The room was spinning – or at least the bar was. The Carousel Bar at the grand old Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans rotates 360 degrees every 15 minutes. As I wheeled past bartender Marvin, he whipped up a Sazerac (Old Overholt whiskey, sugar, bitters, Pernod, and lemon), plus the local hangover helper, a bourbon-fortified milkshake. I needed to be clearheaded for my road trip the next morning: three days on Louisiana's Audubon Golf Trail.
I've played America's top resort courses, profaned Augusta National's sacred turf, and hacked my way around the Old Course in St. Andrews, golf's crib. But with its combo of quality golf, fearsome wildlife, and smoldering Cajun cuisine, the Audubon Golf Trail would be a new treat. I mean, try finding good gumbo in Scotland.
The Audubon Trail ties together the Bayou State's best resort links: 10 challenging and diverse courses that snake their way up from New Orleans to the border with Arkansas. You get lakes, swamps, hardwood forests strung with Spanish moss, and wild animals that double as hazards. (Is that gator an immovable obstruction?) While my buddies up north were freezing their Titleists off, I'd be blazing the trail's newest, tightest stretch, from New Orleans's French Quarter across Lake Pontchartrain, to Baton Rouge, and then back down the Mississippi. I'd finish at one of the great courses designed by the man they call "golf's mad genius," architect Pete Dye – the Tournament Players Club of Louisiana.
Monday I wake up to café au lait and piping hot beignets at Café du Monde, then zip north on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. There's zydeco on the stereo, white pelicans overhead, flat gray-green water all the way to both horizons. I'm driving Saab’s brand new 9-2X, a nimble five-speed hatchback with all-wheel drive. It stickers at $23,685, packs 165 hp, and tops out at (don't tell any state troopers) 125 mph. I cruise into Carter Plantation, a new course designed by PGA Tour star David Toms, an LSU grad. At the first tee I meet up with my guide, Eric, who works for the state "gummint" in Baton Rouge and has played all 10 courses on the trail. He says I’ll soon have my hands full – from now to Wednesday, the courses will get increasingly difficult.
Carter Plantation, hard enough, winds through three landscapes: oak-lined parkland, pine forest, and low-lying wetlands. Eric and I tiptoe past Gaston, the eight-foot gator lurking in a pond beside the second green, and blast our way to the turn. Eric is a stick, a threat to break 75, but the best thing we'll break today is the seal on a post-round beer. "Durn it!" he yells as a back-nine drive caroms off a tall cypress. We've both got a shot at glory on the 13th hole, a monstrous 608-yard par five, but Eric lips out his birdie putt and I blow a six-footer for par.
That night I swear to bag at least one birdie before we're through. "You’ll get 'er done," says Eric over fist-thick steaks at the Caboose in tiny Independence, where freight trains rumble by under a thumbnail moon.
Tuesday's drive to The Island in Baton Rouge is through bayou country, the road riding the crown of a levee, ramshackle fishing camps on both sides. The course is carved from a sugar plantation and still bordered by cane fields. Here golfers don’t need to test the wind by tossing grass into the air. They just check which way the languid green stalks are swaying.
We make our way through a layout that features nine lakes and two bayous, with water in play on 17 holes. "You get some blind shots here," Eric says, his accent prettifying blind into blond. Thanks to a wind-aided 300-yard drive I almost bag my birdie at the 7th hole, a par 5 where my putt burns the lip. A strong back nine bodes well for tomorrow’s trip to the imposing TPC course.
But first we eat. After the tough round we're feeling lower than the graduation rate for LSU athletes, but find solace at the Chimes, a beery bistro at the campus’s main gate. Soon our table is piled with crab cakes, Creole gumbo, golf ball-size boudin fritters, creamy crawfish étouffée, and a toothsome appetizer: blackened alligator, which does not taste like chicken. It's infinitely better – spicy, chewy, almost (but not quite) gamy.
Later that night we try our luck at the Argosy riverboat casino. It's a smoky dive where penny and nickel slots clang below deck while dollar slots, card games, and roulette whirl upstairs. Thinking of my golf game, I try a slot machine called Hexbreaker. And go hex-broke. It's time to turn in anyway: Tomorrow’s task is tougher than beating casino odds. Wednesday we cross the mighty Mississippi and a 50-mile swamp, riding a highway built on concrete stilts to Dye's $30 million, 7,600-yard torture track.
Eric and I hustle to the first tee and boom drives on Dye's opening hole, 399 wrinkly yards of turf, sand, and cypress trees. Our golf cart scatters the egrets pecking at the fairway. The TPC features Dye's trademark bunkering – huge fairway traps, some more than 100 yards long. The course is longer than Carter Plantation or the Island, but Eric is on fire today and I'm getting warm. At the 8th hole I somehow knock a wedge 80 yards from the world's smallest pot bunker to the green, then sink a 20-foot putt. But now comes the par-3 ninth, which I play this way: Ball in water, ball in bunker, ball still in bunker, explosion shot, lucky eight-foot putt. That's a triple-bogey six. "Aw, it’s not all about the score," Eric tells me.
Nearing the end of Louisiana's Fabulous Food and Scenery, Ultimately Grueling if You Suck at Golf Trail, I get it right. I nail an 8-iron approach on the 13th hole, called Cypress Bend, spinning the ball to within three feet of the flag. It's a short putt, almost a gimme, but those three feet are starting to look longer. Before they can stretch to yards or miles I slap the ball and in it rolls.
"Birdie, man!" Eric yells.
We fist-bump so loud you can hear it. After pars at the long 18th we doff our hats and shake hands. We both cracked 40 on the last nine. "A fine round," Eric calls it. My final, unofficial tally is 54 holes, 263 strokes, 272 miles, 9,000 calories, and one magnificent birdie. "Y'all come back now," Eric says.
More information: In New Orleans, stay at the Hotel Monteleone from $165 a night. Rooms at the Villas at Carter Plantation, which go for $113, are steps from the fairway. In Baton Rouge, the Sheraton is your best bet.