Two courses, the Azaleas and the Oaks, offer some of the best golf in the South, or anywhere
CHOCTAW, Miss. (Aug. 3, 2018) – Before I ventured to this area of the Magnolia State, the only thing I knew about east-central Mississippi and the expanse surrounding the town of Philadelphia was from books and newspapers containing stories about the recruitment of former Oklahoma running back Marcus Dupree in the 1980s.
But with the advent of casino gaming in 1994 and opening of the Pearl River Resort by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians at the turn of the 21st Century, a new perspective has taken place in the region. The Pearl River Resort in Choctaw consists of the Golden Moon Hotel & Casino, the Silver Star Hotel & Casino, the Bok Homa Casino, a slew of restaurants, the renowned Geyser Falls Water Theme Park, Clearwater Key and The Beach Club and, for our purposes, Dancing Rabbit Golf Club.
Where there is top-quality gaming, great golf courses usually follow, and that’s certainly the case at Dancing Rabbit. Here, nestled among the towering pines and oaks an hour and a half’s drive northeast of the capital of Jackson, are a pair of the South’s most acclaimed tracks and a facility that is as wonderful as it is surprising.
When one thinks about golf in Mississippi the focus is most often on the state’s Gulf Coast region and the casinos and links offerings around Biloxi. But there is plenty of other great golf in Mississippi, and – from this view – a period spent at Dancing Rabbit and the Pearl River Resort rivals golf trips anywhere in the South.
Claiming a home in this lush environment are the award-winning, par-72 courses, the Azaleas and the Oaks, each designed by Tom Fazio in collaboration with former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate. Named after the Dancing Rabbit Treaty between the Choctaws and the U.S. government, these two courses combined encompass more than 700 acres sectioned by five miles of spring-fed streams, an exquisite setting that accentuates the beauty of the course while adding to the difficulty of play and a feeling of serenity and isolation.
Nestled quietly among ancient pines and hardwoods, the two tracks embrace the gently rolling hills and valleys indigenous to this part of the world while still retaining the character and grandeur of the great Southern woodlands from which they were carved. Each golf course offers five different sets of tees to accommodate every level of play.
And the overall stay at Dancing Rabbit is every bit as good as its duo of courses.
Those in the know have latched on to what they’ve found at Dancing Rabbit. The Azaleas course has received numerous awards, including spots on Golf Magazine’s Top 100 You Can Play list, Golf & Travel’s Top 100 Modern Courses, as well as Golf Digest’s Top 10 New Upscale Public Golf Courses. The Oaks – while not a ballyhooed as its brother tract – has been regularly ranked among the Best Casino courses in the nation by Golfweek.
A blooming good time
Opened in July 1997, the Azaleas at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club has received the lion’s share of recognition, and it deserves every accolade. Boasting manicured Mississippi Choice Bermuda tees, Tifway II Bermuda fairways and A4 Bentgrass greens, the Azaleas is a living work of art, and a track some call “the next best thing to Augusta.”
The Azaleas plays to 7,128 yards from the tips, but is deceivingly long and features a number of elevated tees off where shots sink into sprawling fairways lined with pine trees and dotted by strategically placed bunkers. The course fits the landscape and it didn’t require much earth to be removed, pushed around or added during construction.
Long hitters can air it out here, but the course’s real teeth arrive via its green complexes, which are often well-guarded by white-sand bunkers and protected by fairly dramatic slopes just off the putting surfaces. The Bentgrass greens are big, but not overly so.
You could virtually put every hole on the Azaleas Course into a picture book, but there are a number of offerings that burn into your mind.
I loved the reachable (at 548 yards), but deadly par-5 second hole, an arrow-straight challenge that brings accuracy into play early in the round. The 453-yard, par-4 third begins with an elevated tee shot that drops down into a dual landing area leaving players with plenty of options.
The fifth is another par-5 (this one not so reachable) that doglegs to the right and uphill. Left of the green is a huge dropoff, an area protected by four devilish bunkers.
The eighth hole is rated as one of the toughest on the course and, at 465 yards but downhill off the tee, this par-4 just might be the most difficult of Azalea’s 18 offerings. The massive fairway is guarded by the largest bunker on the course down the left-hand side, and trees overhanging the fairway block your approach shot if you wander off the fairway.
The ninth at The Azaleas is its signature hole and, in terms of scenery, it’s a stunner. There is a hidden water hazard down the right-hand side that should wind up being a backdrop to your second shot to a green surrounded by trees, native plants and the course’s trademark azaleas. For pure ambiance and beauty, this hole leads the way, and – at 439 yards from the back tees and with water coming into play on both the tee shot and approach – your mind had better be on your game.
I also enjoyed the 529-yard, par-5 10th, which plays downhill before rising up to a tiered green with the possibility for torturous hole placements. Avoid the right side off the tee and hit one more club on the approach to take advantage of this birdie opportunity.
The par-3s on the Azaleas Course are a stellar collection, and No. 13 may be the best of the bunch. The hole stretches to 206 yards as a player hits into a two-tiered, undulating green.
The 14th at Azaleas is a short (378 yards) par-4 with bunkers left and right of the narrow fairway, while No. 17 is a risk-reward, 527-yard par-5 with a creek meandering down the right side to catch wayward tee shots. It then slices into the middle of the fairway to create a forced carry for some second shots.
The finishing hole is a monster par-4 at 475 yards and requires a great uphill drive and an accurate second shot that dips down to a tough green protected left by trees and right by water. Blooming azaleas provide a backdrop to the hole and a buffer the course and an expansive clubhouse.
Once you’re done with this round, you will want to tee it up again immediately, which is always the sign of great track and one that gives – and takes away – opportunities to score.
Don’t overlook the Oaks
Opened in June 1999, the Oaks Course equals Azaleas in both charm and challenge while differentiating itself from its sister layout by way of lovingly maintained Tifway II Bermuda tees and supple Meyer Zoysia fairways. It’s a classic combination that provides an exceptional golfing experience.
Playing to a par of 72 and at 7,076 yards from the tips, this beauty – cradled in the same rustic landscape – offers golfers a completely different look, mainly because all the water that enters play. On Oaks, streams and ponds are larger and provide a greater degree of difficulty.
The Oaks carries a higher USGA rating and slope than Azaleas, but many players find the course a bit easier and more forgiving than its older compatriot.
Like Azaleas, Oaks is a great collection of challenges and – thanks to Fazio and Pate’s expertise – there is scarcely a chance to take a break on the track.
If anything, the opener, a 367-yard par-4 with a 47-yard-deep green, might be its easiest offering. Whatever quarter you received on No. 1 is taken back on the second hole, a 468-yard tester that doglegs slightly to the right to a green that slopes left to right. No. 4 is a par-5 that measures in at just 536 yards, but the approach is threatened by a dropoff left and a shallow (20-yard deep) putting surface that seems to repel shots. Better to hit a lay-up and play for birdie or par than try to be a hero here.
The par-4 seventh – a dogleg left, 446-yard test – could easily be Oaks’ signature hole. There is large pond that stretches from tee to mid-fairway, so make sure your line is the fairway bunker on the right; even then the landing area is narrow and rolling. The approach plays to a deep green and requires precision as the target is protected short and left by two bunkers.
No. 8 is a risk-reward par-4 that plays just 327 yards. But watch out for the water back and left of the green and a huge bunker front-right. The out side ends with the 577-yard par-5 ninth, a true three-shotter with an elevated green and a Sunday afternoon hole placement over the bunkers that acts as a sentinel to the putting surface’s left and front.
No. 10 is another chance to be aggressive off the tee, and – at just 322 yards – your main focus is to avoid fairway bunkers both left and right of the green. On the 444-yard, par-4 12th hole, Oaks’ No. 1 handicap hole, the challenge is to stay left off the tee to avoid a troublesome valley where hanging trees block your approach shot to a compact putting surface that’s tucked away on the right. Right or long will result in a bogey or worse.
The 16th at Oaks has a bunker and a rock wall down the right side and a difficult green with a hump in the middle that filters approach shots back to the fairway (which is okay), or forward to a pot bunker and a creek (that’s not good).
The 455-yard par-4 closer has bunkers both sides of the landing area, and an intimidating approach to a green with water short and left and bunkers left and right. To finish the round you are faced with a very tricky green to navigate.
Let’s give kudos to Fazio and Pate for their collection of par-3s at Oaks as well. The fifth (at 190 yards) has a huge sphere of the Golden Moon Hotel & Casino looking down on you like an eye in the sky. The 11th (220 yards) is the longest of the four and an absolutely stunning hole, with a pond in front and a creek running up the left side of the green, while the 17th (177 yards) plays over a little creek to a 20-yard deep target.
I believe that if one could put this wonderful and challenging course anywhere else as a standalone track – instead of a complement to Azaleas, Oaks would get a lot more notoriety and rate even higher. Take the challenge; play both the courses and form your own opinions
Enjoy the full Dancing Rabbit experience
If you really want a treat, indulge in the full Dancing Rabbit experience through various golf packages that allow stays at one of the guest rooms in the facility’s majestic clubhouse. Here, guests are treated to some of the finest amenities in the golf world, including eight unique and lavish guest rooms with king-size beds and whirlpool baths – each overlooking the golf facility and offering access to the clubhouse’s second-floor veranda – and a casual dining restaurant serving traditional fare for breakfast and lunches seven days a week, a full-service bar and a spectacular view of Azaleas’ 18th green.
Guests also receive their own labeled locker in the men’s and women’s locker rooms and the private use of a lighted golf cart for resort transportation to and from the hotels, restaurants and casinos.
Even though a stint at the tables or slot machines may be part of your trip to Pearl River Resort, the golf at Dancing Rabbit is the REAL sure thing.