By Merri Daniel and Andy Reistetter
Golf Writer Andy Reistetter continues his exclusive "Play-Write" series returning to Fallen Oak, Mississippi's premier resort golf course. Weather interrupted his first date with Fallen Oak, canceling a March pro-am round with Nick Price during the 2012 Mississippi Gulf Coast Resort Classic. Merri Daniel, golf's newest voice for women, joined Reistetter for the rescheduled round and also teamed up with Reistetter for the writing of this article. Their visit included a stay at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino with a thrilling evening of Fata Morgana, a brand-new Cirque-style extravaganza. Join Merri and Andy as they share an intimate "stay and play" golfing experience.
Have you ever driven up to a bag drop and had an experience of a lifetime even before you went to the first tee?
A time where someone is expecting you to arrive at a golf course, greets and welcomes you as if you are visiting the home of a dear friend.
If so, then you have played Fallen Oak, the private though accessible golf course one can play when staying at the Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi.
"Hello Miss Daniel, welcome to Fallen Oak," smiled Steve Berger, golf professional.
"Hi Mr. Reistetter, please leave the keys in the car, we'll take care of everything, " invited Greg "Tex" Gallup, a former professional caddie.
The bag drop was the porte-cochere of a traditional Southern, yet modern clubhouse. Seriously, greeted by name without a reference sheet? Valet parking and our shoes on the way to the locker room for a bit of a touch up and new spikes without asking?
Merri, a product of the Golf Academy of America with experience on course working for Arnold Palmer, Kemper Sports and Troon Golf, commented that "I have never seen that kind of service before." As a proponent and writer for Women on Course she has seen various levels of service at all types of facilities.
Yes, Fallen Oak has less than 9,000 rounds a year, most days less than 30 so they have the staff and opportunity to go above and beyond. The fact is they do and they do it quite naturally. What is remembered is the warm smile accompanied a genuine happiness to see you at Fallen Oak, a sort of Beauty and the Beast "Be My Guest" castle reception.
An engraved nameplate greets you as you are escorted to your locker in the lounge. Though separate for women and men they are nearby so that one doesn't lose track of their partner as they get ready for their round. This is a nice touch for couples wanting to share the complete golfing experience together.
Our experience is enhanced by the company of Dr. Bill Bridges and later on the 7th green by our new friend Steve. We continue to be amazed in our travel golf journeys by the people we meet on a golf course.
Merri and Andy like to engage in a match. A friendly couple, the recently minted relationship was characterized quickly by Bill as "competitively compatible." We took that as a compliment as we like our playing partners to have as good a time as we are.
A babbling brook on the first tee announces our threesome and keeps us company as it meanders down the left side of the first hole. As we look out over the gentle terrain of the par-5 first hole Merri exclaims her typical warning: "Best to get our bet straight on the first tee." Bill deflects to me and I acknowledge I am giving her 6 strokes total, one less than last time.
As we find ourselves in the fairway closer to the bunkers we see their magnificence. This is a "difficult looking but easier to play than it looks" type of golf course. The numerous bunkers along with stately trees are target points off the tee, but become hidden when looking back from the green. What was visible becomes hidden, the opposite of links golf. This is parkland golf at its best. Merri, the analyst proclaims "this bunkering is incredible, it looks pretty difficult and something to stay away from." Interestingly she doesn't take her own advice. Losing the first and tying the second sinking a 15-foot chip-putt with a stroke to match my bogey.
"The course is beautiful and Andy is playing some of the best golf I have ever seen him play, I however, am not yet on my game," were Merri's playful words as we headed to the third tee.
We finally see another person, a maintenance worker watering the fairway by hand on the fourth hole. Andy's peace and tranquility vanish as he takes lost ball and water penalty strokes on the next two holes. Now Merri confidently assesses that she is "just starting to feel my game coming back and look forward to beating you."
Not on the next hole as Andy's regulation par trumps her bogey with no stroke and he regains a one hole advantage in a match that is likely to go the distance.
We love that there are no houses at Fallen Oak. No houses mean that there is nobody living on the course. No civilization to look at, we like to get away from civilization.
"Merri's got a hell of a game," shares Bill just before Steve joins us on the 7th green, "and you do too." "I enjoy playing with you. It is fun to play with people who love the game… it is my salvation." We agreed that it was ours too as we smiled at each other.
Merri made a bomb on the par 3 8th hole sharing with us afterwards, "I saw the line (of the putt) when I stepped up to the ball and I knew it was going in." The golf school graduate typically impresses newcomers to the group with an amazing shot or two. Sort of Tigeresque at times but not intimidating to Andy since the deuce only squared the match.
Andy knew he was in trouble after a stroke on the 9th hole earned Merri a point even though they tied with a pair of bogeys and Merri acquired a little energy boost at the turn. "Some of the best chicken salad I have ever had, a little cranberry, celery, egg and spicy mayonnaise, really good!"
After Andy lost a ball off the tee on the 10th, his Big Miss being characteristically left, he took the dreaded "X" after surveying two of the amazing Fazio bunkers. Suddenly he had lost three straight holes and was now two down in the match.
Andy was in trouble left off the tee on the 11th but recovered to match Merri's bogey. He made a 10-footer to save a regulation par on the 12th for a point. The par-5 13th was a pivotal hole where the momentum swung in Andy's favor as he drained a 24-footer for birdie. Merri three putted for a bogey six and her stroke was meaningless. All she could mumble was "that was a difficult hole location" as she stumbled off the green.
Not only had the momentum swung to Andy's side but Merri questioned Steve's alliance and noted he had "switched teams" and now seemed to be rooting for Andy to play well. After a solid par on 14 and a 3-hole win streak, Andy had taken the lead with four holes to go.
The match is tied on the next as Andy's erratic tee ball goes predictably left and he manages to find another Fazio bunker on the way to the green. Merri plays the magnificent par-5 flawlessly with a tap-in par on the most difficult hole of the second nine.
A 15-footer by Andy for another regulation par regains the lead that is only surrendered again on the 17th where Merri's near ace and tap-in deuce evens the match for the last time. Merri comments that "we really like to go at each other." Andy is upset that the scorecard gave Merri a 100-yard advantage. It seemed as though he was giving her another stroke that he had not agreed to on the first tee. Still it was an awesome 9-iron from 100 yards.
On the way to the 18th tee Merri notes that she has "put myself in a position to win," confident that the last of six official strokes will be a strategic advantage on the home hole. The aim point off the tee is the namesake Fallen Oak. Only partially fallen, with about a third of the massive tree lying horizontally, this is a century old landmark of the golfing landscape.
Though serenely quiet the tall oaks sway in the wind as if to wave and say hello. Andy sees a monarch butterfly, a favorite of his father who brought him to the game and feels a warm sense of belonging here in the nature of Fallen Oak. Perhaps it distracts him from the matter at hand and Merri's short game prevails with a nice one-putt bogey to secure a 1-Up victory.
"Don't you just love Fallen Oak?" she whispers in my ear as we compatibly embrace on the 18th green. I do and think of our golfing motto. While the PGA of America promotes "Play it Forward," we say "Play it Together!" We thanked Bill and Steve for making our round extraordinary as we headed up to the Clubhouse and the 19th Hole.
With a floor-to-ceiling view past the sunken bar to the 18th green and the Fallen Oak tree, we sit and talk and relive an incredible golfing experience. When Andy thinks of overall beauty, "there is nothing else like Fallen Oak, what an exceptional experience for the mind, body and soul."
Merri commented, "I am going to remember the chicken salad for a long time."
Merri Daniel is a Women's Golf Advocate and emerging Golf Writer and Broadcast Assistant in addition to being a Spokes Model for Vivacity Sportswear http://www.vivacitysportswear.com/
Andy Reistetter is a freelance golf writer as well as a Spotter, Research and Broadcast Assistant for The Golf Channel, NBC and CBS Sports. A lifetime golfer, Andy enjoys volunteering at the World Golf Hall of Fame and THE PLAYERS while pursuing his passion for the game of golf and everything associated with it.
Residing within two miles of the PGA TOUR headquarters and the home of The PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, this golfing couple is focused on a number of entrepreneurial golf pursuits within the realm of "Outside the Ropes Entertainment."
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