Biloxi, Mississippi golf trip: Preserve Golf Club played next on Gulf Coast trip

The Preserve Golf Club
The Preserve Golf Club
Many holes at The Preserve Golf Club -- like the 16th pictured here -- will stop you in your tracks with its beauty.
By T.J. Auclair, Senior Interactive Producer
PGA.com
Connect with T.J.

Series: Travel Feature

BILOXI, Miss. -- The second full day of our Gulf Coast golf trip called for an early tee time at the Jerry Pate-designed Preserve Golf Club in Vancleave, Miss.

It’s important to stress that the hospitality on this trip was off the charts.

The Preserve Golf Club

Course: The Preserve Golf Club
Location: Vancleave, Miss.
Yardage: 6,774 from the back tees
How to Play it: Open to the public. The peak-season price of $140 for 18 holes might seem steep at face value, but it includes the following: Carts are Equipped with "Visage" -- the Latest in GPS Technology, Unlimited Range Balls, Bottled Water, Tax.
Have you played?: Click here to leave a review on PGA.com
T.J.'s Take: Sensational from start to finish. I got there about an hour and a half before my tee time and enjoyed plenty of warm-up time on the plush practice range. The hospitality was second to none and the course was fantastic. Not a blade of grass out of place. That said, this was a stern test of golf.
Click here to visit The Preserve Golf Club website

That said, the hospitality by the staff at The Preserve took off-the-charts-hospitality to an entirely new level.

Yes, as you’d expect, the staff greeted you as you pulled up and loaded your clubs onto a cart before you could finish saying, “Good morning.”

Yes, the driving range included those pyramid-stacked range balls that I just love so much.

As I stepped to the first tee with playing partners Brian, Gary and Dave, the starter zoomed up closely behind to greet us.

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PGA.com’s T.J. Auclair took a destination golf trip to the Biloxi area on Mississippi’s beautiful Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina devastated the area eight years ago. As Auclair saw firsthand, while there are still eerie reminders of the destruction left by Mother Nature, Biloxi and its surrounding cities and towns have bounced back in a big way. In this five-part travel series, Auclair opens up his personal journal from his 3 ½-day trip that included magnificent hotel accommodations, spectacular food and incredible golf. This is the fourth installment.

PART I: Biloxi, Mississippi golf trip introduction
PART II: Playing The Grand Bear Golf Course
PART III: Playing The Shell Landing Golf Club
PART V: What it’s like to play Fallen Oak Golf Club with Rocco Mediate

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He handed each of us two, ice-cold bottles of water. He indicated where we could find more complimentary bottled water on the course, where to find restrooms, showed us how we could order food from the touchscreen in our cart, etc.

The gentleman also showed us how -- from that golf-cart touchscreen that also provided remarkable GPS -- we could contact the pro shop if there was anything at all that we needed.

We hadn’t even hit our first tee shots and it was hard to believe the day could get much better.

But, not surprisingly, it did.

Have you ever stepped to the first tee on a course you’ve never played before, took one look down the fairway and immediately thought, “This place is going to special?”

The golf course at The Preserve was every bit as good as the hospitality… which is to say it’s one of the most enjoyable courses you’ll ever play.

In fact, as I finished my round – details of which we’ll get to in a moment – I bumped into a familiar face in the pro shop. Fellow Rhode Islander, Brad Faxon, a member of the Champions Tour, was in town for that week’s Gulf Coast Resort Classic. On what could have been a regular day off, Faxon was instead at The Preserve to play a round of golf with his caddie.

When he saw me, Faxon said, “T.J.? What the heck are you doing here?”

I explained and then his caddie raised an interesting question, “What are the chances that two guys from Rhode Island – on completely separate trips – would wind up in the same pro shop at the same time in Mississippi?”

Yeah, no kidding.

Surely Faxon played The Preserve far better than I did, but my round wasn’t without at least one noteworthy highlight.

My best shot of the day came on the 421-yard par-4 ninth. I hit a solid drive down the left side of the fairway, but because of a hanging branch on a large tree, my lie to the green was blocked out.

At that point, Stephen Miles, CGCS Director of Operations (the course superintendent), had rolled up in his cart to welcome us to the course and ask how we were enjoying our round.

Seeing the predicament I was in, Miles suggested taking an 8-iron up the right side of the fairway.

Clearly this kind man didn’t know about my propensity to hit a violent hook, which is just what this particular shot called for!

Armed with a 5-iron from 175 yards out, I delivered my second-best shot of the week (you’ll read about my best in the final installment). A towering draw wrapped around that hanging tree branch, and fell like a feather on the green, setting up a 20-footer for birdie. It resulted in a two-putt par, but everyone – myself included – seemed to be impressed by the shot.

The entire front nine was spectacular from the 368-yard, par-4 third hole with a glistening pond protecting the front of the green, to the long and narrow, 537-yard, par-5 eighth hole.

It was easy to think you might be in store for a let down on the back nine after that amazing front nine, but somehow, the inward nine was even better.

No. 10 was an awesome, 400-yard par 4 with trouble everywhere -- a marsh area in front of the tee box, bunkers scattered on each side of the fairway and a tiny green. The 340-yard 12th hole resembled an hourglass, as the landing area for tee shots was skinny.

The 308-yard 17th hole was gorgeous, with a pond hugging tightly to the left side. And, as far as closing holes go, you’d be hard pressed to find one as good as the final hole at The Preserve.

At 415 yards on the card, it might not seem too long, but the hole was a beast. There was just no let up. The hole required an almost perfect tee shot to have any chance at going for the green in two shots, but even from the fairway, you had to think twice about your approach because of the massive pond on the left that digs into the fairway.

Overall, The Preserve was an absolute delight. The biggest surprise of the trip, however, was soon to come.

While our group was playing The Preserve, our luggage was moved from the IP Casino Resort Spa over to the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino just a few miles away for the final two days of our stay.

The Beau Rivage is a stunning waterfront casino hotel, which happens to be the tallest building in Mississippi, featuring 28 floors that stand 345-feet high. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2006 following the wrath of Katrina. “Beau Rivage” is French for, “beautiful shore.”

The Beau -- as locals call it -- is rich. With high-end stores in the lobby, an enormous buffet area, over 1,700 guest rooms and 72,000 square feet of gaming to go along with great restaurants, it was clear that The Beau was the place to be in Biloxi.

The cherry on top of this amazing trip was that on the final day, our group would be playing the Tom Fazio masterpiece, Fallen Oak, over in nearby Saucier, to take part in the Pro-Am for that week’s Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic on the Champions Tour (which explains why Faxon was in town).

At the end of day two, we freshened up at the Beau Rivage before heading next door to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino for the Pro-Am Pairing Party.

A pairing party is just that -- it’s revealed which professional you’ll be joined by in the pro-am.

If I’m being honest, I figured that since we were part of this group visiting and not putting up the big bucks to participate in the pro-am like others, we’d probably end up with a journeyman professional, a name you might not recognize.

And I was 100 percent satisfied with that. The next day was going to be an all-time golf highlight no matter what.

What happened at the party, however, blew my mind.

As we were enjoying free drinks and an incredible buffet spread complete with carving stations, sushi stations, dessert stations and more, the pairing announcements started up on three huge projection screens.

After a while, we finally saw the following:

Wednesday, 1:10 p.m., first tee: T.J. Auclair, Dale Leatherman, Janet Leach, Steve Donahue

Professional: Rocco Mediate

To steal the title of his book with John Feinstein centered around Mediate’s unbelievable, 91-hole battle with Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines in the 2008 U.S. Open: ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.

T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.