The difference between successful businesspeople and game-changers is almost always a matter of vision. And though the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa has affected billionaire developer Steve Wynn’s ability to see clearly for much of his adult life, it has never taken his vision. It was Wynn who foresaw the potential of the Las Vegas Strip and anchored it with the groundbreaking Mirage Hotel – subsequently adding Treasure Island and the Bellagio. A decade later, in an even more audacious gamble, he brought Vegas glitz to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, crafting the 32-story Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino on the Biloxi waterfront.
Wynn introduced high-end hospitality to Vegas and, ultimately, to Mississippi, and guests flocked to the experience, which extended well beyond the gaming tables. To provide his high-rolling clientele with a daytime diversion, Wynn commissioned Tom Fazio to build a mirage-like oasis in the Nevada desert. Shadow Creek stunned the golf world with its $60 million fantasy world of sculpted hillsides, waterfalls and 21,000 trees. With tee times set one hour apart and access strictly limited to guests of the Mirage (and, later, to guests of Wynn’s other properties), Shadow Creek dovetailed perfectly with Wynn’s revolutionary concept. So it was hardly a surprise that the Beau Rivage would include a similar high-end golf course authored again by Tom Fazio.
In Mississippi, however, Fazio didn’t have to create a faux-natural setting. Instead, he got to handpick a 510-acre parcel of rolling land dotted with ponds and studded with oaks, pecan orchards and stately magnolias. From this bucolic setting, Wynn and Fazio brought Fallen Oak Golf Club to life.
Steve Wynn sold Mirage Resorts to MGM Grand in 2000—a year after the Beau Rivage opened and six years before the debut of Fallen Oak—but he’ll never be truly absent from the properties he conceived.
Take a walk into the lobby of the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, and you will be blown away by the size and scale of the atrium, with its buzz of glam-retail shops and hum of activity. This sense of arrival transports guests immediately away from their daily lives and into a world of excitement and glitz. The resort lost a year to damages from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It reopened a year to the day from the storm, sporting a $550 million renovation. With award-winning restaurants, 1,550-seat theater that attracts top regional and national performers, and a throbbing nightclub to augment the sprawling casino, the Beau Rivage disproves the saying that you can’t be all things to all people.
But you’re here for golf.
The sense of arrival at Fallen Oak is similar, but in a completely different way. You encounter a surprising change in topography as you make the 20-minute drive from the hotel to the club. For the last five miles, the road winds through tall pines and across working fields. Then, if you’re paying close attention, you catch the small sign that guides you toward the gate of Fallen Oak Golf Club.
Creating exclusivity in a resort golf course is no small feat. Indeed, most resorts are willing to relax their “hotel guests-only” policy in an effort to make an extra buck or gain a little more exposure. Not so at Fallen Oak. The coastal Mississippi climate is absolutely perfect for golf, with some 330 playable days during the year. Yet Fallen Oak sees only 12,000 rounds per year, and as with top private clubs around the country, the first thing you encounter is a sturdy iron gate with a small intercom that lets you buzz the golf shop.
Once on the inside, the physical beauty of the setting unfolds, and glimpses of the golf course quicken the senses. And at last, the Acadian-style clubhouse rises before you. This is where the experience kicks up another notch.
A member of the golf staff greets you by name while the valet hustles your clubs from the trunk and hauls your shoes to the locker room. The staffer then gives you a quick tour of the clubhouse, complete with first-name introductions to the locker room manager and servers, and leads you to your locker, with its personalized nameplate. Emmanuel commands his locker room with the same presence and carriage of any top private locker room manager, exchanging your freshly shined golf shoes for your street shoes and pointing out the various amenities of the locker room. Then it’s out to meet your caddie and get the golf experience started.
Attentive personal service…check.
Everything about Fallen Oak encourages you to slow down. Breathe in the thick, fragrant air. Soak in the sublime wooded setting. And take your time while warming up. The club’s practice facility features three short game practice greens in addition to a broad driving range. And if it seems at first like overkill, consider that you aren’t the only special guest that will visit Fall Oak this year. From March 30 to April 2, the club will for the eighth consecutive season host the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a full-field PGA TOUR Champions event. Swashbuckling Spaniard Miguel Ángel Jiménez will defend his title against the senior circuit’s best, many of whom rank Fallen Oak among the finest courses on the tour.
And then it’s on to the course. Don’t expect a gentle handshake to start your round. No, this opener is a 596-yard par-5 beast, with a pond eating into the left side of the green. Hope you weren’t expecting a simple resort track. This is a private club with a championship golf course. At 7,487 yards, Fallen Oak will challenge the best in the world. From any of its other four sets of tees, it remains a stout test.
Fallen Oak Photo Gallery
The front nine occupies the flatter southern part of the property. The 224-yard par-3 third is an all-carry long-iron over another pond. A solid drive on the 423-yard par-4 fourth will leave you with a mid-iron approach to a slightly elevated skyline green with plenty of movement to test any birdie opportunity. The fourth features the best of many outstanding green complexes on the outward nine. Anyone familiar with Fazio courses knows to expect at least one or two heroic opportunities over great, yawning hazards. You get it at the par-5 sixth hole. Go for it if you dare, or lay up to the right and challenge your short game with a tricky uphill pitch to a multi-tiered green.
The back nine at Fallen Oak perfectly complements the front. You move immediately from flatter, more open terrain to a much more rolling, wooded landscape immediately on 468-yard par-4 10th hole. Hardwoods border the fairway on the scenic par-5 13th and the short drop shot 14th provides a perfect chance to gather your forces and maybe pick up a birdie before you run the gauntlet of the finishing four holes. The round concludes with the most difficult hole on the course, a 493-yard dogleg left, with water protecting the left side of the green. Here you’ll see the namesake of the course, the fallen section of a huge oak tree to the right side of the landing area. A par here might bode well for a good night at the table.
True championship golf…check.
As comfortable as the locker room might have been before the round, it’s an even more inviting spot afterwards. Enjoy lunch overlooking the finishing hole, pick up a souvenir in the shop, take a shower and freshen up. The staff at Fallen Oak isn’t trying pump the traffic through. Instead, take them up on their offer to sit a spell and enjoy your club for the day. After all, après-golf is one of the true luxuries of the private golf experience.
Exclusivity. Personal service. Championship golf. To enjoy these qualities, you generally have to stroke hefty initiation checks and commit to years of dues and personal involvement. At Fallen Oak, the private club experience is available for a $200 green fee and a thoughtful tip for a caddie.
Mississippi has come a long way, from its somewhat checkered history to its astounding recovery from one of America’s most devastating natural disasters. Through it all, the folks of the Gulf Coast have never lost their welcoming spirit or their refreshingly personal way of life.
Go on. Be their guest.
Tom Ferrell is Colorado AvidGolfer’s editor at large.
This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Colorado AvidGolfer. Subscribe today!
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