When I pictured world-class golf in Coastal Mississippi prior to my visit, I imagined dense forests of tall trees, vast marshlands and dramatically moving low-country coastal land.
Shell Landing Golf Club in Gautier, Mississippi had this all, in spades.
One of the top handful of courses in the state, Shell Landing is a gorgeous parkland track with terrific strategic playability, great shot values and long, beautiful site lines.
“Shell Landing has long been known for its beautiful setting along the pristine tidal marsh of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One thing that differentiates Shell Landing from other courses along the coast, however, is the topography which provides stunning panoramic views of the marsh on a number of holes”
– Nathan Crace, ASGCA
Its setting actually reminded me a lot of the South Carolina low-country – one of my favorite regions for golf in the entire country – seamlessly melding coastal and forest topography into a product that’s a thrill to play and just as beautiful to view and photograph.
It hasn’t always been that way, though. Golf courses are living, breathing organisms, and it takes visionary leadership to allow them to reach their full potential.
I spent a wonderful morning with CEO Kenny Hughes, a former competitive player with a stellar golf game and enjoyable personality, whose relentless pursuit of improving their course is showing great dividends.
An estimated 10,000 trees have been removed over the past ten years at Shell Landing, opening up site lines of adjacent holes, the Gulf of Mexico and spectacular Mississippi swampland while allowing the course to breathe and grow in more healthily. Overly penal bunkers from the original Davis Love III design from 2000 have been removed, massaged or repositioned to support a more playable yet still incredibly challenging style of play, and they’ve been able to successfully widen fairways as a result of the improved turf growth.
You may notice in my photos that there are a number of rough spots across the turf at Shell Landing. This was because the course had recently gone under the knife for significant bunker and other strategic and aesthetic course renovations shortly before I played it.
Golf Course Architect Nathan Crace, a Mississippi native and member of the ASGCA, did a fantastic job overhauling the course’s sand traps, updating it for modern times and smoothing out the routing for better playability.
High-flashed edges have been replaced with more natural, sod-faced lips, and the Better Billy Bunker system has been installed beneath the traps to allow for better drainage and retention of sand and shaping.
The result of this project has been a more playable course for all, while still retaining the challenge low-handicappers have come to expect.
“Kenny’s primary goal for the bunker renovation at Shell Landing was to preserve the strategy and aesthetic of the bunkers while decreasing overall square feet and reducing the extensive maintenance caused by the impact of 80 inches of annual rainfall on high flash-faced bunkers. We carefully went hole by hole and bunker by bunker to put together a plan that not only preserved the Davis Love III signature style of the design, but also met the needs of the golf course for today and going forward. The feedback from golfers has been tremendous, and the fresh look of the course has drawn the attention of a lot of new players.”
– Nathan Crace, ASGCA
From my on-course conversations with Kenny, it’s easy to see why some of the most dramatic of their recent renovations were carried out.
There were areas where a slightly right 200-yard tee shot could catch a deep trap facing a tree line, for example, or where a 250-yard drive right down the middle would run out into a cross-bunker that left a 175-yard carry uphill and over marshland. While there are certainly gluttons for punishment who may revel in that sort of thing, I think the majority of players prefer fair and fun, and for well-executed shots to leave good opportunities.
While fair and fun were never toward the top of the list of priorities for new courses when Shell Landing debuted in 2000, it has been an emphasis in recent years. I think Shell Landing is doing a great job of living on the forefront of that trend, and the golf course they’re cultivating is markedly more aesthetically pleasing while getting healthier, requiring less maintenance and holding on to its identity as a challenging yet enjoyable round of championship golf.
Shell Landing is a big boy golf course. Stretching to 7,024 yards from the back/Snapping Turtle tees and with a course rating of 73.8, it presents all the challenge top players can dream of while providing a more friendly and fun layout for the weekend warrior.
Love III’s design features good variety, favoring dogleg lefts on the front nine and a little more straight direction on the back. The par threes are challenging but beautiful, including three that stretch to over 200 yards from the tips. From the first tees in, though, they’re more manageable at 166, 215, 200 and 175, respectively.
It’s the character built into these holes, though, that makes Shell Landing so spectacular, and nowhere will you find more character than on the par four 6th. Named Golf Digest’s “Best New Golf Hole” in the world in 2000, the sixth is cut through three times by marshland, first over the driving area and again before the run-up to its green complex.
A stream and wild marshland covers the entire left side and provides beautiful views while forest encroaches on the right. This is a tough par four with an incredible green complex that overlooks acres of swampland stretching to the Gulf of Mexico. The sixth is one of the prettiest golf holes I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s just one of a handful at Shell Landing that can be said about!
Even with as beautiful as the sixth is, it’s not widely considered to be the course’s signature hole. That distinction belongs to one of two others: The par five 16th or par three 17th on the back nine.
The sixteenth has had a lot of work done to it in recent years, too, especially to remove trees that have opened up glorious site lines. To think this vista was hidden for years is almost criminal, but shows the commitment this club has to excellence and to making the very best they can of the property.
A beautiful par three, the 17th plays over wetlands to a green perched on a peninsula. A big false front on the front-left defends pins to that side and all tee shots need to hit the dance floor for any shot at putting next.
The closing holes at Shell Landing are some of the most challenging I’ve played this season. Both par fours, each tees off downhill to a left-to-right bend in the fairway before requiring a carried shot into an elevated green.
Recent renovations have taken away some of the bite from the long ninth as several bunkers were recently removed, and several others were transplanted to spots that no longer penalize ideal tee shots. Some of the fairway’s sloping was also softened to result in less of a downhill lie when hitting necessarily high approaches.
The green complex is well-guarded in front and behind by sand traps, and all sides roll off toward collection areas. Finishing the front nine with par here is a terrific feat.
While the eighteenth is slightly more benign than the ninth, it still requires precision:
Another of my favorite par fours on the course is the fourteenth. With water running down the left side, the hole sets up for a hero shot to a cape-like green that runs right-to-left adjacent to the pond.
This is another great example of the wonderful green architecture on display at Shell Landing.
Probably my second favorite par three on the course, the eighth is a solid example of the way Shell Landing sets up differently for varying levels of players. The back two tees, for example, require long carries over wasteland, while the forward ones still call for long tee shots but without the threat of additional penalty via lost balls.
Overall, I think Shell Landing was originally designed a little too penal for the average golf enthusiast, but as I mentioned earlier has been worked on continuously over the years to massage things out while still providing competitive players a great challenge.
There’s a great lesson to be learned in that for other golf courses around the country, especially ones that were developed during the golf boom of the 1990’s and early 2000’s when penal golf and Tiger-proofing was all the rage.
As Kenny would probably tell you, the golf course you started with when it first opened is not all it can be. It’s those constant improvements, never-ending projects and intimate care taken of the land that will yield something truly memorable and remarkable, and I think that’s exactly what they now have in Gautier, Mississippi.
“Shell Landing is a beautiful layout with great views. We get positive comments every day from first time players, returning guests and members that play three times a week. I take a lot of pride in trying to keep this type of positive feedback going every day and we are continuing to improve our product constantly.
The bunkers have grown in and from tee to green we have great turf conditions. It rained seven days in a row in early July, for example, and the maintenance crew was able to get all bunkers back in playable condition in just two days. This allows all players to have a more memorable experience. Plus, pace of play has picked up about 10 minutes [since the renovations], which makes everyone happy.”
– Kenny Hughes, CEO of Shell Landing Golf Club
Smart investments like these that yield a better course and golf experience make me happy, too, and it’s no wonder Shell Landing’s impressive championship parkland track is only getting better with time. I for one can’t wait to get back again someday to witness its ensuing phases of betterment.
With Hughes at the helm, and with so many other terrific golf minds fostering its progress and overall golf experience, I have no doubt the property will continue to impress for decades to come.