‘Greatest party’ comes to Gulf Coast

No. 13 at Fallen Oak Golf Club, site of the inaugural Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic.

No. 13 at Fallen Oak Golf Club, site of the inaugural Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic.

When the Champions Tour arrives in Biloxi this week for the inaugural Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, it will shine a spotlight not just on one of the country’s emerging golf destinations, but also a unique tournament sponsorship model.

The tournament will be held at Fallen Oak Golf Club, a 2006 Tom Fazio design that already ranks No. 1 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Mississippi, and quickly has jumped to No. 41 nationally on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list. The opening in recent years of Fallen Oak and other courses – including Grand Bear Golf Course, which will host one of three pro-ams during tournament week – has raised the visibility of the Gulf Coast region’s golf product, much of it funded by local casinos.

The Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic is unusual in that five competing resorts banded together as founding sponsors of the tournament. Those properties are: Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, which is hosting the tournament; IP Casino, Resort & Spa; Grand Biloxi Hotel, Casino & Spa; Island View Casino Resort; and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Seven other businesses round out the list of 12 founding sponsors.

“The fact that five of those (resorts) who beat each other up on a daily basis can sit in a room and have a vision that this is good for all of us (means) that everybody wins,” said Steve Nieman, the tournament director.

Aside from the backing of the title sponsors, Nieman said that the tournament has received more than $1 million in local sponsorship sales. He said the tournament has more than 1,000 volunteers, easily exceeding the goal of 800.

“Everybody wanted to position this as the greatest party on the Gulf Coast,” Nieman said.

Nieman and others are pulling out all of the stops to help make that a reality. Gov. Haley Barbour will be on hand at the Beau Rivage for the tournament pairings party. Friday is Military Appreciation Day, with all active and retired military and their families receiving free admission. On Saturday, college students presenting identification also will receive free admission. After play on Saturday, the Beau Rivage will sponsor a Kentucky Derby party, complete with a jumbo-screen television and mint juleps.

photo

Mary Beth Wilkerson

Mary Beth Wilkerson, director of the state’s Division of Tourism, predicted that the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic would have a $15 million economic impact along the state’s coastline. Statewide, she said, the total number of visitors and their expenditures still are down about 7 percent compared with data before Hurricane Katrina.

Wilkerson estimated that Mississippi receives about 1 million golf visitors annually, though she said a hard number is difficult to track. She said golf tourists spent an estimated $562.5 million in the state in the 2009 fiscal year, about 10 percent of total tourist dollars. All told, Mississippi receives 19 million visitors annually, Wilkerson said.

“We’ve had a strong golf initiative for 10 to 15 years out of our office,” Wilkerson said. “The tournament really brings more light to Mississippi as a golf destination. That hopefully will attract people to come back and experience not only golf on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but throughout the state.”

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