Alabama’s RTJ Trail offers lots of golf — and much more


ALL OVER, Alabama – There’s a handful of golf trails across the country – and then there’s the Robert Trent Jones Trail that stretches over about 400 miles in Alabama, from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf Coast.

This collection of courses is like no other. It includes 26 courses — or 468 holes — spread around 11 locations.  Eight of the locations have upscale lodging available. The scenery is beautiful throughout.

Every serious golfer should visit the RTJ Trail at some point. They’ll find courses that reflect the best golf in the U.S. and offer challenges for players of all abilities. Course conditions are uniformly good and the greens fees are fairly priced. One warning, though: Be prepared for significant elevation changes on most every hole, not just every course.  Flat courses don’t fit the RTJ style.

We’ve made three visits to the Trail.  Two were over-night stops spread over several years.  The last was extensive – seven courses over six days with no hotel stay longer than one night.  We were on the move to experience everything the Trail has to offer, on and off the courses.

We made stops at seven of the 11 Trail destinations and, while the golf certainly didn’t disappoint, we were taken almost as much by the non-golf attractions along the way.  The RTJ Trail isn’t all about golf.

A little history first. Dr. David Bronner, the chief executive officer of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, is the visionary credited with getting the Trail launched in 1992. It gave a big boost to Alabama’s tourism. With millions of dollars worth of television commercials provided at no cost by the state pension fund each year the Alabama tourism industry has grown from $1.8 billion in 1992 to over $24 billion.   That’s according to Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department.

In promoting the Trail, the media attention also benefitted many other attractions – and we were happy to check them out in between our rounds.

For instance:

A tour of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio gave us an interesting glimpse into the state’s rich musical history.  The Studio was in its heyday from 1969-78.  The Rolling Stones called it “rock and roll heaven.’’  Cher was the first artist to use the Studio, but among those who followed her there included Lynryd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart and Willie Nelson.

Huntsville is called `Rocket City’ for good reason.  The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is there.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center, in Huntsville, could command a full day to experience everything there.  Space travel evolved after German engineers hooked up with American scientists there in 1950. Now the Center includes a Space Camp where youngsters from all over the world come to learn how to become astronauts, and many have already made it.

Much more recently the Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center has opened at Auburn University.  It features an upscale teaching restaurant – the only one in the world – where students learn about all aspects of hospitality management.

While the Auburn facility, which opened less than a year ago, tells you what’s coming in the hospitality business, the Grand Hotel Resort & Spa, in Point Clear, tells you what it was like in the good old days. The hotel opened in 1847, was used as a miliary hotel during the Civil War, overcame fires, hurricanes and ownership changes and emerged as a place that includes spas, tennis courts, Bucky’s Lawn (which serves great Mint Juleps by its fire pits) and facilities for all sorts of yard games. It’s a charming place all around.

The Grand Hotel, in Point Clear, has been the Queen of Southern Resorts for over 175 years.

Dining?  No problem here.  There are all kinds of restaurants around the Trail.  The most memorable was 360 Grille at Marriott Shoals. It’s located at the top of a tower and the restaurant slowly moves in a circle while you’re eating. Straight to Ale Brewery at Campus 805, in Huntsville, took over what had been a high school and remnants of the school days were still there. Back Forty Beer, in Gadsden, was a friendly place with an Astroturf play area where kids of all ages could toss a football. The Hound, in Auburn, is a hopping place with 28 craft beers on tap and a menu that includes wild-game sausage and claims to focus on “bacon, bourbon, community and family.’’

And now for golf on the Trail.

None of the courses are easy,  but Silver Lakes, in Gadsden, has three nines that are aptly named Heartbreaker, Backbreaker and Mindbreaker. Yes, they’re tough.

Lakewood Club, in Point Clear, has the only Trail course not designed by Robert Trent Jones.  The club opened in 1947 and Perry Maxwell designed its Dogwood course, with Jones eventually renovating it. Dogwood recently hosted the 59th U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur.

Fighting Joe, at The Shoals, opened in 2004 as the first course on the trail to exceed 8,000 yards from the back tees.  It 8,097 from the back – but that was no place we wanted to go.

Not only is Fighting Joe, at The Shoals, the first RTJ Trail course to stretch over 8,000 yards, it also has a most picturesque par-3 finishing hole on the Tennessee River.

Hampton Cove, in Owens Cross Roads, has a course without a single bunker.  It’s no pushover, though.  It’s called The River for a reason – lots of water holes.

Capitol Hill has three courses.  The Senator, a links course, has 140 pothole bunkers and lots of blind shots — but no trees and water on only No. 17. The LPGA has used it for tournament play and Lexi Thompson got her first victory there.

Grand National, in Auburn/Opelika, has two 18-holers, one of which is called The Links. It has wide, roaming fairways but they have lots of slopes – the most of any course we played. Never an easy shot to the green there. It also has the strongest finishing hole on the Trail.

Oxmoor, in Birmingham, has a par-3 course called The Back Yard.  It has nine holes that can play as short as 59 yards and the course’s longest hole is 132.

The best course? Fighting Joe was my favorite but you can’t choose the best without playing them all. It may take some time, but we’re looking forward to doing just that.



An emerging rainbow, viewed from our balcony at the Marriott Prattville Hotel & Conference Center, added to our enjoyment of The Senator at Capitol Hill. (Joy Sarver Photos).
Windy cart paths are part of the ambience at the River Course at Hampton Cove.
Edible flowers and herbs are grown in the rooftop garden at Auburn University’s innovative Culinary Science Center,




Alabama’s FarmLinks fulfills a Pursell dream

FarmLinks is known for its spectacular downhill par-3s, and No. 5 is the obvious signature hole.

SYLACAUGA, Alabama – Alabama is a golf-rich state, with the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail dominating the lists of top courses there.  There’s only one thing missing from the Trail’s 26 courses spread around 11 destination sites. All of those layouts don’t include the best one – at least according to GolfWeek, one of the best-known rating publications.

GolfWeek gave the nod to the FarmLinks course at Pursell Farms as the No. 1 public course in Alabama for the first time in 2011. Then the Michael Hurdzan-Dana Fry design regained the top spot on those GolfWeek rankings in 2013 and has held it right through 2023.

“We’re No. 1 and they (the RTJ Trail courses) are our competition,’’ said David Pursell, the visionary who spurred FarmLinks’ creation. “They have all the breaks in the world, and five of the Trail courses are in short distance to us.’’

David Pursell’s vision led to the transformation of Pursell Farms into a boutique resort.

FarmLinks, though, is as challenging as any Trail course from the back tees and more user-friendly from the shorter markers. That’s a good combination, and Pursell also has a good story to tell on his course’s history.

His family had been involved in the fertilizer business since 1904, being first called the Sylacauga Fertilizer Company. Working with his father Jimmy, David Pursell devised a marketing strategy to attract golf superintendents to visit the property in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains near Birmingham.

They got 10,000 of them from all parts of the country to come for three-day visits to what had been Jimmy Pursell’s cattle farm. Choosing Fry and Hurdzan to do the course design work was a wise one, as their later creations included Wisconsin’s Erin Hills, site of the 2017 U.S. Open.

FarmLinks, however, wasn’t built to host tournaments. It was originally built to stimulate fertilizer sales, and — after three years of superintendent visits — it worked.

“We built trust with the golf course superintendents and taught them a lot about the fertilizer business,’’ said David Pursell. In those days the course included 28 varieties of grasses and conducted chemical treatments on the fairways to educate their visitors. Fertilizer sales took off, and offers to buy the company started coming in.  One from a Canadian company was accepted.

“In that one transition we made more money than the company had in 102 years.  My Dad was really happy about that,’’ said Pursell.

The sale came in 2006. Then, with David taking on an increasingly bigger role, the family decided to switch from fertilizer to the hospitality industry.

“The American dream is to build something up,’’ said Pursell.  “I was in my 40s, and I wanted to do something here.  The family decided to re-invest and do something different.’’

Pursell and his wife have lived on the property since 1981 and have six children and 10 grandchildren.  Most have worked at the Farm at one time or another.

After being visitors in the fertilizer days in 2012, we were stunned by the massive changes the Pursells have made to turn the property into a boutique resort, a transformation that took off following Jimmy Pursell’s death at age 84 on Father’s Day, 2020.

Lake Christine, named after three generations of Pursell women, adds to the beauty of the resort.

Golf remained the key part of the operation, and the course gained a more detailed appreciation. Nos. 5, 8 and 17 became recognized as great downhill par-3s. No. 5 may be the most notable of those. It has a 170-foot drop from the back tees to the green, and golfers are offered watermelon slices when they head from tee to green.

Pursell recalls how that memorable hole came about.

“Dana Fry got me out of my office to look at it,’’ he said. “Dana, who had worked for Tom Fazio, had me look down to the green.  Then he said `we can have one of the most dramatic holes in the Southeast, but the cost will be seven times what it was going to cost.’  I said `let’s do it.’’’

That was a good decision; so was the decision to name the holes – particularly No. 4, a downhill par-5.  A plaque there stirs memories of Andrew Jackson, a former U.S. President and war hero. In 1814 he led his militia, the Tennessee Volunteers, against against the Red Stick Creek Indians in what became known as the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

At No. 5 there’s a plaque recounting a not-so-pleasant part of course history.  It’s called “Jimmy’s Fall” because Jimmy Pursell made a visit by himself during course construction to see how the elevated tee was progressing.  He took a tumble, fell 40 feet and suffered several broken ribs and fingers and a punctured lung. His recovery started with 10 days in a Birmingham hospital.

David Pursell also designed the resort logo, a combination of legendary Bobby Jones and longhorn steers.  It looked good, until Pursell realized there were no steers on the property.  He had a herd brought in before the grand opening and they have grazed peacefully at the resort entrance ever since.

“I’m creative.  I had no agronomic skills at all,’’ said Pursell.   “I’m in between P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney, but on a much smaller scale.’’

David Pursell first designed the FarmLinks logo, then needed to bring in longhorns to support it.

It’s not all golf at Pursell Farms now. The Orvis Shooting Ground is a strong second attraction that attracts hunters and fishermen.  There’s also 30 miles of hiking trails. Hamilton Place, built in 1852, has become a popular wedding venue and spa.  Cottages, cabins and an Inn have swelled the lodging options to 81 guest rooms.

Old Tom’s Pub, The Grille and the Arrington Restaurant are all  well-received dining options and the resort also offers high-tech office meeting space, an outdoor pool and fitness facilities. Indeed Pursell Farms has become a very special place.

So, what’s next on the FarmLinks golf scene? It seems like a big tournament could be an option, since Escalante Golf – one of the resort’s partners – has hosted at some of the LIV Tour events.

“We can’t shut the whole property down for something like that,’’ said Pursell, “but we have identified the perfect spot for what would be a private club.’’

With 3,200 acres to work with, there’s plenty of room for Pursell Farms to expand in other directions when the time is right.  While the place has come a long way, its final chapter is a long way from being written.


No. 17 is the most picturesque of FarmLinks par-3s holes. (All Photos by Joy Sarver)










Lots of Illinois golfers could make it to the U.S. Open


It may seem weird, but golf’s second major championship of the year ended Sunday with Brooks Koepka’s victory in the PGA Championship after the third of the four majors was already – at least technically – well underway.

The 123rd U.S. Open proper doesn’t begin its 72-hole run until June 15-18 but that tournament annually draws a huge entry.  This year’s drew 9,693 players, and that number has to be whittled to 156 for the 72-hole finals at Los Angeles Country Club.

The elimination process started on April 17 with 109 local qualifiers held all around the U.S. as well as in Canada, Japan and England. Entering this week only one of those 18-hole sessions remained – on Monday (MAY 22) in Palmer, Alaska.  Next up are 13 sectionals, which send survivors directly to the U.S. Open.  Most will be held on June 5.

While Chicago again will be without a sectional qualifier, the Chicago District Golf Association conducted three locals and they produced some good results for local players.

In the first, at Cantigny in Wheaton, former Northern Illinois University star and 2020 Illinois Open champion Bryce Emory of Aurora was the medalist with a 68, one shot better than Park Ridge’s Tony Albano. They were among the five who advanced to sectional play and Brian Carroll, the reigning Illinois PGA player-of-the-year from The Hawk Country Club in St. Charles, was first alternate among the 84 starters.

The second was at Illini Country Club in Springfield, and the red hot University of Illinois men’s team had two of the five players to advance.  Sophomore Jackson Buchanan, the medalist with a 64, and Adrien Dumont de Chassart have a U.S. Open sectional coming up right after their college season ends with this week’s NCAA Championship in Arizona.

Luke Guthrie, an Illinois alum who has spent time on the pro tours, also was among those advancing and Wheaton’s Tee-K Kelly, a two-time Illinois State Amateur champion and 2021 Illinois Open winner, was first alternate.

The third local, at Stonewall Orchard in Grayslake, produced the best score – a 9-under-par 63 by Hinsdale’s Mac McClear, last year’s Illinois State Amateur champion and this year’ co-medalist in the Big Ten tournament while playing for Iowa.  It was also a bonanza for Northwestern, with current Wildcats James Imai and David Nyfjall advancing. Others  making it from Stonewall were Spring Grove’s Jordan Hahn and Wilmette’s Daniel Tanaka.

Some area players opted for locals outside the area.  Glen Ellyn’s Andy Pope, a long-time Korn Ferry Tour player, advanced in Palm City, FL. Pope, no longer a tour player, won the Florida Open last year and has qualified for five U.S. Opens, making the cut in two of them.

Illinois alums Bryan Baumgarten and Varun Chopra qualified in South Bend and Lexington, FL., respectively.

Only 52 players, among them reigning John Deere Classic champion J.T. Poston,  were given exemptions into the final field by the U.S. Golf Association.  The locals cut those still eligible for a spot in Los Angeles to 530 for sectional play.

ILLINI ON THE SPOT: Coach Mike Small has a solid contender for the NCAA title when the finals begin a five-day run on Friday (MAY 26). The Illini, second to Georgia in last week’s regional play in Michigan, have been as high as No. 2 in the collegiate polls.

In addition to Buchanan and Dumont De Chassart, the Illini could have had a third survivor of the U.S. Open local qualifiers. Tommy Kuhl shot 62 at Illini Country Club before realizing he had improved his lies multiple times on aerated greens. That was against the rules and led to his withdrawal.

Matthis Besard and Piercen Hunt round out the squad that Small will take to the NCAA finals. He’s particularly high on Dumont DeChassart’s future in the game.

“He has another gear, and that’s something he wants to call upon more often,’’ said Small.  “He’ll be a first-team All-American.’’

Fifth-year seniors Dumont DeChassart and Kuhl have provided the leadership all season but it’s been a team effort for the Illini.

“Matthis, Jackson and Piercen have been a huge part of the last month of the season,’’ said Small.  “They’ve all had flashes of real good play.  If we can sustain that, then we’ve got something special.’’

HERE AND THERE:  The PGA Championship was tough on the five Illinois-connected players in the field. Only Illini alums Thomas Pieters and Thomas Detry survived the 36-hole cut.  Detry, Luke Donald, Nick Hardy, Kevin Streelman and Dylan Wu are in the field for this week’s PGA Tour stop, the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas.

John Ramsey, of Glenview, defeated Chadd Slutzky, of Deer Park, in 19 holes in last week’s battle for the Chicago District Mid-Amateur title at Merit Club, in Libertyville. Then they boarded a plane together to compete as a team in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C. It ends on Wednesday (MAY 24).

John Schlaman is again the full-time director of golf at Eagle Ridge Resort, in Galena.


French has momentum going into PGA Championship


Club professionals rarely have an impact in the PGA Championship, but this week one might.  Chris French, the head professional at Aldeen — a public course operated by the Rockford Park District — is certainly playing well enough going into the event that tees off on Thursday at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.

Only the top 20 club professionals in their national championship two weeks ago in New Mexico earned spots in the PGA Championship field, and French was the only Illinois qualifier.  He needed a 4-under-par 68 in the final round to finish in a tie for 17th.

The good times didn’t stop there.  French won the Illinois Section’s first major of the season, taking the IPGA Match Play title at Bull Valley in Woodstock last week. He did it by taking two dramatic victories over players from Mistwood, in Romeoville, in his first and last matches.

Bobby Schmelter had French 2-down with two holes to play in the first round, but French won the 17th and 18th before closing out Schmelter on the 21st hole. In the final French trailed Andy Mickelson, Mistwood’s director of golf, entering the back nine.  French then won four straight holes before wrapping up the title 2 and 1.

And now for the big test.

“I’m just happy to be going,’’ said French. “I don’t have too many expectations.  I’m just going to try to have fun and maybe make the cut.’’

The PGA Championship brings out the world’s best players.  Justin Thomas won last year at Southern Hills in Oklahoma, edging the now injured Will Zalatoris in a playoff.  Mito Pereira had dominated that tournament until putting his tee shot in the water at the 72nd hole, dropping him into a tie for third. Pereira is one of 18 players on the controversial LIV Tour who are in the field at Oak Hill.

This field also has a bigger Illinois flavor than most years.  In addition to French  Northbrook PGA Tour member Nick Hardy will be in the tournament for the first time.  He qualified off his victory in April’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans.  J.T. Poston is in thanks to his win in last year’s John Deere Classic. Belgian buddies Thomas Detry and Thomas Pieters – like Hardy former University of Illinois players – earned spots off their play in Europe and Luke Donald will tee off thanks to his being Europe’s Ryder Cup captain.

MINOR BLIP FOR ILLINI: Tommy Kuhl, a fifth-year senior at Illinois, shot a course record 62 at Illini Country Club in Springfield during last week’s U.S. Open local qualifying round.  That sounds great, but it wasn’t.

Kuhl was watching a playoff involving teammate Adrien Dumont de Chassart with another Illini player, Jason Buchanan.  Buchanan mentioned how hard it was putting on aerated greens.  That made Kuhl “feel sick to my stomach.’’ He had repaired aeration marks multiple times in his record round, realized that was against the rules and immediately told the rules official. His infraction took him out of sectional qualifying for the Open.


Kuhl and his teammates began a more important competition on Monday (MAY 15) when they took their No. 1 seed into an NCAA regional at Eagle Eye in Michigan.  The Illini women’s team bowed out of the NCAAs in their regional last week in San Antonio, TX.

The men may be coach Mike Small’s best team yet.  Kuhl and company are ranked No. 2 nationally in the GolfWeek poll and No. 3 in the Golf Stat rankings.  The Illini have won five regional titles, the last in 2019 at Myrtle Beach, S.C., and are making their 14th straight regional appearance.


The Chicago District Golf Association also began its 110th year of championship events on Monday with the CDGA Mid-Amateur at Merit Club in Libertyville. Like the NCAA regionals, it’ll wrap up on Wednesday.

French is Illinois’ hope in the PGA Championship


Having an Illinois club professional in the PGA Championship is a rarity, but there will be one this year. Chris French of Rockford made it into the field for the year’s second major championship at Oak Hill, in Rochester, N.Y. from May 15-21.

Though he works part of the year in California and spent time on the PGA Latinoamerica Tour French has a strong Illinois background.

He was an Illlinois high school medalist in Class 1A when he attended downstate Byron High School, and he also attended Rock Valley College, in Rockford, before turning pro in 2014.

After working as an assistant at Aldeen, Rockford’s well-respected public course, from 2014-19 the 37-year old French was  named the club’s head professional in 2021.  While he’s been a frequent contender in Illinois PGA  tournaments throughout his time at Aldeen French needed three tries in the PGA Club Professional Championship before making it to the PGA Championship.

“It means the world to me to have qualified,’’ said French.  “I’ve put my life into the game, like all PGA Professionals do.  I take a ton of pride in the amount of work I’ve put into my game, and the sacrifices I make to do so.’’

The top 20 in the PGA Professional Championship get spots against the top touring pros. As second alternate in the Illinois PGA qualifier, French almost didn’t make it to this month’s PGA Professional Championship.  Ten spots were available for Illinois pros, and French advanced only after two of the top 10 withdrew.

The PGA Professional Championship was played at Santa Ana Pueblo, in New Mexico. French shot 70-75 in the first two rounds to survive the 36-hole cut and a third-round 73 was good enough to get him into the final 18.

French was sharp when it counted the most, shooting a 4-under-par 68 – the third lowest score of Round 4 – to get him a tie for 17th.

“I felt my game was decent heading into the week, but with the poor weather we’ve had in Illinois lately it was tough to prepare,’’ he said.  “I got off to a good start in Round 1 but made some mental mistakes in Round 2, which put me in a tough spot.’’

He knew how tough it would be to get to the PGA Championship because he couldn’t crack the top 20 in his two previous PGA Professional Championships.  He tied for 29th in 2021 after qualifying as a Southern California Section member and he missed the cut last year when he played out of the Illinois Section.

The third time was a charm as French got by the 54-hole cut after a third-round 73 and then recorded a 4-under-par 68 to get his spot at Oak Hill.

“Heading into the final round I just wanted to get some momentum early and try to get into red figures,’’ said French.  “I rolled in a few nice putts and took some chances on the par-fives.  I just tried to stay patient and take what the round gave me.’’

Now, of course, his task will be much more difficult.  The best players in the world will be in the field at Oak Hill, with Justin Thomas the defending champion.

HERE AND THERE:  French was in the field when the Illinois PGA Match Play Championship – first of the section’s four majors – began its four-day run at Bull Valley in Woodstock on Monday. Chris Nieto of Exmoor, in Highland Park, is the defending champion.

Both the women’s and men’s teams at the University of Illinois were Big 10 champions and qualified for the NCAA tournament.  The women conclude three days of regional play on Wednesday at TPC San Antonio, in Texas, and the men, ranked third in the nation, will compete in a regional at Eagle Eye, in Michigan, beginning on May 15.

Wheaton veteran Kevin Streelman had his best finish on the PGA Tour this season, a tie for 18th in last week’s Wells Fargo Championship in North Carolina. It earned him $285,000.





No state has benefitted more from the golf boom than Mississippi

Dancing Rabbit in Choctaw is a Mississippi facility with two popular courses and new lodging.

It’s no secret that the horrible pandemic gave a boost to the golf industry nation-wide, and that is most evident in Mississippi. The sport has really taken off there in the last few years.

That was evident when a small group of golf media members from all parts of the country spent a week getting a thorough look at the state’s best courses, be they private, resort or public.

While I don’t take any of the major course rating polls as gospel, our group played seven of Mississippi’s top 10 in the Golf Digest rankings. That gave us a good feel for what golf has done for the state since the pandemic.

“We were the No. 1 state in the country for recovery,’’ said Craig Ray, director of tourism for Visit Mississippi.  “That’s according to the U.S. Travel Association.  We got our casinos open early and encouraged our golf and other outdoor activities (to do the same). That’s why we came back quicker, with a smaller percentage of losses than any other state.’’

The casinos were important, of course, but golf was also a big key to recovery.

“We wanted to get people to the casinos, see a show, get a great dinner,’’ said Ray. “We wanted the golfers to see everything else we have to offer – the hunting and fishing, the culinary tours. We have the largest music trail system in the world.  We wanted to show them the whole state.’’

The colorful lobby at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino offers a splash of Las Vegas.

On our trip the group took in a couple of the casinos, Beau Rivage in Biloxi and Pearl River Resort & Casino in Choctaw. We enjoyed some fine dining at Field’s Steakhouse and Oyster Bar, Jia (featuring Pan-Asian cuisine), Phillip M’s Steakhouse, Mama ‘N’ Ems and Cameron’s at Old Waverly Country Club.

The good golf, though, was spread around the state. Using the Golf Digest rankings, we hit No. 1 Fallen Oak, No. 2 Mossy Oak, No. 3 Old Waverly, No. 5 the Azalea course at Dancing Rabbit, No. 6 Grand Bear, No. 8 Dancing Rabbit’s Oaks course and No. 10 Shell Landing.

While that was a good sampling of what Mississippi has to offer golf-wise, our visits did not include three others in the top 10 – No. 4 Annandale in Madison, No. 7 Reunion in Madison and No. 9 The Preserve in Vancleave – or Country Club of Jackson, site of the state’s only PGA Tour stop — October’s Sanderson Farms Championship.

What we did see, though, was plentiful and impressive.  Our stops were roughly divided into three sections.

Mississippi’s No. 1 golf course is Fallen Oak, and this tree on the 18th hole underscores its name.

COASTAL – Beau Rivage’s 32-story MGM-owned resort is Mississippi’s tallest building and offers spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico and Biloxi’s Back Bay. Its Fallen Oak course has long been the consensus No. 1 among the state’s courses.  A Tom Fazio design,  it hosted PGA Tour Champions tournament  from 2010 to 2021. (The pandemic forced cancelation of the event in 2020). Fazio has long been one of the premier designers of his era, and Fallen Oak is considered one of his best creations.

Beau Rivage recently completed nearly $100 million in property enhancements including a $55 million remodeling of each of its 1,645 hotel rooms. The resort offers live entertainment in its 1,550-seat theater, an upscale shopping promenade with 12 retail shops, the Black Clover Lounge and Topgolf Swing Suite and a world-class spa. It also has 12 restaurants in addition to an 85,000 -square foot gaming area.

Clearly it’s Mississippi’s full-service sports betting and entertainment destination.

As for Fallen Oak, the course opened in 2006 and has consistently been ranked as the No. 2 casino course in the U.S., trailing only Shadow Creek – its MGM sister course in Las Vegas. Probably because only Beau Rivage members and resort guests can play Fallen Oak the course doesn’t get heavy play and is the best-conditioned of the layouts our group played.

When Fallen Oak asked out of hosting the PGA Tour Champions in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic the tourney switched sites to Grand Bear, a Jack Nicklaus design in Saucier, in 2022 – the last time the tourney was held. Grand Bear, a public course, opened in 1999 and – for the record – our media tour group considered it very much on par with Fallen Oak.

Nicklaus courses are generally very demanding and this one is literally “a Bear” from each tee placement. The front tees are called Teddy Bear, then they go back to the Black Bear, the Brown Bear, the Golden Bear and the Grizzly Bear from the tips.

The course measures 7,204 from the back tees, but this Nicklaus creation, built along the Biloxi River, is more user friendly than many of his others. Grand Bear hit the national spotlight as the site of the Rapiscan Systems Classic in 2022.  Steven Alker was the lone senior star in command that week.  Finishing 62-65 he finished at 18-under-par in the 54-hole test and enjoyed a six-stroke advantage on Padraig Harrington and Alex Cejka.

Shell Landing, a heavily-played public course in Gautier, gives Coastal Mississippi a third course in the state’s top 10. Shell Landing, designed by Davis Love III, was immediately well-received by national golf publications when it opened in 2002. In addition to its popular 18 holes Shell Landing has a 15-acre practice facility.

Choctaw boasts of its two exciting hotel/casinos as well as two fine golf courses.

DANCING RABBIT – The Pearl River Resort is operated by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and its Dancing Rabbit Golf Club is one of its biggest attractions. The facility opened in 1997.

Dancing Rabbit has two 18-holers, The Azaleas and The Oaks.  Both were designed by Fazio in conjunction with Jerry Pate, a Floridian who won the U.S. Open in 1976. Both are well-received public courses with more elevation changes and tighter fairways than were offered at the Coastal courses.

Aa major renovation was recently completed at Dancing Rabbit Inn and the Geyser Falls Water Theme Park is also an available attraction.

With more than 6,000 employees, the Choctaw Tribe is one of the top five private employers in Mississippi and the Pearl River Resort is one of its biggest properties. It encompasses the Silver Star and Golden Moon hotel/casinos.

The Silver Star has a spa and salon where guests can enjoy a full complement of skin and body treatments, soothing steam baths, a whirlpool, sauna and outdoor pool. Its fitness center is filled with state of the art equipment.

Golden Moon is a bit different. Its amenities include The Whiskey Bean (for coffee, sandwiches and pastries), Bistro 24 (for a broader menu that includes mouth-watering steak), Timeout Lounge (for easy TV viewing while enjoying a variety of drink selections) and the excellent restaurant, Mama `n’ Em, with particularly interesting menu offerings.

A one-acre bunker on the No. 8 hole is a prominent feature of the Mossy Oak course.

MOSSY’S ARRIVAL – West Point has been a Mississippi golf hotbed once George Bryan’s Old Waverly Country Club opened in 1988.  Bryan passed on in January but left the place in great shape as a unique two-course complex.

Old Waverly is a prominent name, especially in women’s golf.  The U.S. Women’s Open was played there in 1999. The Handa Cup, a team event for senior women stars, followed in 2014 and the U.S. Women’s Amateur came in 2019.

That was all well and good, but Bryan and Toxie Haas, a long-time business associate and West Point resident, wanted more. They rallied some friends to add a second course and there’s no other course in Mississippi like Mossy Oak.  It’s a sporty but challenging layout that also is the home of the Mississippi State University men’s and women’s teams.

“Our whole goal with that course was to develop a different atmosphere,’’ said Greg Flannagan, the director of golf who is in his 23rd year at Old Waverly. “We didn’t want golfers to get bored with the stay-and-play option.’’

The courses are very different.  Old Waverly is private, yet can be played by those staying at either the Mossy Oak Cottages or the lodging option right at Old Waverly, while Mossy Oak is comparatively new and, well….different. While it’s officially public, most all of its play comes from stay-and-play visitors.

Mississippi State holds its annual men’s tournament at Mossy Oak while the women’s team conducts its big event at Old Waverly. Both courses have accompanying cottages that make for most pleasant stay-and-play visits.

Flannagan says the goal for the year is to get over 22,000 rounds played on Old Waverly and reach 13,800 on Mossy Oak. The newer layout still has some rough spots and could use signage in a couple places to facilitate play, but it was without question the most fun course that our media contingent played during our most memorable tour of Mississippi.

Old Waverly’s scenic 18th hole has been the site of some dramatic moments in tournament play. (All photos by Joy Sarver)








Is an NCAA title next for the Illini men golfers?


Could this be the year that the University of Illinois men’s team finally wins the NCAA title?

Illini coach Mike Small has had some powerhouse teams but this year’s version could be his best.  The nation’s No. 3 ranked team captured the school’s eighth straight Big Ten championship (and 13th in 14 years) on Sunday by a whopping 17 strokes at Galloway National in New Jersey.

The romp ended after only 36 holes after heavy rains forced cancelation of play with the third and final round in progress.  Illinois stood at 8-under-par 560 after the finish was made official.

“To lead by 17 shots in the second round of a tournament takes a total team effort,’’ said Small.  “To do it in just two rounds – not a three-round tournament – is a pretty big win.’’

Tommy Kuhl and Matthis Bezard tied for third in the individual competition, a shot behind co-champions McLear of Iowa and Daniel Svard of Northwestern.  McLear is the reigning Illinois State Amateur champion.

Adrien Dumont de Chassart and Jackson Buchanan of the Illini tied for fifth and Piercen Hunt completed the scoring unit in a tie for 13th. The Illini have won 20 Big Ten titles, and this year’s came 100 years after the first, in 1923.

All that is left for the Illini is the NCAA tourney.  Regional assignments will be announced at 1 p.m. on Wednesday on The Golf Channel and play begins May 15-17.

NCAA WOMEN – Big Ten champion Illinois is the No. 9 seed in the San Antonio Regional and runner-up Northwestern is the No. 3 seed in the Palm Beach Gardens Regional, in Florida, when the NCAA tourney begins next Monday (MAY 8).  NU is the highest-seeded Big Ten team in the tournament.

The Illini and Wildcats also dominated in the league’s individual honors. Crystal Wang of Illinois was the Big Ten medalist and player-of-the-year and Northwestern’s Dianna Lee was the freshman-of-the-year.  Emily Fletcher, in her 12th season as the NU coach, was named the Big Ten coach-of-the-year for the fifth time.

NU is making its 13th straight appearance in the NCAA women’s tourney and 20th overall.  Illinois is in for the fourth straight year and 10th overall.

LANCE TEN BROECK: One of the best golfers ever to come out of the Chicago area passed on this week in West Palm Beach, FL., after a sudden illness.  Ten Broeck, who grew up in Chicago and developed his game at Beverly Country Club, was 67.

He made the cut as a 19-year old at the 1975 U.S. Open at Medinah, made 162 cuts on the PGA Tour from 1975-2010 and was a successful caddie, mainly for Jesper Parnevik, after that.


HERE AND THERE:  Northbrook’s Nick Hardy was a late withdrawal from last week’s Mexico Open after teaming with Davis Riley to win the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans team event.  It was the first PGA win for both players, and both will be back in action at this week’s Wells-Fargo Championship in North Carolina.

Mike Weiler has resigned as director of golf at Eagle Ridge Resort in Galena and John Schlaman, the head professional at the resort’s South Course,  has taken over on an interim basis.

Illinois stars Crystal Wang and Tommy Kuhl will be teammates on the U.S. team in the Arnold Palmer Cup matches against Team Europe June 8-10 at Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania.

The Illinois PGA Match Play Championship, first of the section’s four major tourneys, begins its four-day run on Monday at Bull Valley in Woodstock.

U.S. Open local qualifying resumes on Monday at Illini Country Club in Springfield and on Tuesday at Stonewall Orchard in Grayslake. Aurora’s Bryce Emory was the medalist at the last local qualifier, shooting a 4-under-par 68 last week at Cantigny in Wheaton.



GOLF TRAVEL NOTEBOOK: New courses will soon be the norm

ISLAND RESORT & Casino, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, opens on May 5. Its featured course is Sweetgrass, which opened 15 years ago and was selected National Course of the Year by the National Golf Course Owners Assn. in 2022. Sweetgrasss will host the Epspon Tour from June 23-25. It’ll mark the 12th staging of what is now the longest-standing tour event in Michigan. Island Resort also includes the Sage Run, Greywalls and Timberstone courses.

It’s time to hit the road again.  Our visits to golf travel destinations will take us to Mississippi, Alabama and Pennsylvania over the next few weeks, but there’s plenty going on at other places that golf travelers should know about.

For instance:

REYNOLDS LAKE OCONEE – Famed architect Tom Fazio is returning to this beautiful resort in Greensboro, Ga.  He’s completed plans for nine holes that will join with his existing Bluffs nine on The National Course, the eventual result being a new 18-hole layout.

Fazio designed the 18-hole National course, which opened in 1997 with two nines – The Ridge and The Bluffs.  An additional nine, called The Cove, was added in 2000 to allow for more playing options.

The future 18-hole course will utilize the existing Bluff nine with adjacent land that includes a creek, natural boulders and an existing pond.  The land slopes down toward a cove of Lake Oconee with more than 100 feet of elevation change.

When completed the new course will be the only one at the resort to traverse both sides of the peninsula and touch the lake from both Richland Creek and the Oconee River.  The first five holes of the Bluff routing will be followed by nine all-new holes and the final four holes will connect back to The Bluffs.

The new course is scheduled to open in late 2024 and will be private, accessible only to Reynolds Lake Oconee members.  Reynolds Lake Oconee will then have two private courses as well as another 90 holes available for member and resort guest play.

MYRTLE BEACH – The folks at this golf mecca in South Carolina are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the World Amateur Handicap Championship.  It’s rightly billed as the “World’s Largest’’ tournament and registration has already topped 2,400 for an event that runs from Aug. 28 to Sept. 1.

Usually the tourney draws about 3,200, with players coming from all 50 states and over 25 countries, but this one could be bigger.  Players are flighted by gender, age and handicap and over 50 courses – ranging alphabetically from Abderdeen to World Tour Golf Links – will be used during that big week as golfers compete for over $100,000 in prizes.

CRAGUN’S RESORT – The season is just getting underway at this 36-hole facility in Brainerd, MN. The Lehman 18, created in a multi-million dollar renovation supervised by Minnesota native and PGA Tour Champions player Tom Lehman, will be in the spotlight.

The Dutch 27, three nine-hole layouts dubbed the Red, White and Blue,  will offer a variety of other playing options, though the Red nine is set to undergo a Lehman renovation on July 1 and won’t re-open until 2024.

WALT DISNEY WORLD – The Orlando, FL., resort has four courses operated by the Arnold Palmer Golf Management firm. World Disney World just concluded its 50th anniversary festivities and will begin work towards its centennial with the Magnolia course of immediate interest.

A Joe Lee design, it’s the longest of Disney’s four courses and had hosted a PGA Tour event for several years.  An extensive renovation has limited play to 14 holes but the course will be at full strength before the year is out.  Holes 14-17 are being reconfigured and all 18 greens are being substantially enhanced.

RODEO DUNES – Be on the lookout for this one.  Michael and Chris Keiser, owners of Wisconsin’s Sand Valley, are bringing their Dream Golf vision to the Denver area.  They’re building two courses on property that is an hour from Denver and there’s space for up to six courses there.

AND MORE FOR 2024 – North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort is getting a 10th course, and it could well be a “Perfect Ten.’’ Tom Doak is designing it.

And the Dormie Network is hoping for a “Lucky Seven.’’ The network’s seventh destination will be GrayBull, a David McLay Kidd creation in Maxwell, Neb.


NEW EVENTS – Florida is getting a couple of big pro events that are sure to lure visitors in December.

The Grant Thornton Invitational will bring players from the PGA and LPGA tours together at Tiburon, in Naples, beginning on Dec. 4.  It’ll mark a return of a mixed team event, with 16 PGA and 16 LPGA players competing for a $4 million purse. The last time such an event was held was in 1999 when John Daly and Laura Davies won the final edition of the JCPenney Classic.

Meanwhile, the Concession Club, in Bradenton, will debut the new World Champions Cup – a PGA Tour Champions creation – from Dec. 7-10.  This event will have an unusual Ryder Cup-style format, with three teams doing battle – Team USA, Team Europe and Team International.  There’ll be eight nine-hole matches each day of the competition. Points will be awarded for holes won, not just the overall matches.  Jim Furyk will captain Team US, Darren Clarke will guide Team Europe and Ernie Els directs Team International.  There’ll be a $1.35 million purse, and each player on the winning side gets $100,000.

Hensby, Illini teams joined Hardy in big Illinois golf weekend

Last weekend was like no other as far as Illinois golf is concerned, and Nick Hardy’s first PGA Tour win at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans was just one of the extraordinary developments.

Here are the others:

PGA TOUR CHAMPIONS – Mark Hensby, whose best golf came on Illinois courses years ago,  notched his first win on the 50-and-over circuit in the Invited Celebrity Classic at Las Colinas, in Texas. Hensby, 51, had only conditional status on the tour until he beat Charlie Wi on the fourth hole of a sudden death playoff on Sunday after both played the regulation 54 holes in 12-under-par 201.

Hensby was still an amateur when he left his native Australia to move to Chicago  in 1994. He won the Illinois State Amateur that year. Two years later he took the Illinois Open. In 2000 he earned membership on the PGA Tour and in 2004 he won the John Deere Classic.

After that he moved on from Illinois and his career tailed off.  In 94 PGA Tour starts between 2007 and 2022 he collected just four top-10 finishes but he fit right in when he became eligible for PGA Tour Champions.  He had two top-three finishes this year prior to his win in Texas.  He’s now third in the Charles Schwab Cup standings behind David Toms and Steve Stricker.

“Now I can set a schedule. I know what I’m going to get in now,’’ said Hensby, who earned $300,000 from the tourney’s $2 million purse.

ILLINI WOMEN – Coach Renee Slone’s team won its first Big Ten title in program history and Crystal Wang became the first Illini medalist since Slone (formerly Heiken) won the title in 1993.

Wang fired a 9-under-par 62 to match the Illini record for low round, and it was also the lowest round in tournament history.  Wang finished the 54 holes in 12-under-par 201 and was the only player to finish under par for the tournament.

The Illini finished solo second in the Big Ten in 1976, the school’s first year with a women’s golf team, and tied for second in 2018 and 2019. Wang was the fourth conference medalist from the school.  Slone was the individual champion in both 1991 and 1993.  Becky Beach (1976) and Becky Biel (1992) were also Big Ten medalists.

In winning the conference title the Illini received the league’s automatic NCAA regional birth, and they’ll find out where they will be playing when selections are announced on Wednesday.

ILLINI MEN – Coach Mike Small’s team won the first event at the recently renovated home course at Atkins Golf Club in Urbana by a whopping 26 strokes. The Fighting Illini Spring Collegiate featured nine teams with fifth-year senior Adrien Dumont de Chassart of the host team edging out Northwestern’s Daniel Svard by two strokes for medalist honors.

Dumont De Chassart notched his fourth collegiate win and had four second-place finishes since his last one at Purdue’s Boilermaker Invitational in 2022.

Small’s team, ranked No. 3 in the nation, will go after its eighth straight Big Ten title and 13th in the last 14 years beginning on Friday at Galloway National in New Jersey. The NCAA regionals follow that.

HERE AND THERE: Both Nick Hardy and Davis Riley took home $1,242,700 for winning the Zurich Classic on Sunday.  The total purse was $8.6 million….Brett Barcel has retired as director of golf at Mount Prospect. He’s been on the staff there since 1994.  Jeff Langguth, moving up from head professional, replaces Barcel as director of golf….The Bill “Soup’’ Campbell Open For Prostate Cancer has been scheduled for June 2 at Hilldale, in Hoffman Estates.  The event honors the late former relief pitcher who spent 14 seasons in the major leagues including 1982-83 with the Cubs.




Nick Hardy is now a winner on the PGA Tour

Northbrook’s Nick Hardy is now a winner on the PGA Tour. He teamed up with a long-time friend, Davis Riley, to capture the Zurich Classic of New Orleans on Sunday in Avondale, La.  It was the first win on golf’s premier circuit for both of them.

The Zurich Classic is the only team event on the PGA Tour schedule, but the champions receive exempt status on the circuit for two years.  That’s especially important for Hardy, who had been using a medical exemption to get into some tournaments.

Last year, on the fourth hole of the final round of the Zurich Classic, Hardy suffered a wrist injury that put him out of action for a month in his rookie PGA season.  He had to have a strong finish in the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour playoff series to retain his PGA Tour card for this year.

The pairing with Riley was a spur of the moment thing, but it worked out big-time.

Hardy, who starred at the University of Illinois before turning pro, had planned to partner with another Thomas Detry, another Illini alum.

“Detry got asked by the Ryder Cup captain (Luke Donald) to play with Victor Perez, so the Illini pairing was vanished after that,’’ said Hardy. “A couple or three weeks ago we (Hardy and Riley) texted each other, and we got hooked up then.’’

The two had known each other since being paired in an American Junior Golf Assn. event when Hardy was 14 years old. Hardy is 27 and Davis, who played collegiately at Alabama, is 26.

Hardy became the first Illinois player to win on the PGA Tour since Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman was the Travelers champion at Hartford, Ct., in 2014.

“Once Nick texted me and was looking for a partner I was excited,’’ said Riley. “He’s a good buddy of mine and obviously a real good player.  It was a perfect match. We have very similar games. We’re both solid ball strikers.’’

Hardy, who turned pro in 2018, was making his 51st PGA Tour start in the Zurich Classic. He had made 29 of his first 50 cuts and earned $1,688,360 before he and Riley split the $1,242,700 first-place check in the Zurich Classic.

In this wrap-around season, prior to the big win, Hardy had four top-25 finishes, his best being a tie for fifth in the Sanderson Farms tournament in October. He had missed the cut in six of his last eight starts before everything came together in the Zurich Classic.

“I’ve been hitting the ball great all year,’’ said Hardy. “Finally, to get some momentum going into this format with Davis, seeing the ball go in, it’s definitely been nice.  The only difference is a little momentum here and there.  That’s really all it takes.’’

The Zurich format calls for best ball scoring in the first and third rounds and alternate shot in the second and fourth.  The Hardy-Riley team posted a tournament record 30-under-par 258 score for the 72 holes and won by two strokes over the Canadian pairing of Nick Taylor and Adam Hadwin.

While Hardy contributed significantly throughout the four days Riley made the key shots on Sunday on back nine par-3s.  His tee shot at No. 14 stopped within inches of the cup, leaving Hardy a tap-in for birdie, and Riley holed a putt from off the green for another deuce at No. 17.

They became the 20th and 21st first-time PGA Tour winners at the Zurich Classic, which dates back to 1970. The only PGA Tour event with more first-time champions is the John Deere Classic, Illinois’ only annual PGA Tour stop. The JDC has 23 in 51 years.

Both Hardy and Riley will play in this week’s Mexican Open, where world No. 1 Jon Rahm, winner of the Masters three weeks ago, is the defending champion.