BILOXI, Miss. -- I couldn’t sleep the night before our final day because I couldn’t believe I was going to cap off this wonderful trip with 18 holes of golf alongside Rocco Mediate.
It's a fair bet that most of you know exactly who Rocco is, but for those who don’t follow the Tour as closely, he’s the guy who wowed the golf world by taking Tiger Woods to 91 holes in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Woods won the tournament -- the 14th and last of his majors so far -- but Rocco gained an even bigger legion of fans. He's also regarded as one of the most charismatic people in the professional game.
On top of that, this round was going to be at Fallen Oak Golf Club , a Tom Fazio masterpiece I'd heard so much about, which Golf Digest dubbed, “One of the best new courses in America.”
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 final installment.
Our host from the Mississippi Development Authority, was particularly excited about the round with Mediate (well, we all were).
We were all also a little nervous.
I kept thinking back to some advice from a stranger earlier in the day. He said, “Just remember, no matter how bad you play, Rocco has played with someone worse.”
For some reason, reciting those words in my head made things easier.
As we approached the first tee, Rocco and his caddie Martin came over to say hello.
Mediate, as serious as can be, warned us.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but I don’t talk in pro-ams. Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. I’m not hear to help you with your game, I’m here to learn the course.”
Martin followed up, “He’s serious. Leave my man alone.”
We all knew they were kidding.
Someone in our group said, “I heard you were so much fun to play with.”
Rocco responded, “Maybe that’s what you heard. I used to be like that. Talked all the time in pro-ams my entire career until this week. This week, I’m trying something different. Leave me alone.”
After we all busted out in laughter, it was time to embark on a round of golf I will never forget.
The format of the pro-am was a “shamble.” Everyone hits a tee shot. The group picks the best tee shot and everyone plays the ball out from there. With handicaps, the lowest score from the hole is taken for the team score. Rocco had to play his own ball and we couldn’t use his drives, but we could use his scores.
From the center of the first fairway, Rocco asked if we liked to listen to music while we played.
Rocco reached into his golf cart, pulled out his iPhone and got the tunes going for most of the round.
Rocco told us at least one joke per hole -- many of which don’t fit into the PG rating required for this space. He was everything you could hope for in a pro-am.
Just before our round, Steve -- who was riding in a cart with me -- said, “I’m interested to see if Rocco is the great guy in person that he seems to be on TV.”
Turns out Rocco was even better.
And the golf course? Unbelievable.
The first hole is a gigantic par 5, playing at 596 yards from the back tee. It's a dogleg left. Streams and a lake border the fairway and green.
No. 3 is a gorgeous 224-yard par 3 with a long carry over water and marshland.
Centuries-old oak trees dot the sixth fairway, along with loads of deep bunkers, providing breathtaking, yet intimidating sight lines on the 548-yard par 5.
In the fourth installment of this Gulf Coast travel series , I mentioned that my 5-iron draw approach shot on the ninth hole at The Preserve was the second-best shot of my entire trip.
My best shot, no question, came on the ninth hole at Fallen Oak.
After hitting a solid drive that my group used, I hit a 3-iron from about 200 yards away for my approach on the 459-yard par 4. In the air, the ball hit a wall of wind and lazily fell into a daunting, deep bunker short right of the green.
That approach prompted Rocco’s caddie Martin to tell me, “You know, T.J., that shot was just lousy enough to be good.”
Our group was really struggling on the ninth hole. From the bottom of this deep bunker, 35 yards from the hole, I couldn’t see anything. So, I dug in and -- with all my might -- tried just to get the ball out of the bunker in one shot and not make a fool of myself in front of Rocco and the others.
I proceeded to take arguably the best bunker-shot swing of my life. The ball soared over the lip with plenty of room to spare, took two bounces on the green and disappeared into the cup.
Thanks to my efforts (yes, I’m patting myself on the back), our group went from big trouble on No. 9 to pure birdie, net eagle.
I never saw the ball land on the green, let alone drop into the hole. My partners and Martin were ecstatic and offered congratulations.
Rocco on the other hand, just short of the green in two, tossed his wedge at Martin and started climbing the hill up to the clubhouse, yelling back, “What the hell do they need me for?”
I was in all my glory.
The team was riding momentum after Dale nearly aced the 154-yard eighth hole just a couple of minutes prior.
Our group was in a zone. The birdies -- and eagles -- were dropping. Rocco kept us laughing. The course was fantastic and the weather was even better. This couldn’t have been a better golf day.
Fallen Oak’s back nine showed a little more teeth than the front, but was still an absolute pleasure.
Of particular note was the nearly 600-yard, par-5 15th hole, featuring unbelievable bunkering.
Rocco, half-joking, said, “And they think the old guys have it easy on the Champions Tour! These aren’t short courses! This place is 7,500 yards!”
The 418-yard, par-4 16th might have been one of the most stunning on the golf course. From an elevated tee, we hit our drives over a small ravine and then our approaches went up to a small, elevated green with a narrowed out fairway just in front.
The 493-yard, par-4 18th hole, features the course’s namesake -- a “fallen oak” -- just to the right of the fairway. With a pond and a series of bunkers to the left, it’s wise to stay right on this hole.
Mediate was an absolute delight. As we finished out with a remarkable 20-under-par 52 at the last hole, Mediate joked that if we lost the pro-am, someone else was cheating.
Turns out the winning score was 43. And yes, that group played the back nine too.
Prior to this trip, a golf trip to the Gulf Coast never even crossed my mind.
After 3 ½ days of great food, 63 holes of incredible golf, two magnificent hotel stays and – most off all – the unmatched hospitality by the fine people of Biloxi, it’s not a matter of whether or not I’ll go back.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair .