The majority of lists of the best courses in Mississippi list Fallen Oak as number one, and that pedigree is apparent in the logistics and cost it took to arrange the round. As they will repeatedly inform you, Fallen Oak is reserved as an exclusive amenity for guests of the Beau Rivage casino hotel in Biloxi, the equivalent experience to MGM’s sister course in Las Vegas, Shadow Creek. Despite our accommodations elsewhere, I had to not only book a room at the casino, but also drive over and check into the hotel to avoid my tee time potentially being canceled as the reservations agent hinted it might be if I didn’t show up for the room. The course itself is truly remote – a bit of a drive from the coast and the casino, yes, but only about 25-30 minutes – and feels completely isolated from the outside world. The place has an air of exclusivity in accordance with its amenity status, from its gated entrance to the sprawling, opulent, but mostly empty clubhouse. Indeed, the course’s exclusivity causes it to get relatively little play, with the busiest days peaking at around 120 players. On the day I played it, there were less than 20. Only the three shortest sets of tees were out, topping the course out at 6,500 yards and likely owing to the softer than normal off-season course conditions; while a 6,900 yard option did intrigue me, the ominously “by permission only” 7,500 yard tips did not, and I was perfectly content to move up given the condition of my game at the time.
My main gripe with Fazio courses in the past has been some rather unimaginative cookie-cutter green complexes in places, but here at Fallen Oak such a thing was not a concern. From the first, which features a horizontal spine about midway through the green, to the enormous and undulating eighteenth, the greens were delightfully creative, extraordinarily quick, and nearly impossible for a Midwesterner used to winter bentgrass. Mainly thanks to those greens and the ever-present wind whipping through the trees, the course certainly lived up to its pedigree in terms of difficulty. The property featured a surprising amount of elevation change compared to nearly every other course on the Coast, in many stretches of holes never allowing the player to get a comfortable flat lie, and featuring enough of a variety of hole lengths that every club in the bag was tested. While the outward nine felt a bit more open, a number of ponds came into play to ratchet up the difficulty, and a few large trees were used in particularly clever fashion, such as the live oaks restricting the second shot on the par five sixth. The huge ninth green featured a small protrusion in its back right portion that fell away and down-grain from the rest of the green; naturally, the pin was located back there, making a three-putt all but guaranteed.
Despite the hillier terrain and narrower hole corridors of the back nine, I enjoyed that side at Fallen Oak more than the front. After a couple of tricky short par fours at the eleventh and twelfth, my favorite three-hole stretch of the course began, taking advantage of the hilliest portion of the property. The thirteenth is a dogleg left par five that exemplifies the discomfort I cited earlier; there is no easy shot from this rumpled fairway, and many a good second shot will kick left to the point that the approach is semi-blind and difficult to judge over the front bunkers. Following this uphill brute is a wonderfully devilish short hole, the par three fourteenth, which plays slightly downhill to what I considered to be the most exciting green on the course. Surrounded by bunkers front and left and set in a lovely opening in the deep forest, the green features two small shelves in the front left and back right that are separated by a ridge; the front left portion, however, feeds off of the green at the front middle, as I learned when I landed my ball a mere six feet right of the flag and watched it roll twenty more feet down the hill to its right. Finally, the fifteenth – another par five – tumbles back downhill opposite the thirteenth and thus plays significantly shorter. This hole was as close as I came to birdie all day at Fallen Oak; despite being on the back fringe in two shots and admittedly inches from rolling over the back of the green into the woods, I three-putted for par.
I’d be remiss in discussing Fallen Oak without bringing up its namesake, the oak tree with a fallen limb that sits along the right side of the fairway on the eighteenth. It’s a beautiful and colossal old tree, kept through some form of witchcraft in the same state as it was found by the Fazio team when designing the course, and makes for a lovely photo opportunity while playing the finishing hole. As luck would have it, a ballooned drive left me on the mulch underneath the tree, but after a lucky break on the approach to avoid the pond and one of the greatest bunker shots of my life, I managed to walk away with a closing par; perhaps the fallen oak proved to be my lucky tree.
Played January 28, 2021
Jeff Kissel visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast for an extended period in early 2021, and wrote about it as a guest on the blog Lying Four; this review was adapted from that story.
Date: May 08, 2021