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Fallen Oak Diaries (Part 1)
Chapter 1 - That's Gonna Leave a Mark
I was hanging out with a female friend of mine called Agatha (I know, I know, terrible name), and the next thing I knew, I was "wearing" her - her arms around me, head on my shoulder, ample breasts heaving against my chest, her heart thumping like a jackhammer, hands caressing me in places I dare not write, eyelashes batting dreamily like some smitten teenager.
…And she's not even my girlfriend! (No way, no how, no chance!)
How did this happen, you ask? Easy. I just mentioned off-hand that I was going to the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, Miss., to play golf at Fallen Oak Golf Course for three days, and she leapt into my arms.
"Take me! Take me!" she trilled plaintively. "That place is awesome!"
Such is the reputation the Beau Rivage has engendered in its short 14-year history.
"It's the Southern Bellagio, class all the way," Agatha chirped dreamily, and she's right, for once. An MGM Resorts International property, the Beau Rivage (French for "Beautiful Shore," and "the Beau" to its friends), the resort survived Hurricane Katrina (one of the worst natural disasters in American history), and now thrives, the best facility in the Southeast that battles toe-to-toe, punch and counterpunch with Atlantic City, Vegas and myriad low-budget Native American casinos, providing far more than a viable alternative to the former while decimating the latter.
Bunker Shot at Fallen Oak
It joins a short, but impressive list of other top U.S. casino resorts such as the Bellagio, Mirage, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and New York New York, but shines more brightly because of its Southern hospitality and better golf. It hasn't just carved itself a niche in the industry; it's the go-to destination. From the east edge of Texas to the coast of Florida, from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, everything else is a distant second.
Moreover, discerning vacationers and golfers all know you don't go to Vegas for golf unless you're playing Shadow Creek or Cascata (Ha - good luck with that), and while Atlantic City Country Club is the hands-down, gold-star, all-belts-unified king of casino golf courses, A.C. is the second-tackiest city on the eastern seaboard. (The tackiest is - DUH! - Orlando.)
As for low-rent, dubious provenance Native American casinos - Please! There is decent public golf in Michigan's Traverse City, but the hotels and casinos are bargain-basement, and the weather can be hit or miss at, the best of times, downright frigid in shoulder seasons. Meanwhile, Blarney Stone . . . er . . . Turning Stone Casino near Utica, N.Y., is not only the reddest of golf's red light districts, but after spending four years hosting a second-rate event for the PGA Tour, they were kicked to the curb with a resounding thud after 1) trying to give Oneida Indian Nation leader Ray Halbritter - a Z-list celebrity even for Utica - a sponsor's exemption into the tournament; 2) bragging that they were as good as Augusta National, Kiawah Island and Whistling Straits; and 3) demanding, indeed ordering, the PGA Tour to give them a premium date so the good players might actually come to their non-event. Meanwhile they boasted to everyone dumb enough to listen that "We're angling to host a major and on that day Tiger Woods will sink a putt on 18 to win and we hope you're there to see it!"
I'm checking back with you now. How did that work out?
Enter Biloxi, (pronounced Bill-LUCK-see), the Beau Rivage, the vision of classy super-mogul Steve Wynn, and golf designer Tom Fazio. Put it all together and what do you get? Phenomenal food (truly extraordinary!), great weather year-round, miles of pristine beachfront, competitive gaming, top-notch night life, a popular Champions Tour event, and 510 acres of golf in the pristine and verdantly diverse and vibrant DeSoto National Forest. Add in a spa, pools, salons and gracious Southern hospitality, and suddenly you're wondering why you bothered to go to Florida all those years.
And that brings me back to Agatha. Remember her? She's the crazy girl with her tentacles wrapped around me in the fiercest embrace I have ever felt? She's from Florida originally, and when she lived there her Mississippi State golf-team ex-boyfriend took her to the Beau Rivage. They had so much of a blast, she wouldn't shut up about it even after I pried her off me. She went so far as to call her ex to have him gush to me so he could get quoted in my article. "Brooksy," his name was, and he played the Beau Rivage's exclusive golf course, Fallen Oak by Fazio, and raved about it.
"It's tough," drawled Brooksy, "but it's beautiful, fun, and really makes you concentrate on every shot to score well. Y'all are on high alert all the way around or your scorecard's gonna look scarier than a gator with a toothache."
How about that? I thought I was interviewing him but got Boo Weekley instead.
Anyway, Agatha has me pet-sit her cat and dog when she goes on vacations. (This time she was returning from Ukraine.) She was perfectly happy that I was so kind as to take care of her yellow tabby called "Squeakers" and her hyperactive Chihuahua (more like a skeleton with hair) named "Frubbles." Everything was fine until I told her that no, I'm not taking her to Beau Rivage with me, and to stop asking because my new girlfriend Betsy had moved in with me.
That's when she shouted, "You narcissistic bastard! Roast in Hell!" and walloped me over the head with a cast iron frying pan . . . hard.
Chapter 2 - How to Talk to Women
"I don't ever want you talking to her again!" Betsy said angrily as she performed triage on my head with Band-aids and Bactine. We were in the bathroom of my . . . oops! . . . I mean our apartment, and my reflection in the mirror showed a nasty egg-sized lump right on the top of my head. It had even bled considerably. "She's an idiot!"
"I agree. She's an Ulrica."
"An Ulrica, it's a nice way of saying she's a [expletive deleted.] It's a literature reference. Google it, you'll get an interesting read."
"And what kind of parents name their kid 'Agatha?' "
"The same kind that name their kid 'Mildred.' "
"What does that do to a person?"
"It makes them name their pets Frubbles and Squeakers."
"I'm not arguing."
"Why did she do it? Did she try to con you into bed or something?"
"No, I just told her I was going to Beau Rivage and Fallen Oak and under no circumstances was she coming, so stop asking, and, by the way, I have a new girlfriend, and she hit me!"
Betsy lowered the Bactine and narrowed her eyes, glowering sullenly.
"That's where you're going tomorrow? You're going to the Beau Rivage? And you're not taking me?"
The Author's Locker Next to Some Pretty Heady
Company at The Beau (from the left is Tom Fazio, in the
Middle Alice Cooper & on the Right is Jay Flemma)
My stomach plummeted into my feet. My mind raced for the proper reply.
"I think she hit me because I told her about you."
"I didn't ask that. And you better pray I don't hit you for not taking me," Betsy replied, looking both hurt and disappointed.
"Honey, it's a working gig," I said, trying my best to also look disappointed that I couldn't bring her, which I was a little. "I'm going to review the course and the hotel and everything. I have meetings with staff. I'm playing with the head pro and his assistants. I'll have to run around and see everything in a mere two days. And I'll have to write!"
"And you'll be in the Jacuzzi. And you'll be playing golf. And you'll be drinking Bloody Marys . . ."
"Bloody Marias," I corrected. I drink mine with tequila not vodka . . . usually.
"Don't interrupt. And you'll be eating fine dining. And you'll be checking out the poker room. And you'll have a killer room with an ocean view. And I won't be there." she countered.
"And I'll be lonely without you, no matter how great it is."
She softened at that. If there are two great things about Betsy, it's that she doesn't hold grudges and lets me be me and likes me for it. Then she smiled, put one hand on her hips and wagged a finger of the other hand at me magisterially.
"I'll give you that response, Jay Flemma. I have no comeback for that. But if you ever go to the Beau Rivage without me again, I swear to God I'll give you a lump on your head so big, the one you have now will feel like a Swedish massage from a Playboy playmate!"
I thought quickly. Come on Jay, diffuse the situation. You know what to say to this. Think!
I cupped her face in my hands, looked in her beautiful eyes, and sidled up to her exquisite body.
"You're my Playboy playmate," I said.
And a second later, I was wearing her.
Chapter 3 - Mississippi Nights
My driver Rudy and the Beau Rivage limo were a welcome sight indeed. My 9 p.m. bedtime to make my 7 a.m. flight got scuttled by a now appeased Betsy who held me close long into the night. I got up 10 minutes before the alarm was set to go off, padded quietly to the shower, dressed and kissed her gently as she lay in bed before leaving.
"Go get 'em, handsome," she murmured sleepily.
But it proved impossible to sleep on the plane. I had the aisle seat and the middle seat was taken up by a guy the size of a tank. He was half-way in my seat he was so big. He also smelled bad, and was flatulent the whole way, horrifying the poor old, blue-haired septuagenarian in the window seat. Then he decided to strike up a conversation.
"I'm in the fight game. You ever meet anyone like me?" he boasted. "I'm a semi-pro boxer."
"Well nice to meet you there, Gaseous Clay," I replied, all the while feigning a look of rapt attention as though he must have misheard me, and I couldn't possibly have said what he thought he heard. You could almost see the halo materialize over my head as proof of my innocence and good nature. Meanwhile, the old lady turned to the window and faked a cough to cover up laughter. He treated me like a leper after that, but the local air quality also improved, so call it a necessary evil.
But Rudy's arrival signaled the end of any consternation or cares. For the next three full days, it was impeccable service, kindly attention to every detail, Southern charm, fun-fun-fun and, best of all, wonderful people.
The 25-minute drive to the Beau was over in a heartbeat, and as we approached I could see the first reason why they call it the Southern Bellagio - it looks like a smaller version of that sterling institution. Far from the neon of Vegas and A.C. and the weird spindles and towers of Turning Stone, the Beau is stately and refined, elegant and reserved. Happy guests nearly bounced around delightedly.
"We love it here!" beamed Sarah Bennett, a sprightly mid-50s Floridian vacationing with her husband and two other couples. "We come twice a year - once in the winter and once in the summer. It has everything. Games, music, and - mercy me! - the food! There isn't any place like it for almost a thousand miles."
"We're having an awesome time!" agreed Lori DeSpirito, a bubbly, buxom 20-something whose arms never left her Cheshire Cat-grinning boyfriend. "We have beaches, concerts, games, golf and sushi. I'd rather come here for a week than get jewelry."
"Good!" added her boyfriend with a relieved look on his face.
Indeed, the clientele is as diverse as the diversions. Four 10-gallon-hatted cowboys stayed here while winning the bull-riding and bull-fighting competitions in a nearby U.S. Pro Rodeo event. Golfers from across the country lined up for tee times at Fallen Oak, one of the toughest tickets in golf, while salt-and-pepper-haired housewives raked huge poker pots off careless college kids overplaying their pocket Big Slicks (that's ace-king for those of you scoring at home). Meanwhile, preppy couples celebrating their anniversaries shared hibachi tables with older families oohing and ahhing as sushi chefs flip shrimp into their hats and play with fire while serving up savory teppanyaki. It's a glittering scene, where Americana in all its diversity unites for a great time.
I made friends with the cowboys, who actually proved to be among the best U.S. Professional Rodeo touring pros, and we hit the Jacuzzi, which was so big you could swim laps in it. The pool area behind the resort features a large Olympic-sized pool with several other large nooks and crannies for sun bathers and swimmers to gather. It's tastefully arrayed in sea-blue and white, almost reminiscent of a beach of Mykonos, Greece, with that simple, natural color scheme. While it tried to hit 70 degrees once during the trip, it was a little to cold to swim too many laps, but who needed to with the dinosaur-sized, 100-plus-degree Jacuzzi?
In one distant corner, a young couple awash in an almost toxic cocktail of hormones writhed in each others arms. The cowboys luxuriated in another corner, celebrating their first-place finish in the day's bull-fighting and bull-riding events impressive). Towards one side, a pair of middle-age blonde women in bikinis reveled at their luck at slots. And "Stanley from Schaumberg, Illinois" decompressed after a successful session of blackjack. We talked Chicago Bears and Bulls for a while (the Bears missed the playoffs, but the Bulls poleaxed the Knicks at MSG the night before). Suddenly he perked up a bit.
"What time is it?" he wondered.
"It's six o'clock," I responded.
"It's only six in the morning?!" he asked in some surprise.
"No six in the evening. Why? Were you playing for 12 hours?"
"No, I was playing for 27."
At this the blonde women perked up, mentioning their long stretch at the tables.
"We wouldn't go anywhere else. There's no need to. Nothing even comes close," says one, whose name I didn't catch, but she's right. The difference between a place like Blarney Stone on the one hand and the Beau on the other is, as Mark Twain would say, the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. You can get played for a chump by snake-oil, leech-sucking, voodoo-magic lesser casinos, or you can go to the real deal at the Beau. It's your money. It's your leisure time.
Chapter 4 - Food, Glorious Food
Six o'clock was not only Stanley's bed time, but my dinner bell. I was slated to try Stalla, the resort's Italian restaurant, and in my mind, I could already taste the dish of Arrabiata I was wishing for. Wanna make an Italian happy? Especially a 100-percent Italian like me? Serve us pasta! Serve us an antipasto with plenty of aged cheeses and savory sopressatas. Serve us a dish of pasta big enough to choke a horse. Serve us tortellini and seafood and crusty bread and marinara till we turn tomato-red ourselves.
Slicing Up Stalla's Outstanding Salami
Now as an Italian from New York City, I have a wealth of options. Heck, on Sixth Avenue and Houston Street there are three Italian restaurants right next to each other. Well, every restaurant in NYC - including Little Italy - could learn a thing or two about running an Italian restaurant from the Beau, Stalla and chef Joey Caratozzolo.
For those of you who don't speak Italian, "Caratozzolo" translated into English means "Best Italian meal you ever had." The portions were enormous (it snowed food and it rained drink!), the dishes were authentic, the ingredients were of the freshest and highest quality, and the service was impeccable. They tried to fatten me up like a Hobbit, and I loved every second of it. Food, glorious food, indeed.
The opening course was one of my favorites and a staple of any truly great Italian restaurant - Tortellini in Brodo. The ricotta-filled pasta was complimented by a surprise: a rich savory broth more reminiscent of a beef or onion flavor than the more commonly found chicken stock.
Next came the quintessential Italian leafless antipasto: home-cured sopressatas and savory salamis, richly flavored parmigiano, tender artichokes, marinated mushrooms and olives bursting with flavor so fresh, the grove must be on property.
Finally, my pasta arrived - linguini with marinara and lobster, and we're talking the whole lobster. Huge chunks of tail and claw were interspersed throughout the dish, which was gargantuan. For the first time in my life, I couldn't finish a dish of pasta. It wasn't a meal, it was a seduction. On the day I buy my G-5 airplane, stop one is Oakmont and stop two is the Beau for lobster pasta and antipasto at Stalla. I was so stuffed, yet so satisfied that all but totally somnambulant from the richness of the meal, I went directly to bed. After all, I had a 5:15 a.m. wake-up call for golf.
Next Up: More "Food, Glorious Food" and "Golf, Golf, Golf"
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.
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