’s Best list of top casino courses in the U.S.
From the gated entrance and long drive past live oaks and ponds to the stately clubhouse, all the way to the personalized lockers and frozen watermelon served at the turn on a hot day, Fallen Oak makes a public-access player feel like a member of an elite club. The service is second to none in the public-access golf world.
Director of golf Mark Powell makes sure of it.
“We want it to feel special, that, ‘Hey, I’m at a great golf course,’ ” said the longtime PGA of America pro who took the helm at Fallen Oak in 2021. “We want to be there every step of the way. We want everyone on staff to know your name.”
No. 17 at Fallen Oak in Mississippi (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
Guests of the Beau Rivage gain access to all this on a course that’s never crowded, hosting just 14,000 or so rounds a year. Counting the several weeks a year Fallen Oak is closed for maintenance – a luxury most public-access layouts can’t afford — it works out to about 40 players a day.
Go ahead, stretch out. Enjoy the quiet. It’s rare these days.
Fazio’s layout at Fallen Oak opened in 2006, and for a decade it hosted the PGA Tour Champions event in Mississippi. And unlike the heavily manufactured Shadow Creek, Fallen Oak sits on a tremendous Southern site that seems entirely natural for golf. Aside from its high ranking among casino courses, Fallen Oak is the top-rated public-access course in Mississippi. The green fee tops out at $275 — you could play four rounds at Fallen Oak for not much more than one round at Shadow Creek — and the resort runs stay-and-play specials.
Fallen Oak’s rolling terrain is dotted with wetlands and specimen trees, some of which were relocated during construction. Conditioning is top notch, equal to elite private clubs even in the heat of a Mississippi summer. The greens have plenty of motion without ever crossing a line into too-difficult territory.
Best of all: the bunkering.
Many resort courses slash bunkers across their countrysides, threatening players of all levels and distance. Fallen Oak, by contrast, offers restrained bunkering, one well-placed trap often serving the job. Fallen Oak underwent a major bunker renovation in 2014 in which numerous traps were removed, and the remaining bunkers were given a face-lift again in 2022.
No. 3 at Fallen Oak in Mississippi (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
Many holes feature only one fairway bunker. No. 2 is a long par 4, and there is just one fairway bunker on the left side – the hole doesn’t need any more protection. It’s similar at Nos. 4 and 9 on the front side. No. 11 has no fairway traps, and the rest of the back nine is similarly restrained. The ground moves enough through the wide corridors to provide challenge without every stray shot splashing into sand.
Same goes around most of the greens. Play a round at Fallen Oak and you’ll face more chips and pitches than bunker splash-outs. The entire layout, since the bunker renovations, shows a lovely level of understatement married to an extremely comfortable Gulf Coast motif. The terrain and the trees, the ponds and the greens are free to shine without too much sand in your face. You can always head to the beach if you want more sand.
“The first re-do they did, I tell ya, I was really impressed,” said Powell, who was working at another Mississippi club at the time. “I had played here before, back in the early days, and that was always kind of a knock on the course, too many bunkers. After the re-do, when I saw the course, I said this is even better. It’s awesome.”
The par-72 layout can be stretched beyond 7,500 yards, but from the proper tees it’s a treat of attempted shotmaking into smooth putting surfaces. Good shots are rewarded, and the roll-offs around several greens require strategic approaches to the proper sides of the hole. There’s not a thoughtless approach on the 510-acre property, and at the same time there’s not one that’s unattainable.
The Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi (Courtesy of The Beau Rivage)
It’s a perfect attribute to the Beau Rivage, which is packed with highly rated dining and other curated experiences besides the golf. A word of advice: Plan your visit during baseball season, and take in a Biloxi Shuckers minor-league game at MGM Park across the street from the casino resort. It’s an intimate ballpark that provides a great break from the gaming tables.
The golf club is open to any guests of the Beau Rivage, with Powell and his staff hosting frequent special events for VIPs of the casino. Put in enough time at the tables and you might be invited to play in a sponsored tournament for casino credit that can run into the thousands of dollars. The club also has a small membership of invited casino regulars, and Powell hosts all kinds of interesting events for them, too.
“We just want to make it fun for everybody,” Powell said. “We’ve got member tournaments, a great club championship, all kinds of games during the week.
“We’re constantly looking to do every little thing we can to improve the guest experience. Sometimes a little thing goes a long way.”
Sound like a public-access private club? That’s the idea, executed perfectly.
More in Mississippi
Fallen Oak isn’t the only Mississippi course to earn a spot in the Golfweek’s Best ranking of U.S. casino courses. There are four others: The Preserve, the Oaks and Azaleas courses at Dancing Rabbit, and Shell Landing. (See the full list starting on page 40.)
The Preserve Golf Club – the highest-ranked of those four – in Vancleave near Biloxi features a design by Jerry Pate that opened in 2006, the same year as Fallen Oak. Routed past several large ponds among stately oaks, the well-manicured layout features fairly wide fairways and tricky green complexes. There’s generally room to bail out away from numerous water hazards, and the layout’s shaping is interesting without ever being overbearing. The 245-acre property is surrounded by a nature preserve, further enhancing its great sense of remoteness.
The best stretch at the par-71 Preserve is probably Nos. 11 and 12, both short par 4s that make a player think. It might be wise to leave the driver in the bag to set up the best angles into each green, but bold players can attack. Both holes offer a great chance at birdie and a real possibility for a score much higher – great fun.
The peak green fee in spring is listed as $220, but lower costs are available in the shoulder seasons and summer. Stay-and-play packages are available in conjunction with the Palace Casino Resort, a AAA Four Diamond award winner.