There’s not a golfer alive - a sane one at least - who doesn’t believe Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon is the best place in America, if not the world, for a buddies golf trip.
The usual suspects gather below it – Myrtle Beach, Las Vegas, Scottsdale, Austin. And for those whose chums are all hedge fund managers, there’s Kiawah Island, Pinehurst, The Greenbrier, Sea Island and, of course, the ultimate cash drop, Pebble Beach. You’ve likely sampled some of them already.
So how about somewhere new for that once-a-year trip with your favorite fellow fanatics, somewhere you probably haven’t been before – in fact, may not even have heard of?
If you’re the organizer of one of these kinds of trips, how cool would it be to find a place none of your mates know about, but which has more than enough good golf to keep you all busy for a few days, great weather for much of the year, food of the type and quality you just don’t get at home, first-rate accommodations and even a little gambling action?
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And just how many drinks, favors or breakfast balls would you earn if a five-night, five-round stay with meals and drinks at this surely fictional place cost about the same as one night, one round of golf, a caddie and perhaps a lunch appetizer in the Tap Room at Pebble Beach?
When you tell your group this year’s event will take place in Lake Charles, La., be prepared for a lot of blank stares, perhaps even a little grief.
Lake Charles is a town of 70,000 or so in the parish of Calcasieu, about three hours west of New Orleans, but only two east of Houston, from where the majority of guests come. It was incorporated in 1861 and named for a French immigrant by the name of Charles Sallier, a man whose fascinating backstory exemplifies frontier America in the 19th century.
Because of its position, about 25 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico is the Brown Pelican (the world’s only species of non-white pelican) flies, and because it is connected to the Gulf by a complex network of canals, bayous, channels and lakes, the city has become a mid-major industrial center, home to a number of petrochemical plants, an oil refinery and a liquefied natural gas terminal.
It is also fast gaining a reputation as a gambling destination with a dozen casinos in the area, dominated by two mega, Vegas-style developments – L’Auberge Casino Resort, which offers over 1,600 slot machines and 70 tables games beneath its 999 guest rooms, and the magnificent 242-acre, 740-guest room Golden Nugget which sits on Bayou Contraband at the north end of Prien Lake, about a mile southwest of Lake Charles, and likewise has 1,600 slot machines.
L’Auberge opened in May 2005, while the Golden Nugget isn’t quite a year old yet having welcomed its first guests in December 2014. Both properties include a golf course on their extensive list of amenities, both of which are absolutely first-rate.
Designed by Tom Fazio, Contraband Bayou GC at L’Auberge opened for play in May 2005, and, for the first four months, was accessible only to the casino' s VIP guests. A grand opening was scheduled for the end of September, but Katrina and Rita, two of the six most intense Atlantic Ocean hurricanes in recorded history, scuppered those plans and the official opening ceremony was eventually canceled.
Despite extensive flooding and losing over 1,000 60-plus-foot-tall trees, the course managed to re-open just eight weeks after Rita had left town, a statement of commitment to resuming business as normal, even with more work to do.
In 2010, a major renovation took place, during which Champion Bermuda replaced the existing TifDwarf on the greens, dead trees and stumps were removed and the bunkers given an overhaul. The nines were switched as well, a sound move that gave the course better rhythm, made the former par-5 10th a fine opening hole and saw the old dogleg left, par-4 first become the 10th.
It’s no surprise, given how many original designs he has ranked inside America’s top 100 (15 on Golf Digest’s current list) that Fazio gave Contraband Bayou so many appealing features. There are several visually arresting, thought-provoking shots, and it’s perfectly playable for everyone from Jordan, Rory, Jason and Rickie on down. And, thanks no doubt to financial assistance from the neighboring casino, it is invariably in fine condition.
Green fees top out at a very reasonable $109 during the summer months when the average high temperature rises to the high 80s or low 90s and the humidity creeps up, too. If you’re with your buddies, there’s a good chance you’ll be drinking beer on the course, in which case you might think about downing a quick bottle of water for every six-pack.
Contraband Bayou will get a few votes, but I’m guessing the Country Club at the Golden Nugget, less than a mile away, will be the group’s favorite course of the trip. Designed by California’s Todd Eckenrode, it opened on May 3 this year and already has greens that would satisfy picky members of top-dollar private clubs. Thanks to sandy soil, miniverde turf which has a dark green color and thrives in warm temperatures and, of course, the skill of superintendent Reid Lefler - a Mississippi State graduate who spent four years at Beau Chene C.C. in Mandeville, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, before coming to Lake Charles - these putting surfaces are some of the purest, best-rolling greens you’ll see this side of the PGA Tour.
There are numerous great holes at the Golden Nugget, especially those close to the water, which actually have the look and feel of genuine links holes. Eckenrode says these holes were the happy result of river-dredging that occurred at various times over the last few decades on the Calcasieu River Ship Channel, which provides deep draft access to the Port of Lake Charles - currently the 13th largest in the nation based on tonnage.
“Sand and silt has been deposited there over time in order to maintain the depth of the shipping channel,” he adds. “And it was ideal material with which to build those linksy holes near the water.”
Eckenrode began his career under Gary Baird and set out on his own in 2000 after completing the highly-acclaimed Barona Creek in San Diego. He has since developed a reputation for solid, very enjoyable designs and renovation work, and he wisely routed a number of holes at the Golden Nugget around the highest point of the course – the 10th green.
“It was certainly a challenging site,” he says. “The land near the water obviously had some great qualities, but we needed to be a little creative elsewhere. We introduced some waste bunkering to give the course a different look and prevent it from being tree-lined like most other courses in the area.”
When the Golden Nugget took control of the project, they asked Eckenrode for "a little more Wow Factor.”
They certainly got it. Eckenrode is too sensible a designer to gussy up holes artificially by adding a lot of alien mounds, redundant, decorative hazards and other foreign features, so he just made the very most of what he had. The holes on the water’s edge are great fun, especially so with a little breeze in the air.
Director of Golf John Hurt quickly identifies the final quartet as his favorites.
“Those holes have a wonderfully natural look,” he says, “and when the wind really blows, they can be a very stern challenge. It’s a great end to the round.”
After finishing, dinner at the Country Club restaurant is a must, as is an evening at L’Auberge’s Ember Grille and Wine Bar another night.
It’s feasible you and your buddies could stay at either the Golden Nugget or L’Auberge and limit yourselves to those two courses. But go outside the immediate area a little ways and you’ll find three more worth adding to your itinerary.
The National Golf Club of Louisiana in Westlake, a northwestern suburb of Lake Charles and a 20-minute drive north of the Golden Nugget, it is home to an excellent course Dave Bennett created in 2008/9 on what he describes as a “600-acre swamp.”
“Not only was it a swamp,” says Bennett, a Texas-based architect who worked on over 100 projects across 14 states, Mexico, Canada and Venezuela, during his career, “we also had only 3 feet of elevation change across the whole property. And there were several stands of very densely-packed pines too.”
Bennett obviously had to drain the ground first, which he did using a vast skeleton of 60-inch-diameter pipes that exited the property at three points. He then had to dig several ponds to give himself some dirt with which to build up certain areas and create some visually appealing water hazards. He did a very fine job, crafting a course from what was clearly not one of those “just meant for golf” type of sites.
Bennett is particularly fond of the par-3 fifth, played across water and deep front bunkers to a raised green and thus requiring a very well-struck tee shot. There are numerous other good holes, though the dogleg-left, slightly uphill 18th is perhaps the best of the lot.
The National was the last course Bennett worked on before hanging up his design boots, and cost $11 million to build. The original superintendent Mark Vavre was sadly forced to retire earlier this year due to poor health, but his replacement Brett LeBlanc is doing a stellar job.
“Brett and I worked together at Koasati Pines before we came here,” says Director of Golf Dave Kaspar. “He’s a good guy - a very talented guy, and I know his ability will shine through soon enough.”
While LeBlanc works hard getting the turf back to the condition Vavre achieved, the National remains one of the best-draining courses in the state.
“The course really does drain exceptionally well,” says Kaspar. “Just this past Sunday and Monday, we had well over four inches of rain (from an outer rain band of Hurricane Patricia), and we were 90 degrees with carts by Tuesday. I’m betting we were the only course open in Louisiana, much less letting carts on the fairways.”
Gray Plantation is another venue your group should make time for, as Golf Digest raters consider it the seventh-best course in the state. The elusive Rocky Roquemore, architect of nearly 50 courses across the southern states, as well as half a dozen in Portugal, designed the layout built through pine forests and on reclaimed marshland a mile south of Prien Lake. It was named for Gray Stream, president of Graywood LLC which owns the 2,000-acre, master-planned community of which the golf course is part.
Graywood and Gray Plantation were developed by the Stream Companies, whose matriarch Matilda Gray Stream is apparently on good terms with the Queen of England, as well the granddaughter of John Geddings “Ged” Gray, a powerful 19th century Louisiana landowner with dealings in real estate, oil, gas and timber.
The course opened in opened in 1999 and possesses perhaps the finest par 5 in the state and certainly on your trip: the 589-yard seventh, whose fairway bends left around a watery inlet at about the 450-yard mark then stops short of another 50 yards or so from the green. Crack a good one off the tee, and it’s conceivable you could take on the green with your second, but most will and should head right to set up a full wedge over water for the third. This is a genuine par 5, where five is always a good score, four is to be celebrated and spoken of for a good long time and six is not nearly as bad as it sounds. There are loads more exciting shots around Gray Plantation though none quite match the thrill of the second and third at the seventh.
And it’s possible nothing you’ve ever eaten before matches the exquisite Pressed Pig you enjoy in the plantation-style clubhouse after the round. A creation of chef Devin Gotte, this epic sandwich combines pulled pork, ham, bacon, provolone, jalapenos and barbeque sauce on a perfectly-toasted French bread sub. Vegetarians in the group might give it a wide berth, but meat-eaters will devour two, possibly three before leaving.
The fifth course you might include in your plans is Mallard Cove , a City of Lake Charles municipal that might not offer the high-end conditioning and few of the bells and whistles you’ve encountered elsewhere. But it is a fun game nonetheless, and the TifEagle greens surprisingly good for a course you can play for an amazing $19.70 midweek.
Again, your companions are going to look at you funny when you suggest playing a $20 muni on your annual golf trip. And sure enough, Mallard Cove, opened in 1973 and designed by former Robert Trent Jones associate James Wall, is not what you might consider a must-play. It is, however, a worthy course, especially if you have a few bets to settle, just want to play some good but very inexpensive golf one evening and want to experience the often talked about par-5 18th hole. A 554-yard right-angle dogleg to the right, the tee shot has to carry a large pond and the second must avoid two strangely positioned pines on the right edge of the fairway. The hole is a great conversation to have over a beer and delicious, $2 foil-wrapped boudin in the handsome clubhouse that opened in July 2009, almost four years after Hurricane Rita severely damaged its predecessor.
You haven’t ventured into Lake Charles itself yet ,but with the casino, spa, and H20 pool and lounge at the Golden Nugget to fill your non-golfing hours, I don’t suppose there’s much need. But you probably should reserve one evening for a meal at the excellent 1910 Restaurant and Wine Bar on Ryan St. that opened just a few weeks ago. Here you'll find an interesting and delicious mix of French, American and Cajun-Creole dishes, like shrimp and grits and the Louisiana crab cakes, combining Gulf crab meat with jalapeno remoulade.
Your buddies might need some convincing Lake Charles is the best place for your next trip. When you tell them how much it will all cost, however, and that you could spend what you save on being driven around southwest Louisiana on-board the Bon Temps Express, you’ll definitely have their attention.
If you decide to try Lake Charles and end up having a great time, tell everyone it was my idea. If you go and it doesn’t work out, you’re doing it wrong.