Golf Times 3 among the Casinos in Tunica

By: Steve Habel


For the longest time, there was not much to the small hamlet of Tunica, located hard by the Mississippi River in the far northwest corner of the Magnolia State. Famed for little except the area's disputed claim as the site of explorer Hernando DeSoto's discovery of a massive waterway known as the "Big Muddy," the region eventually became known for its stands of hardwoods and canebrakes and - once the stubborn land could be cleared - the growth of cotton in its fertile Delta soil.

Tunica's flat land is dotted still with a series of Indian mounds, some of the few remnants of an ancient civilization that once populated the area. Today, an extensive survey is under way in north Tunica County, at a spot that state archeologists describe as a very significant Native American site.

Agriculture remained the staple of the local economy until 1992, when Tunica County's first casino, Splash, opened to record crowds and ushered in the community's highly successful resort and tourism trade. Just a year later gaming revenues began to equal and then surpass farming as the county's biggest money-maker.

Located just 30 minutes south of the burgeoning Memphis International Airport, it didn't take long for the nation's gaming enthusiasts to find their way to Tunica. In 2000, the county became the nation's third-largest gaming destination, trailing only Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

And - as it is said - where there are casinos, great golf courses usually follow. Soon Tunica opened a trio of tracks that still demand your attention and set the mood for the excitement of the region's nine different casinos and scads of quality restaurants and buffets.

Each course offers a solid layout with risk-reward opportunities and the chance to score big; given the mentality of many of those visiting the area, is it any surprise that the three tracks have become so popular?

"If people haven't played our three golf courses, I'd encourage them to experience the championship-level tracks," said Webster Franklin, the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO. "For visitors who've played in Tunica, I invite them to come again to be amazed at the differences."

Tunica also offers visitors more than 6,000 hotel rooms, frequent performances by headline entertainers, a world-class tennis facility, award-winning museums, lavish spas, and outlet and antique shops. Farming still dominates most of the land area - in 2002, Tunica County ranked eighth statewide in cotton production and fourth in rice production. County residents were also among the early pioneers of the farm-raised catfish industry, where Mississippi is the undisputed world leader.

But we were here for the chance to play some Mississippi flatland-style golf, and were not disappointed with our experiences in Tunica. We took two trips to the area - our first try was stunted by three days of cold and driving rain and wet course conditions - and were glad we did.

Tunica National Carries the Mantle

Tunica National, named by Golf Digest Magazine in 2007 as one of the best golf courses in the country not owned by but near a casino (how about that for a lengthy label?), features an 18-hole public track, a six-hole par-3 practice course, a 20,000-square-foot clubhouse, circular driving range and a golf training academy.

At 7,204 wind-blown yards from the rearmost of its five tees, the Mark McCumber-designed course is perhaps the most challenging track in the area. Tunica National (http://www.tunicanational.com/view.asp?id=138&page=1968) plays to a par 72 and carries a rating of 73.2 and a 126 slope. Thanks to the recent planting of 110 mature trees, it is much easier for golfers to judge their approach shots to the perpetually undulating putting surfaces.

"The trees that are new to the course are having a profound effect," said Bob Wolcott, general manager of Tunica National Golf and Tennis and a former PGA tour player. "They lay out a border and frame many of the holes providing a nice backdrop to the greens. Tunica National now has the feel of a much more mature course. The new trees and other improvements we've made seemed to give us five to six years of growth in one year."

You'll love the rolling terrain and unspoiled conditions at Tunica National. Water impacts more than two-thirds of the property, and the course's four par-3s are stunning, with only the 181-yard 11th giving the golfer a hazard-free look at the putting surface. Add to the list of challenges the 480-yard, par-4 sixth and the 198-yard par-3 eighth (on which you drive your golf cart through a bunker in order to get back to the cart path) and you know you're in for a tussle if not in top form.

Numerous strategically-placed hazards and bunkers are balanced with often-generous landing areas, which are especially needed on the course's final three-hole gauntlet. Starting at No. 16, a 587-yard par-5 that seemingly always plays into a stout breeze, you wind around the far corner of the course and turn back toward the clubhouse. With a green guarded by bunkers on the front-left and right, par is a good score here.

Awaiting you are two of the toughest par-4s in the state - the 468-yard 17th, where everything runs to the left toward the lake along the entire left side, and the equally brutal 443-yard finisher, which requires a long-iron approach over that same lake as well as a large bunker that you drive through en route to the green.

After a day which has had you battling the winds on every shot and every putt, the final few holes can be a bit penal, especially if you find yourself stuck behind a slower-playing group, as was the case in both of our rounds at Tunica National. This is a popular place - with many golfers venturing south from Memphis to play, so don't count on a round of less than 4 hours. Tunica National is nothing if not a test - of your game and your patience.

Links at Cottonwood Surprises with Subtleties

Where Tunica National is all about brawn, the surprisingly intricate Links at Cottonwoods, owned by Harrah's Casino and located less than five minutes from its more renowned competitor, draws you in with its intriguing subtleties and nuances. The Links at Cottonwoods (http://www.harrahstunica.com/casinos/grand-casino-resort-tunica/casino-misc/golf-detail.html) is the most championship-caliber of the trio of courses in Tunica, featuring beautifully sculpted mounding, moguls and bunkering that give the track a mystique all its own.

The Hale Irwin signature design opened in March 1998 and plays to a par of 72. At 6,916 yards from the tips, Irwin fashioned a true links layout with minimal tree plantings. Last year, the staff selectively removed trees and planted additional native areas consistent with the original links design, while also improving the course conditions and golf experience.

"With the completion of the course renovations, we removed 90 percent of the trees and added 60 acres of native grasses providing players with a true links-golf experience," said Matt McNeil, director of golf at the Links at Cottonwood.

In addition to those changes, McNeil and course superintendent James Harris oversaw the conversion of the greens from bentgrass to Champions Bermuda. The new greens add another level of complexity to the course while providing a playing surface consistent with links golf.

The course is defended additionally by multiple bunkers and water hazards, which enter play on several holes, requiring players to think long and hard when deciding how much carry to borrow when gauging the crosswinds.

Another upgrade to Links at Cottonwoods occurs at the 15th hole, formerly a long par-4, with a splitting of the optimal landing area. "The hole has been shortened to proper lengths so that all players will be able to carry the water with their tee shot," McNeil said. In addition to new tees, several pot bunkers were added to challenge players at the shorter yardage.

Each hole is themed with different flowers, shrubs and other plantings. The Links at Cottonwood sparkles with three lakes, one a full mile long bordering several holes. Landscaped paths wind throughout the course and over scenic wooden and ledge-rock bridges. Overall, the fairways are wide, offering different angles into large putting surfaces that are broken up by bold ridges, swales and mounds. The openness of the course exposes the golfers to the strong seasonal winds.

The front-side challenges at the Links at Cottonwood (which is carries a 72.3 rating and 119 slope) include the 470-yard par-4 third hole; the huge roll in the green on the 549-yard par-5 seventh' and the 198-yard par-3 eighth, which is a handful when the winds are howling.

As with Tunica National, the best holes here are the final threesome. No. 16, the course's signature hole, is a 185-yard par-3 that plays to a multi-tier green situated on a large island. The putting surface features dramatic undulations that can be used to work the ball into the difficult pin positions.

The 17th is a mid-length (515-yard) par-5 with water down the entire right side - an aggressive tee shot gives you a chance to go for the green in two, but you need some guts to challenge the water. The green has a huge slope that feeds right to left away from the trouble, but an approach left of the putting surface makes for a difficult up and down.

The closer at the Links at Cottonwood is a lengthy par-4 that usually plays into the prevailing wind. The hole plays 445 from the back tees and requires a solid approach shot to a three-tiered green guarded by a trio of bunkers.

River Bend Links is Rollin' on the River

Despite the configuration of the Links at Cottonwood, Tunica's third course, River Bend Links (http://www.riverbendlinks.com/golf/proto/riverbendlinks/), bills itself as the only true Scottish links course in the area. Nestled in the Mississippi Delta just across the tree line from the mighty Mississippi (so close, in fact, that you can hear the whistle of the barges as they travel up and down the river), River Bend Links is the perfect escape for anyone looking to relax and enjoy golfing in a lush, serene setting. Nowhere is this more evident than on the 17th tee, which offers a stunning waterfront vista.

Built in 1998 and designed by Clyde B. Johnston, par-72 River Bend Links stretches 6,923 yards. The course sports sand and grass bunkers and strategically placed mounds as well as nine water features entering play on seven holes. Despite all that trouble, River Bend Links is extremely player-friendly, complete with smooth greens and a good 20 yards of extra roll if players find the fairway.

The lack of trees along the track provides plenty of room for river winds to make their presence known to anyone swinging an iron, but players say the design can produce nice scores on a good day. "They're used to tree-lined fairways and the ho-hum of everyday country-club golf, and they really like this layout," said Jesse Weeks, River Bend Links' general manager and director of golf.

The plantation-style clubhouse features a pro shop, light meals and cool drinks with a grand view of the picturesque course. Animals still inhabit the area, and during the round you may see deer, fox or wild turkey and plenty of excitement. The "field of dunes" created in this former cotton field may be as close to Scotland as you will get in this part of the country as native grasses and natural hazards provide the beauty and the majority of the challenge.

The 435-yard par-4 seventh (with its small peaked green), the 194-yard par-3 eighth and the 420-yard, uphill par-4 ninth are three of the best holes on the front side at River Bend Links. After the turn, try to air out a drive on the 540-yard par-5 11th (the 16th handicap hole) to reach the green in two and go for it again on the 566-yard par-5 15th (18th ranked). Get your strokes while you can as the final two offerings - the 203-yard into-the-wind par-3 17th and the 427-yard, uphill par-4 18th - will clean your clock and can mess up a good round.

River Bend Links, rated at 72.6 and 128, is a good challenge and fun to play, but in conditioning and overall appeal ranks third among Tunica's trio of tracks. It's worth the play, and - in a way - completes the Trifecta of golf in this upper-left-hand corner of Mississippi.

With easy access from Memphis, good golf, betting parlors, restaurants and loads of friendly and helpful folks, it's easy to have fun in Tunica, especially if you like a little variety in your vacations.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the media coordinator for Bechtol Golf Design, the managing editor for Business District magazine in Austin and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns.


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