The nationwide explosion of casino gambling has fueled an interesting side effect -- casino golf courses, which are often of better quality and at lower prices than their non-casino peers.
Since the casino boom started in the Northeast, it is no surprise that some of the largest golf facilities are found here. Prices, however, tend to run higher (often quite higher) than casino golf in the rest of the country.
Foxwoods Resort & Casino in eastern Connecticut was the first successful Native American casino.
The Mashuntucket Pequot Tribe, which owns the casino, made golf course designer Rees Jones an offer he couldn't refuse. The tribe let Jones pick his land from 2,000 acres of wilderness, rock ledge and lakes -- with no home sites or other realty constraints -- and build two 18-hole courses of uninterrupted golf.
The result is Lake of Isles.
Managed by Troon Golf, the Lake of Isles North Course (open to the public and casino guests) has made every top 100 list and is widely considered one of the best public courses in Connecticut. It is more than 7,300 yards long and in peak season runs from $149-$199. Packages with lodging or lodging and spa are possible depending on availability.
Foxwoods does offer a "Member For a Day Package." That includes one night of lodging and two rounds of golf -- one on the otherwise off-limits South Course -- plus various food and drink credits, starting at $392 per person.
Off the course, Foxwoods is easily the biggest and best-equipped casino outside Las Vegas, with multiple gaming areas and more than 360 table games, the largest poker room on the East Coast (site of frequent World Poker Tour events), a large race book and a huge bingo auditorium.
There are four distinct hotel choices with more than 1,000 rooms and 38 food and beverage outlets, from snack bars to celebrity chef fine dining. Plus, there are regular performances by the biggest names in entertainment like Jerry Seinfeld, as well as several nightclubs and bars. No casino outside Nevada has as much under one roof as Foxwoods, and the golf is just across the street.
Just down the road is Foxwoods' main competitor, the Mohegan Sun. Despite Foxwoods' size and facilities, its reputation is a sterile atmosphere with brisk, business-like service. Mohegan Sun goes for fun and electricity and generally is the more happening of the two. And while smaller than Foxwoods it is still huge by casino hotel standards.
The Mohegan Sun's golf product is not as good as Lake of Isles, but it is trying hard. It purchased a nearby course, renamed it the Mohegan Sun Country Club at Pautipaug and immediately renovated it. The new design added 125 yards, completely rebuilt five holes, greatly improved conditioning, and also renovated the clubhouse and extended the hotel's white glove service.
Inside the Mohegan Sun is every game, dining and entertainment choice one could want, with an electric Las Vegas atmosphere.
Turning Stone Resort
From a golf perspective, no casino in the Northeast -- or the country -- can really compare to Turning Stone Resort in Verona, N.Y.
Turning Stone has three 18-hole courses, all heavily acclaimed. It also has a par-36, nine-hole course (Pleasant Knolls) and a nine-hole, par-3 course (Sandstone Hollow). There is a full-time golf academy with first-rate facilities and a year-round golf dome for instruction, practice and simulator play in winter months.
The first 18-hole course at Turning Stone was the Rick Smith-designed Shenendoah Golf Club, which opened in 2000 and was named one of "America's Best New Upscale Courses" by Golf Digest. The magazine gave the same honor to the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Kaluhyat Golf Club, which opened in 2003. Kaluhyat also made Golf Magazine's "Top 10 New Courses" list.
But Turning Stone really took national prominence in 2004 when it undertook a $310 million expansion project that included a performing arts center, enclosed winter garden atrium complete with waterfalls, palm trees and restaurants, a huge luxury spa and two new hotels, a 19-story high rise and an upscale boutique lodge.
This wave also added the resort's most lauded layout, the Tom Fazio-designed Atunyote Golf Club, which makes every top 100 list.
Turning Stone is another big-time, full-featured resort and offers four distinct levels of lodging, from the RV Park to the Lodge at Turning Stone, a freestanding four-diamond boutique hotel with marble whirlpool baths and its own fine-dining restaurant that is really good. This is as nice a lodging option as you will find outside the high-roller suites of Vegas.
There is also a high-end, fly-fishing club with its own lodge, a slew of dining, entertainment and nightclub options, plus a large casino and poker room. With the spa, dining and lodge, you could be at any first-class golf resort in the world at Turning Stone and could enjoy a world-class golf vacation without ever setting foot in the casino.
Atlantic City Country Club
There are two other notable casino courses in the Northeast, at least if you expand the broad geographic definition to include the Atlantic City region, home to the Atlantic City Country Club.
More than a century old, the course was not a casino build but is now owned by Caesar's, which offers packages for guests of its four Atlantic City hotels: Harrah's, Caesar's, Showboat and Bally's. The course opened in 1897, has hosted six U.S. Golf Association championships and claims to be the birthplace of the phrases "birdie" and "eagle." It was redesigned by Tom Doak and is very solid.
Seneca Hickory Stick
In upstate New York, just outside Niagara Falls, is one of the newest casino courses, the Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed Seneca Hickory Stick, an amenity for guests of the Seneca Nation's two somewhat hokey area casinos, Niagara and Allegheny. Rated the sixth-best new course in the nation by Golf Magazine, this is a high-quality layout and a tremendous bargain.