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Golf Course Review - Dancing Rabbit GC (Azaleas/Oaks Courses)

1:32 PM, Oct 6, 2013   |    comments
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West Choctaw, MS (SportsNetwork.com) - FACTS AND STATS: The Azaleas Course Architects: Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate (1997). Year Opened: July, 1997. Location: West Choctaw, Mississippi. Slope: 135. Rating: 74.4. Par: 72. Yardage: 7,128.

Hole-by-Hole:

1 - Par 4 415 Yds 10 - Par 5 529 Yds

2 - Par 5 548 Yds 11 - Par 4 386 Yds

3 - Par 4 453 Yds 12 - Par 4 456 Yds

4 - Par 3 183 Yds 13 - Par 3 206 Yds

5 - Par 5 571 Yds 14 - Par 4 378 Yds

6 - Par 4 379 Yds 15 - Par 4 359 Yds

7 - Par 3 184 Yds 16 - Par 3 175 Yds

8 - Par 4 465 Yds 17 - Par 5 527 Yds

9 - Par 4 439 Yds 18 - Par 4 475 Yds

Par 36 3,637 Yds Par 36 3,491 Yds

Key Events Held: Pearl River Resort Golf Classic (Hooters Tour) (2006-07), Mississippi State Amateur Championship (2006), U.S. Senior Open qualifier (2006).

Awards Won: Ranked #5 by Golf Digest - Best-in-State (MS) (2013-14), Rated #94 by Golfweek - Best Resort Courses (2013), Rated #2 by GolfWeek - Best Courses you can play (MS) (2011), Rated #2 by Golf Magazine - Best Courses you can play (MS) (2008), Ranked #11 by Golf Digest - Top-40 Casino Golf Courses (2007), Number 32 - Golf Magazine - Top 100 Courses you can Play (2006-10), Rated #2 by GolfWeek - America's Best State-by-State (MS) (2006), Rated 4 1/2 stars by Golf Digest - Best Places to Play (2006), Rated #1 by GolfWeek - America's Best in Mississippi (2003).

FACTS AND STATS: The Oaks Course Architects: Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate (1999) Year Opened: June, 1999. Location: West Choctaw, Mississippi. Slope: 139. Rating: 74.6. Par: 72. Yardage: 7,076.

Hole-by-Hole:

1 - Par 4 367 Yds 10 - Par 4 322 Yds

2 - Par 4 468 Yds 11 - Par 3 220 Yds

3 - Par 3 209 Yds 12 - Par 4 444 Yds

4 - Par 5 536 Yds 13 - Par 4 387 Yds

5 - Par 3 190 Yds 14 - Par 5 566 Yds

6 - Par 4 424 Yds 15 - Par 4 421 Yds

7 - Par 4 446 Yds 16 - Par 5 540 Yds

8 - Par 4 327 Yds 17 - Par 3 177 Yds

9 - Par 5 577 Yds 18 - Par 4 455 Yds

Par 36 3,544 Yds Par 36 3,532 Yds

Awards Won: Rated #6 by GolfWeek - Best Courses you can play (MS) (2011), Rated #4 by Golf Magazine - Best Courses you can play (MS) (2008), Ranked #18 by Golf Digest - Top-40 Casino Golf Courses (2007). Rated #4 by GolfWeek - America's Best State-by-State (MS) (2006). Rated 4 1/2 stars by Golf Digest - Best Places to Play (2006).

Web site: www.dancingrabbitgolf.com, pearlriverresort.com.

HISTORY: The golf courses at Dancing Rabbit have only been around since the late 1990s, however, the land that they envelope has been part of American history for over 150 years.

As history tells us, the Choctaw Indians thrived on their ancestral lands and in the fall of 1830, the U.S. government and the tribe sat down to negotiate a treaty between the two parties.

The basis of the treaty was the United States ceded roughly 11 million acres of the Choctaw Nation (a large portion of Mississippi) in exchange for nearly 15 million acres in the Indian region of Oklahoma.

The signing of this historic occasion occurred in the southwest corner of Noxubee County, Miss., known to the Choctaw as Chukfi Ahihla Bogue (Dancing Rabbit Creek). Hence the naming of the treaty, which in their native language, was "Bok Chukfi Aabitba," meaning "the creek where rabbits dance."

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was one of the largest land transfers ever signed between the government and American Indians in time of peace and was the final treaty between the two parties.

So the name, Dancing Rabbit Golf Club, serves as a remembrance, not to mention a celebration of the Choctaw Indian heritage.

To this day, the descendants of the Choctaw who stayed in Mississippi reorganized themselves as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in 1945 and gained federal recognition.

They are a proud people of 10,000 and the Choctaw land spans over 35,000 acres in 10 different counties in Mississippi, led by the first female Tribal Chief in their history, Chief Phyliss J. Anderson.

When it came to select a course designer, who better to create a pair of golf courses on such storied ground than none other than Tom Fazio, one of the leading architects in the history of golf course design.

In 40 years of golf course design, Fazio, who has crafted hundreds of courses all over the Western Hemisphere, is especially known for his 17 venues ranked in the top 100 of Golf Digest's, "America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses." Layouts such as, Wade Hampton, Shadow Creek, Victoria National, Butler National and The Estancia Club.

So it made perfect sense to hire Fazio, along with the assistance of PGA Tour player Jerry Pate, to craft a pair of courses in this historic region of the United States. Pate, who captured the 1976 U.S. Open and the 1974 U.S. Amateur, was critical to the development with his insight to player strategy.

What transpired is the design of two different courses, one which features generous fairways, stunning approach shots and Bermuda greens (Oaks) and another that demands precision, length and skill played on Bentgrass greens and Bermuda fairways (Azaleas).

Located in the Pines Region of Mississippi, the two courses feature five sets of tees, ranging from as little as 4,909 yards to over 7,100 yards. And that's the beauty of Dancing Rabbit, all skill levels can play these two gems, just select the correct teeing ground and have at it.

The courses are carved through tall pines that date back hundreds of years and boast rolling fairways, sculptured through valleys of breathtaking landscape and topped off with two miles of meandering creeks.

It comes as no surprise that both courses have been rated in the top 10 in the state for years and most likely for seasons to come.

REVIEW: AZALEAS COURSE - Although rated one of the easier holes on the course, the first on the Azaleas Course is anything but easy. Reaching 415 yards from the back markers, the opening hole features a wide fairway, but necessitates a 200-yard carry to the landing area over a creek and thick rough. Avoid the large bunker on the left and you'll be left with a severely uphill approach to a very deep green. Sand to the left of the putting surface guards the slick green that runs from back to front. Club selection will be difficult because you can only see the top of the flag.

The first par-5 on the course stretches 548 yards and is straightaway from tee to green. A fairway bunker down the left squeezes the landing area slightly, but it's the trees down both sides that must be avoided. Although reachable in two, the prudent play is to lay up down the right side of the narrow fairway. Sand guards both sides, but you should be able to split this section with a rescue club or fairway metal. Your approach will be uphill to the two-tiered green. A back-left pin, tucked behind a bunker, will be difficult to get at, so play out to the right and leave a mid-length putt for birdie.

One of the most sensational holes on the course, the third, is also one of the hardest on the Azaleas. This par-4 measures 453 yards and features a split, upper and lower portion fairway. The right side is the proper section, as it sits well above the left and gives the player a better angle of attack to the green. The left side brings a creek and thick rough into play and forces the player to carry over a larger portion of the wetlands and the greenside bunker. The putting surface is one of the longest on the course at 47 yards in depth, as it slopes from right to left. The sensible play is out to the right and let your approach feed toward the pin.

Number four is the first par-3 on the course. Playing slightly downhill, a large bunker guards the right side of the long putting surface and must be avoided, as it sits well below the hole. The key here is club selection because the slope of the hole will dictate your approach. Fairly simple, but do not take lightly, as the green slopes from front to back.

From one of the shortest holes to the longest, the par-5 fifth can play as long as 571 yards from the gold tees. Although the fairway is generous and needs just 240 yards to carry the left fairway trap, be wary of the trees that guard either side, as this will make an easy hole very, very hard. Following your second shot, the hole doglegs sharply to the right and is uphill toward the green. A back-left pin, not only will bring four bunkers into play, but left of the surface falls hard toward a creek bed. Birdieable, but double-bogey is not too far behind.

One of four par-4s under 400 yards, the sixth is a dogleg left gem that can baffle the best. Although it bends left, the fairway tilts right, making your tee shot even much more difficult. Lay back off the tee because this will help you avoid the fairway bunker down the right side. A medium to short iron will be left to one of the smallest greens on the course, protected only by a valley separating the fairway and the surface. Choose the right club to clear and you'll have a great shot at birdie.

The valley that dissects the sixth hole comes into play on the par-3 seventh. At 184 yards, this hole is all carry to the green. Playing downhill, you'll need to pick the right stick off the tee, making sure you carry the valley, but not too long to fly the surface. When the pin is back-left, you must avoid the temptation of flag hunting because this is the smallest portion of the green and any shot just off-line will result in a big number.

We've reached the hardest hole on the course, the par-4 eighth at 463 yards. You'll need to blast a big tee ball down the left-center of the fairway because the landing area tilts to the right. This might be a daunting task, as a 70- yard trap lays in waiting down the left. As the hole bends slightly to the left, a long iron or fairway metal might be the club of choice to a green guarded by sand left and trees on both sides. Any tee ball to the right rough, will have little chance of getting home, as the trees protrude out in full view.

The closing hole on the outward nine is a picturesque, should I say, Augusta- like par-4. Playing slightly downhill off the tee, your drive must carry over 200 yards to the wide fairway, but must avoid the sand right. A meandering creek runs down the left side through the green, definitely coming into play with your approach. The putting surface is one of the largest on the course at 46 paces in length, but very shallow. Long and left is a double- bogey waiting to happen.

The back nine starts out with a reachable par-5 of just 529 yards from the tips. Although it plays uphill, the 10th can be had, but the key is the tee shot. A long forced carry is required to reach the fairway, which is quite generous, except the bunker down the right side. With a successful tee ball, you'll have an opportunity to get home as the hole bends to the right, but be careful because the landing area tightens by the green and the putting surface features a tier that will make two-putting difficult. By the way, avoid the massive trap on the right flank of the green ... it's a doozy.

Birdie chances continue when you reach the 11th, a short par-4 under 400 yards in length. No fairway traps, just trees guarding both sides of the landing area, which is quite tricky, because it features a top shelf, before falling down drastically some 20 feet. If your tee shot carries too far, you're left with a difficult, uphill approach to a very shallow green with a deep bunker, front and center. It's best to lay back at the 125-yard mark, which leaves a short iron approach, setting up a much-needed three.

A poor tee shot on 12 will force you to play catch-up, as this massive par-4 sweeps hard to the left and can play as long as 456 yards. Despite playing downhill from the tee, you'll be hard-pressed to avoid the trio of traps down the left side, so play right, although you'll have a longer second to the green. If your tee ball is not up to par, you'll need to lay up short of the creek at the 100-yard mark, leaving a full sand wedge approach to a fairly large putting surface with a pair of bunkers guarding the entrance.

At 206 yards, the 13th is the longest and most difficult par-3 on the course. All carry from the tee, make sure you take enough club here, despite it's downhill appearance. The putting surface is quite deep, so picking the right club is critical. Any shot coming up short will find sand, or worse, a meandering creek that quietly moves throughout the course.

The next three holes will allow the player to make up some ground because the course eases up just a bit. The 14th is only 378 yards and requires just a long iron or fairway metal off the tee. Sand down the left must be avoided, as this will leave an obstructed view of the slightly elevated putting surface. The bunker complex down the right is over 275 yards out, so think off the tee. Your approach is played diagonally left to a very shallow, although long green. With a wedge in hand, you should be able to score a birdie.

Equally appealing is No. 15, also well under 400 yards. In fact, if you lay back with a fairway metal or hybrid, you'll have just a wedge to another long, but narrow putting surface. The fairway is tighter than 14, but with a shorter club in hand, you should be safe. Sand protects the landing area at the 90- yard mark and up by the green, so take note and attack accordingly.

One more shot at birdie comes by way of the par-3 16th. At just 175 yards, it's the shortest hole on the course, but that's not to say it's anything but easy. Picking the right club is key because the green is large and any play long, will repel down the slope and into the trees. On the other hand, any shot short, will find the beach, making for an almost impossible up and down. The two-tiered green is difficult to judge, but if you're on the right level, a deuce always looks good on the card.

The closing two holes on the Azaleas Course are as good as it gets. First, a risk-reward par-5 and then a rugged par-4. You'll have your hands full on 17, despite its relatively short yardage. No problem off the tee because only trees line the fairway. However, that is where the fun begins because you're faced with a difficult decision: go for it or lay up. Neither is easy. You must be on the left side of the fairway to have any chance of getting home because the trees encroach your view. If not, you'll have to lay up and that brings the meandering creek into play - it cuts across the fairway. Going for the green in two brings plenty of trouble into play, hence the risk-reward aspect, but who knows, you might be rewarded. Honestly, the smart play is to lay up, but take a hybrid and cross the creek to the right, as the short pitch will reward you. The green is very long, two-tiered and runs from front to back and to the right. It's a lot to take in, but worth every penny.

The final hole is a robust, 475-yard par-4 that plays uphill from the tee. Yes, the fairway is wide, but you'll need to crack a long one to have a modest club coming in. A 40-yard trap down the right guards the landing area, just to keep you honest. If you're a big hitter, no problem, but for us mere mortals, 200- yards plus will be left to a long (50 yards long) and narrow green. And guess what, a pond protects the right part of the left-to-right sloping green and sand guards the left. It's not a bad idea to play short of the trouble and pitch close to save your par.

OAKS COURSE - The opening hole on the Oaks Course is a straightaway par four reaching just 367 yards from the back tee. Take out the big stick and let it rip because the main trouble is the fairway bunker some 270 yards away on the right. The landing area on the first is quite generous, leaving just a wedge to a fairly large, but narrow putting surface. The two-tiered green can play extremely difficult if the pin is placed in the back.

In contrast, the second hole is a robust, 468-yard par four that doglegs to the right. Your tee ball needs to favor the right side, but be careful, the 30-yard bunker tightens the landing area and will most likely force the player to lay up if the shot strays. A mid to long iron will remain to another large, kidney-shaped putting surface that slopes from left to right. There's good reason it's the second-most difficult hole on the course.

The first par three is all carry to the green, with no bailout area to speak of. At 209 yards, you'll need a fairway metal or hybrid to conquer the smallish green. Missing right will find sand that sits well below the putting surface and cants from back to front. Although it's rated No. 16 on the card, a back-right pin and a back-left tee position can lengthen this gem to over 220 yards.

Number four on the Oaks is a definite risk-reward par five. Only 536 yards in the length, the key here is the tee shot. Although the landing area is accessible, you'll have to contend with a very long fairway bunker down the right. With that task accomplished, it's decision time, as the you'll have an opportunity to get home in two. With the green offset to the left, it's best to play down the right, setting up a simple pitch to the smallest green at Dancing Rabbit, just 20 paces in depth, but 40 yards wide. The putting surface slopes from right to left with a couple of deep bunkers in front. And you thought this would be a birdie hole?

The second par three comes by way of the fifth hole. At 190 yards in length, this one-shotter will play slightly shorter than the indicated yardage due to the elevation change. Another lengthy putting surface will put a premium on club selection, not to mention the two-tiered slope in the rear portion. By the way, attacking a back flag is not recommended because water looms in the rear.

The first of back-to-back dogleg left par fours, the sixth is of moderate length, but requires an accurate tee ball. With no sand to protect the landing zone, it's the rough and trees that line the fairway that will keep you guessing. A shot down the right side will set up the best angle to this long and narrow putting surface. Don't get caught up in the beauty of the hole, you'll need to focus on getting the ball to the green, otherwise, double-bogey will ruin your scorecard.

In my estimation, the seventh is the most difficult hole on the course and maybe at Dancing Rabbit. Your driver will be the most important club on this hole because you'll need to find the fairway. On some courses, you can spray off the tee, but not here, as the left side is crimped by a lake that runs to the 175-yard mark, while the right side is guarded by a 30-yard long bunker. If you're man enough and have the game to do so, then blast away down the left and you'll cover the water, otherwise this is going to be a nightmare. The green is one of the longest on the course and runs from front to back with a pair of bunkers on the left. Need I say more? I could, but that would spoil the fun!

The excitement continues with the driveable eighth, a wonderful, downhill par-4 of just 327 yards from the back tees. Playing much shorter than the yardage indicates, this is truly golf at its best, which means fun. The only bunker is the greenside trap to the right. The landing area is as wide as can be, so where's the beef, so to speak? Well, a lake juts out to the left of the putting surface and covers the entire rear of the green. This two-tiered green runs from back to front, but this could be your best birdie chance of the day.

If played properly, the ninth also can be a solid birdie opportunity. Although it's the longest hole at Dancing Rabbit Resort, this par-5 can be had. First off, the landing area is as wide as any hole on the course and even with the water and bunkers left, you should be able to land a 747 on this runway. The most difficult aspect might be the layup, as the fairway is pinched tight by bunkers on either side. Now all that's left is a wedge to an angled green with two levels that slope from front to back. Avoid the grouping of bunkers to the left and you're home free, whether it be birdie or par.

Another short par-4 starts the back nine off. At just 322 yards, it's driveable for the big boys, but if you can't get there, you still want to be aggressive off the tee. The group of bunkers on the left are 200 yards off the tee, while the section of sand on the right is 270 from the gold markers. If you decide to lay up, there's plenty of room, so lay back and attack with a wedge to a fairly benign putting surface.

Not only is the 11th the longest par-3 on the course, it is also the most difficult, as you'll need to carry water to the promised land. In addition, a creek that feeds into the pond runs left of the green, just for difficulty sake. The long putting surface features a semi-circular ridge on the right that will feed you're play toward the left greenside bunkers.

The most difficult stretch of holes starts with the 12th, a dogleg right par-4 rated as the most difficult on the Oaks. Swinging hard from left to right, the fairway is devoid of sand, but has plenty of bite as the landing area is tree- lined through the green. Miss your tee shot right and you'll have little or no chance of getting to the putting surface in regulation. A mid to long iron will be required for your approach to a difficult green with sand covering the right side. Tough, tough hole.

Although the 13th is a short par-4 at just 387 yards in length, it features a tight fairway, highlighted by a 50-yard bunker on the right. A successful tee ball will leave a short iron to this dogleg right, fronted by a deep bunker. The green, one of the smallest on the course, runs from left to right with a ridge on the back-left. Depending upon pin placement, this is a spot to flag hunt for birdie.

The 14th on the Oaks Course is a par-5 that is viewed as a birdie hole, but with reservations. First off, the length ... 566 yards from the tips. Second, the layup area for your next shot is extremely narrow and, finally, the putting surface is tucked around to the right with bunkers galore serving as protection. The fairway off the tee is generous, although bunkers dot the right side of the landing area, but from here, it gets tricky. To lay up, you'll have to contend with a tree-lined fairway, pinched tightly and if you're not far enough down the fairway, you might be blocked to the green by trees. Let's not forget the putting surface is 40 paces in depth and, yes, the sand.

One of the most sensational holes on the course, the 15th is a well-designed, par-4 which doglegs to the left. One of six holes over 400 yards in length at this par, it requires precision off the tee. Despite the trouble of sand on the left, that side of the fairway will leave the best approach. Your second over a creek, also must avoid the tall standing pine tree that protects the right. The kidney-shaped putting surface is only 27 yards long and quite narrow and features a double-tier. Another word of caution, do not miss right because a deep pot bunker, the creek and trees await.

A real birdie chance comes our way on the 16th, that is, of course, if you bomb your tee shot on this relatively straight par-5. At 540 yards, it's quite doable to get home in two; however, there is plenty of risk. Your tee ball will have to travel over 200 yards from the back markers just to reach the fairway and if you're a big hitter, then the long fairway bunker down the right will come into play. Your decision to go for it depends upon your tee shot, so otherwise just lay back to a comfortable yardage, as the landing area is ample. With a wedge in hand, you should be able to attack the fairly long, but narrow green. The putting surface features plenty of slope and any shot pulled slightly offline left will end up in the creek that runs left and behind the green.

The final par-3 on the course is also the shortest at 177 yards. The approach is simple: Clear the creek fronting the putting surface and you're home free. What makes this difficult is choosing the right club because the green is 39 paces wide, but just 20 yards deep. In addition, the left to right slope will create plenty of agitation, even to the best of putters.

The Oaks Course finishes with a stout par-4, stretching 455 yards from the tips and doglegging to the left. As with most of the holes on the Oaks, the tee shot is critical as it must find the fairway in between the bunkers on either side of the pinched landing area. Your approach shot needs to favor the right side because a pond and sand left receive plenty of action. Although you can bail out right, the two traps sit below the putting surface, a green that's a whopping 47 paces in depth and 30 yards wide. Now that's a way to finish.

FINAL WORD: What a great diversity in courses.

From the spacious fairways and wonderful approach shots on the Oaks Course to the perfectly conditioned, tree-lined difficulty of the Azaleas Course, that's what makes these two venues so outstanding.

There is no question that both venues will test your ability, especially the Azaleas, but you'll be quite surprised if you take the Oaks Course lightly.

From the gold markers, the Oaks is almost 7,100 yards in length and actually boasts a higher slope and rating than the Azaleas.

The Oaks has a great variety of par-3s, a couple of driveable par-4s and two of the longest holes on the property.

In contrast, the Azaleas Course is slightly longer and features lush conditions with A-4 Bentgrass greens. Not to mention, six par-4s over 400 yards and a two-hole finish that will test your skill and determination.

If there is a slight drawback to the Azaleas, it might be the length of the four par-3s, three of which are roughly the same in yardage. But that might be picky on my part.

The bottom line here is that, although the courses present quite a challenge, you'll need to pick the right set of tee markers to play from. Don't be heroic. Enjoy the game of golf. You're not on the PGA Tour, so why play the back tees when you can't even sniff breaking 85.

Former British Open and PGA Championship winner John Daly has been affiliated with Dancing Rabbit for several years and has incredible affection for the courses. "Dancing Rabbit is an incredible golfing destination from tee-to- green. I've loved playing there over the years and I'm excited to call these courses my golfing home."

Fazio and Pate have captured the essence of the region, keeping with the tradition of the land in tact, while creating a distinct canvas to explore.

To top it off, the Pearl River Resort features two fully functional Casinos, complete with table games, slots and poker, not to mention hundreds of rooms, amazing entertainment, stellar dining alternatives and a full-service spa.

"There are few courses in the region that can match Dancing Rabbit's design and hospitality," Daly said. "It's truly a gem that's reflective of the great leadership of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians."

What more could one ask for?

A world-class golf destination with all the fixins. That's my kind of place.

"Bok Chukfi Aabitba."

Aces, pars or bogeys, send your thoughts to psokol@sportsnetwork.com.

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