Scottsdale. Pinehurst. Pebble Beach. Jacksonville. Myrtle Beach. All of these places, it can be argued, are golf destinations. Golfers of all shapes, sizes and skill sets flock to these places each year to play golf.
You can add Lake Charles, LouisianaLake Charles, Louisiana to this list of golf destinations as well. What’s more, Lake Charles is worlds apart from a touristy place like Myrtle Beach. Lake Charles is quiet and laid-back – save for a few days each year during Mardi Gras — and whether you’re looking for a golf-centric weekend retreat or an all-out golf orgy for your foursome over the course of seven or eight days, Lake Charles area golf courses will keep you and other members of your foursome interested and entertained.
While we were there in early November, most locals we met with reported that the Lake Charles area economy, while not immune to the lingering effects of “the Great Recession,” remains strong because it’s long been a hub for petroleum processing and shrimp farming.
You’ll find lots of affordable golfing options in Lake Charles, from the daily fee, superbly-maintained Golf Club of Louisiana, [in Westlake] to the Tom Fazio-designed Bayou Contraband course at L’Auberge du Lac, to the city-run municipal course, Mallard Cove, near the Air Force base.
The topography of the land in this part of southwest Louisiana is not unlike east Texas; it’s flat and non-descript looking, but once you get out on some of these courses, you’ll see how man-made moguls and natural hills, ponds, lakes and other natural features are incorporated into the overall course designs.
Whether you are traveling with family or your golfing buddies, there’s no better place to stay than the L’Auberge du Lac, the casino-hotel right on Lake Charles. This 26-story structure can be seen from some distance away on the other side of the lake, and it’s well worth it to check out this community-within-a-community. Yes there’s a casino with gambling, but there are all sorts of other amenities as well. In fact, there’s almost everything you could imagine: indoor swimming pool, outdoor swimming pool with lazy river and other water rides and slides for children of all ages, weight room and health club with sauna, steam room and massage services, a yoga room, a variety of restaurants and a full service business, meeting and convention center, all within the 770,000 square-foot structure officially known as “the lodge on the lake,” or L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort.
If you’re here for a romantic getaway with your significant other, there’s also a private, adults-only pool area with luxury cabanas and full bar service, i.e., a bar in the shallow end of this massive pool. In all, L’Auberge du Lac sports 1,000 spacious rooms, including private villas and 147 luxury suites. The hotel and Bayou Contraband Golf Course sits on 242 acres just off I-210 at Exit #4 – Nelson Road.
Our first afternoon in Lake Charles, a Sunday, after short flights from Newark to Houston and Houston to Lake Charles, we played the National Golf Club of Louisiana in nearby Westlake. Our second day, we tested the course and enjoyed some golf swing analyses at the Gray Plantation Golf Club. On Tuesday, we stayed a mere golf cart ride away from our hotel and played the Bayou Contraband Golf Course, the Tom Fazio design. We wrapped up our tour Wednesday morning with a round at Mallard Cove, a charming, low-key municipal course owned and operated by the City of Lake Charles. Down here in November, the Bermuda grass greens can be so much faster than they look as they begin to turn brown and go into dormancy for the cooler winter months. As we flew back to Houston after our whirlwind, four-day golf tour, it struck me: all the courses in this area would do well to paint the inside of their green cups white, which can be done by the cup cutter maintenance person with a simple mold and can of white spray paint. In this fashion, when flags are removed from cups for longer putts, the holes are that much easier to see.
At the National Golf Club of Louisiana on a balmy, upper 70’s, sunny Sunday afternoon, we found the different types of grasses here in the fairways and roughs, as well as the Bermuda grass greens, present a variety of different shot making and ball stroking challenges. For example, your ball can often sit down in the grass in the fairway, and even more so in the rough. If you’re not playing winter rules, it can be a challenge to get good solid club head contact with the ball from a shaggier part of a fairway.
Memorable holes at Golf Club of Louisiana included the first hole, a 518-yard par 5 that is the course’s No. 2 handicap hole. We played the white tees here and that’s probably the best approach until you get to know the course. Virtually all of the holes have water on them, small and large ponds, some that come into play, many that do not. All of the greens were spacious and afforded plenty of space for challenging pin placements. The No. 1 handicap hole is No. 16, a par 4 of 412 yards that takes advantage of prevailing winds and sports water hazards down both sides of the fairway.
It’s here that we first notice how deceptive Bermuda grass greens can be when they’re going dormant and turning rusty-brown. Longer putts that look like they need a solid rap, just a quarter inch offline, go speeding past the cup!
One nice touch among many nice things at the National Golf Club of Louisiana: a sign greets golfers before they head out to the 1st tee: “Respect the Native Inhabitants.” And that’s another plus for this area: the variety of native wildlife you can encounter is impressive, from birds to water moccasins to alligators. Thankfully, National Golf Club of Louisiana is open to the public and a weekend round with cart goes for about $45. The facility is managed by Billy Casper Golf Management, who do a fine job with many courses in New York and New Jersey.
Gray Plantation Golf Club boasts an impressive staff of professionals, all with distinguished backgrounds. First, there’s Director of Golf, Kevin Tracey; he comes from the prestigious Austin Country Club in Texas, where he worked with the late Harvey Penick; then, there’s Director of Instruction, Mark Moore, who spent a decade working with top instructor Hank Haney; the head golf professional is Greg Culwell, and the superintendent of greens is Scott Ledet.
Like many golf courses in the Lake Charles area, Gray Plantation suffered some season-ending damage after the less publicized Hurricane Rita blew through here hot on the heels of Katrina, in September, 2005. The course was closed for the better part of four months due to wind and tree damage.
There are many memorable holes at Gray Plantation and like the Golf Club of Louisiana, you’ll encounter alligators, egrets, American bald eagles and all manner of other fascinating wildlife here, too. The course is defined again on so many holes by water hazards and big greens.
Greg Culwell, the head pro at Gray Plantation, tells me, “the economy has gotten a lot busier here in the last five years. Lake Charles is growing again, our plants are booming again, they’re starting to employ people again, natural gas, chemicals, and oil-based chemical manufacturing, the economy in Lake Charles, in the short time I’ve been here, it’s just not as bad as in other areas, like Houston.”
Gray Plantation costs $60 on weekends with cart or $50 during the week, and less during twilight hours in summer months, which can be characteristically hot and humid. “We’re very well priced for our area here,” Culwell noted.
The 11th hole at Gray Plantation is the one golfers talk about weeks after they get home. A par 4 of 333 yards, it’s a classic risk-reward hole. If you can drive it beyond 260 yards comfortably, you can clear the water and go straight for the green; otherwise, your safer shot is a just about 40 yards to the left of the green into the spacious fairway. Our pro, Mr. Culwell, confidently smacked his ball straight ahead over the large pond and landed his tee shot perhaps four yards from the green; the rest of us opted for the wide fairway on the left. Here on a tree in the middle of a small island in the middle of the large pond on the 11th hole, we saw an American bald eagle atop the tree, enjoying the late afternoon sun. Who knows, she / he may sit there every afternoon, laughing at the golfers as they tempt fate by trying to drive straight for the green.
Later at dinner, Director of Instruction Mark Moore explained to me that Gray Plantation’s owners, the Strane Family, deliberately keep memberships affordable at this top-notch facility.
“They’re of the mindset where they want to give back to Lake Charles. Their idea is to make Gray Plantation an attraction for all of southwest Louisiana,” Moore explains at dinner at MacFarlane’s Celtic Pub, one of more than a dozen really innovative restaurants you can enjoy while staying in Lake Charles.
“The memberships at Gray Plantation are very inexpensive because they want to be able to give back to the people of Lake Charles,” Moore said, “to make it a place that gives people a chance to learn to play golf. For a full year membership, you’re looking at $1,200 to $1,500 a year for a golf-only membership. There’s also a pool and tennis courts and other amenities. The memberships will never completely support the club enough to be strictly private, and they want the average person in Lake Charles to be able to access Gray Plantation’s amenities at affordable rates,” Moore added.
Our third course, Contraband Bayou Golf Club, involved little more than a three-minute golf cart ride to get to the pro shop, as the course is situated on land owned by the operators of L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort.
While this course is on par, design-wise, with Golf Club of Louisiana and Gray Plantation, we found a few drainage issues here on various holes, but fortunately, none that came into play too dramatically. Greens fees with cart vary from $39 to $59 here and a variety of discounts apply to hotel guests.
There’s a real nice feeling of separation between holes here at Contraband Bayou, where acreage concerns clearly must not have been too much of an issue for Tom Fazio. This feeling of separation helps on crowded weekend days, but we were here on a late Tuesday morning with only a few other golfers on the course. There were a number of memorable holes on the front nine, including par 5 No. 1 at 552 yards and par 4 No. 3 at 452 yards, but more memorable were the finishing holes, 15, 16, 17, and 18, all of which had their own distinct personalities. No. 15 is the No. 1 handicap hole at 411 yards from the member tees, and offers stunning views of the rest of the golf course and the adjacent hotel tower from the tee. If your game has not woken up by the 14th or 15th hole here at Bayou Contraband, you’re in for a very challenging set of finishing holes. Aside from plentiful water hazards, clever bunkering is everywhere on this golf course, which also sports big, rolling greens with many pin placement options.
To wind down a bit on our last day in Lake Charles, we played the municipally-owned and operated Mallard Cove Golf Course. While it’s clear Mallard Cove doesn’t have the kind of budget for golf course maintenance the other courses do, there were more than a few challenging holes here. Its relative flatness and open spaces, with fewer water hazards and fewer trees, makes it an ideal place for beginning and intermediate golfers to hone their skills.
One thing to be aware of when traveling to Lake Charles: mosquitoes can be out of control here, with all the swamps, ponds and lakes around southwest Louisiana, and the region’s reputation for stalled fronts and 9-hour thunderstorms in the spring. What’s more, they tend to be bigger than any such pests either of us could ever remember seeing- or feeling — in New Jersey. As one of the crew at Gray’s Plantation joked with us, “Oh, you mean the state bird of Louisiana?” These pesky little buggers can start attacking almost any time of day, and they seem to adhere to no set feeding times. Make sure you have some level of protection in your golf bag, including mosquito repellent and perhaps a thin long-sleeved shirt.
If you head to Lake Charles for a golf-centric vacation, you can do it all affordably and enjoy many fine restaurants in the process, all in and around the city of Lake Charles, without all the other touristy hustle and bustle. By Richard J. Skelly