Navigating the betrayals, organized crime and murder that helped spur Biloxi’s glittering golf scene
Words by Will Bardwell
Light / Dark
On a still, shadowy Monday night 36 Septembers ago in Biloxi, Mississippi, a man knocked on the front door of Vincent and Margaret Sherry’s home. The horror of the next few seconds changed everything.
First, the hitman shot Vincent. While the local judge bled out in his own living room, the perpetrator walked to the couple’s bedroom and shot Margaret—a former city council member and candidate for mayor—in the head. The gunman spent only about three minutes in the home. On his way out, he put one more slug in Vincent, to be sure the job was done.
Today, 20 miles north of the home where the Sherrys died sits Fallen Oak, a lavish Tom Fazio design surrounded by towering south Mississippi pines and laid out on top of a small mountain’s worth of bulldozed earth. As sure as the Gulf Coast’s massive mosquitos reappear after a 50-degree winter day, Fallen Oak is a perennial tenant on top-100 lists. In 2010, it began hosting a PGA Tour Champions event, and, thanks to the course’s connection to the palatial Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico (the hotel and golf course share an owner, MGM Resorts), it’s a popular stop among the Tour’s comfort-seeking competitors. (“This is easily in the top five, if not the best course, we play all year,” Jay Haas said in 2011).
This course, along with several others, might not be here without the tragedy that befell the Sherrys.
Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has always kept unsavory bedfellows. In the early 1900s, the region’s mild winters and clean air made it a popular getaway for Northerners. When Prohibition arrived in 1920, it bloomed into a breeding ground for gambling and liquor trafficking. Keesler Air Force Base followed in 1941; with a sudden surge in the population of cash-flush GIs, prostitution wasn’t far behind. By the 1980s, Biloxi had become a hotbed of activity for a loose confederation of organized criminals known as the Dixie Mafia. “In the past decade,” a federal prosecutor said of the crime syndicate in 1990, “it has become common knowledge that they are one of the major criminal forces in the Southeast.”
But the Sherry murders were shocking even by Biloxi’s standards. When the FBI unraveled the mystery, its findings were no less so: a cross-state conspiracy between a Dixie Mafia affiliate serving life in prison and Vincent Sherry’s former law partner. The investigation is widely credited with breaking the back of illegal gambling on the Gulf Coast.
But nature abhors a vacuum. Into the void left by illegal gambling came the legalized version, authorized by the Mississippi legislature fewer than three years after the Sherry murders. The dimly lit, ramshackle back rooms full of dirty mattresses and grimy slot machines were replaced by towers of glass, vibrant music, lights that never turned off—and brand-new slot machines.
Along with the gambling came another guilty pleasure: golf. The golf course construction boom of the late 1990s and the 2000s overlapped perfectly with the Gulf Coast’s emergence as a more legitimate destination. In 1997, the area’s first casino course—The Bridges Golf Club, an Arnold Palmer design—opened in Bay St. Louis. Within two years, two more casino-owned courses opened: Davis Love III’s Shell Landing, an easygoing layout through raw marshland east of Biloxi, and the Jack Nicklaus–designed Grand Bear, located 20 miles inland. (Grand Bear hosted a 2000 matchup between Paul Azinger and Jesper Parnevik on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.) Then, in 2006, just over a year after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to much of the region, came Fallen Oak—every bit the Deep South’s answer to Las Vegas’ Shadow Creek in opulence and architectural audacity.
When the sun dipped each night beneath the westward-reaching asphalt of U.S. Highway 90, those visitors needed something else to do besides feed slot machines. In 2000, 51-year-old Larry Holmes TKO’d Mike Weaver in the penultimate fight of Holmes’ career. Ric Flair pinned Jeff Jarrett to win the WCW world championship that same year. And the aging, eternally touring also-rans of classic rock found welcome homes in every casino venue.
Biloxi went from a hotbed of criminal shenanigans to just a hotbed.
If the Gulf Coast’s profile seems at odds with the standard front-of-mind image of agricultural Mississippi, it’s not your imagination. The state is regionally fragmented, but the Gulf Coast feels even more detached, both in appearance and attitude. The 80-mile-long strip of coastline is closer to both New Orleans and Pensacola than the state capital of Jackson; Biloxi holds a large Mardi Gras parade each year. And its day-to-day culture owes more to its seafaring neighbor regions than to the river bearing the state’s name.
Seafood dominates the Gulf Coast’s cuisine, and the ready supply of shrimp shows up in the region’s affinity for Cajun food. But gumbo and fried-shrimp baskets are merely the beginning. When Vietnamese refugees arrived at the Port of New Orleans during the 1970s, the Mississippi Gulf Coast proved an attractive place to resettle—a familiar climate, with an economy where fishing skills were just as useful as they had been back home. Today, authentic Vietnamese restaurants are easy to find, and a shrimp pulled out of the gulf’s waters at midnight is just as likely to reappear in a stir-fry as it is in a po’boy at lunchtime.
Therein lies a fundamental tension of Biloxi: old and new, perceived and actual reality. The tall, glassy hotels and casinos dominating the landscape are what draw the Gulf Coast’s visitors, but the area’s real spirit dwells in the hole-in-the-wall seafood joints and the scuffed-up dive bars a couple of blocks off the water.
The Gulf Coast’s portfolio of golf courses—by far Mississippi’s deepest—reflects that same tension. The big names are massive, designer-name layouts with manicured fairways set to a perpetual shade of green. But the places that linger in one’s memory are the older, lower-key designs with more humility and character.
None fit that bill more than Great Southern Golf Club, on the eastern edge of Gulfport. When the massive Great Southern Hotel opened in 1903, a New York newspaper reported that it was “said to be the finest hotel in the South.” The area’s comfortable wintertime temperatures and the hotel’s modern amenities (electric lights and hot running water) made it a popular spot for Yankee travelers. To continue drawing them, the hotel opened a seaside golf course in 1910; today, it remains Mississippi’s oldest. When President Woodrow Wilson spent several weeks vacationing in nearby Pass Christian (pronounced “Pass Kristy-ANN”) during the winter of 1913-14, he played the golf course nearly every day. It hosted a short-lived professional tournament, the Gulfport Open, which Sam Snead won in 1945 after beating Byron Nelson in a 19-hole playoff, and an LPGA event in 1964, where Mickey Wright came out on top.
The hotel was demolished in 1951, but the golf course continued on, although Hurricane Katrina did its best to put an end to that in 2005. The clubhouse was destroyed and the course suffered terrific damage. Also lost, the club insists, was proof that the course’s original designer was Donald Ross, although contemporary newspaper accounts report that Great Southern’s architect was Charles Nieman from New York. Either way, Great Southern remains a captivating glimpse of yesteryear: scruffy and wide open with squared-off greens and views unmatched anywhere on the Gulf Coast.
But modern economics appear to have finished what Mother Nature began: The club filed for bankruptcy in 2019 and couldn’t find a buyer who would commit to preserving the property as a golf course. A Florida developer purchased the land in 2021 and has expressed plans to build single-family homes overlooking the gulf. The course is slated to close in 2023.
Great Southern’s demise will leave Gulf Hills Golf Club sole heir to the region’s early golf heritage.
Like Great Southern, Gulf Hills owes its existence to a resort sharing its name: a hideaway on the north side of Biloxi Bay, where the famous (Elvis Presley) and infamous (Al Capone) alike are reputed to have roosted. The golf course opened in 1927 as the brainchild of Jack Daray, a lesser-known golden-age designer, but through no lack of merit: He laid out Coronado Golf Course in San Diego, renovated Metairie Country Club’s Seth Raynor design just outside New Orleans and was an original member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
If Great Southern is a glimpse at golf a hundred years gone by, then Gulf Hills is a dance with it. In contrast to Great Southern’s flat, wide-open layout, Gulf Hills leaps and winds through tight, tree-lined fairways, over and through hillocks. At times, it feels more like the North Carolina Sandhills than south Mississippi: quirky and rollicking, with tiny greens tucked among smooth-edged bunkers.
But, for better or for potentially worse, the present is winning in Biloxi. The quaint moments available at Great Southern and Gulf Hills are the exception for an area now ruled by the blaring championship-style signature courses. There is sadness among some locals in that evolution, but the truth is that these casino courses—designer-brand though they may be—are strong layouts with understated greens fees. Only a zealot would grieve that.
For instance, at Shell Landing Golf Club in Gautier, half an hour from the Alabama state line, $75 will get you on a fun, uncrowded design with bold bunkering and a terrific set of par 3s. Thirty minutes north of the Beau Rivage, Grand Bear—Nicklaus’ only public design in Mississippi—is a shotmaker’s day at the office, rolling across hills and repeated doglegs. Back closer to the water, The Preserve Golf Club delivers a challenging layout from Jerry Pate, whose underrated design career includes Mississippi heavyweight Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point and both courses at Dancing Rabbit Golf Club in Philadelphia.
When Palmer spoke at the 1997 grand opening of his design at The Bridges, he predicted, “People are starting to become aware of this area. There’s no question that this is a great area for golf. As time goes on, there will be a lot more courses built on the Gulf Coast.”
The King proved prophetic. And at the center of the burgeoning universe that he foresaw sits Fallen Oak.
There is a dirty secret about the area’s beaches: They aren’t real. When De Soto first arrived in these waters in the 1500s, Mississippi’s beaches were dunescapes covered in pine trees and sea grasses. The 26 miles of smooth, resplendent beach stretching today between Biloxi and Gulfport is man-made—beautiful but contrived, with constant attention needed to maintain the illusion of nature.
So it is with Fallen Oak. The Fazio design opened in 2005 with a price tag of $30 million after moving 580,000 yards of soil (enough to fill up Spaceship Earth, the sphere at the center of Disney World’s EPCOT theme park—then fill it up six more times, too).
There is no denying that, even in the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s deep portfolio of public-access golf, Fallen Oak stands above. It is massive, sprawling across more than 500 acres. It is brutally difficult. It is immaculately maintained. It is quiet, with all the trappings (and dauntings) of a private club. It is not designed to be a pleasant walk. But, for what its creators envisioned, Fallen Oak is perfect.
The contrast between Fallen Oak and Great Southern is more than just the evolution of golf. It is the story of this place: a region that has grown from quiet and quaint to soaring and opulent, where local gangsters who ran the area’s gambling scene have been replaced by international conglomerates to whom a subsidized Fazio design is the next pencil mark on a balance sheet.
Locals and longtime visitors who knew this place before the casinos will tell you that Biloxi has changed. But that’s not completely true. It’s just grown up to the fullest version of what it always has been.
In the hours after Vincent and Margaret Sherry’s bullet-riddled bodies were discovered, no one offered the grieving family more comfort than Pete Halat, Vincent’s old law partner from before he became a judge. Halat helped the Sherry children make sense of their unfathomable loss. He spoke at the funeral. He emerged as a community leader, and was later elected mayor of Biloxi.
He was also eventually convicted of participating in the conspiracy that resulted in the Sherry murders.
Behind Halat’s handsome, tanned face and easygoing Mississippi smile, there lay secrets. For years, he had worked under the table with Kirksey Nix—a lifer at Angola, the infamous Louisiana maximum-security prison, and a longtime fixture of the Dixie Mafia—to defraud gay men through “lonely hearts” personal ads. Nix and his associates worked the unsuspecting clients, and Halat’s law practice cleaned the payoff money. But Halat kept secrets from Nix, too: He quietly siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars. When Nix discovered that so much money had gone missing, Halat blamed Vincent Sherry. Nix believed the lie and ordered Vincent and Margaret’s killings.
The incompetence of local police investigating the murders astonished the Sherry family. They begged federal investigators to intervene. But murder is a crime under state law, not the province of the FBI, so the bureau was forced to defer to local officials—until the Sherry family uncovered the link between Halat and Nix. The phone calls underlying their association were evidence of classic wire fraud. Nine years after that hitman knocked on the Sherrys’ front door, a federal jury convicted Halat of initiating the conspiracy that ended in their deaths. He was sentenced to 18 years, served 15 and was released in 2013. Today, Halat lives with his wife in seaside Ocean Springs, a jovial town big on parties, a couple of miles east of Biloxi.
Any former mayor would love for their legacy to include economic revival. Palmer, with his thinning white hair tousled by the warm gulf breeze, predicting the local golf boom that was to come; Azinger and Parnevik slapping shots around a newly opened Nicklaus course in a made-for-TV event; Fazio at the command of an army of bulldozers, his mind uncluttered by any budget constraints—none of this might have happened if the old Biloxi had not been swept away by the Sherry murders, conviction and subsequent fallout.
Halat, who turned 80 this year, keeps a low profile these days. A Facebook photo posted by his wife five Christmases ago shows his shoulders sagging and his eyes drooping, with wrinkles carved into his still-tanned face. More than even the hard-bitten locals, he’s seen and felt the evolution of this area.
In folks like Halat, the last remnants of the old Biloxi are weather-beaten but still here. When they pass, though, the withering will be quiet. Meanwhile, the casinos never close, and Fallen Oak is open year-round.