Trip dispatch: golf and gaming rules southeastern Connecticut

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - Note to self: playing poker on a weeknight is often a losing proposition.

I'm no Daniel Negreanu, but I've played a little poker in my life, both online (pre-"Black Friday" April 15, 2011 government shutdown) and live (in a couple casinos and in my fraternity house in college).

How little poker I've really played became clear quickly a few weeks ago, as I was out of my depth even at the modest $1-$2 No Limit tables, both at Foxwoods' huge poker room and Mohegan Sun's smaller though nicely setup room the following night.

It cost me a couple hundred bucks, but I confirmed what I already suspected: I'm a little better at "Hole'Em" than "Hold'Em."

Small price to pay for a couple nights in Connecticut's casino district, though.

For years, when most people thought "Connecticut," tourism would not have come to mind. The state just isn't famous for much - recently excellent men's and women's college basketball programs, New Haven pizza, Hartford-based insurance companies and some of the richest zip codes in the U.S., in the New York City bedroom communities of Fairfield County.

"Huge casino resorts" belong on the list, too, and Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun attract their fair share of gamers and golfers for good reason.

Foxwoods Resort Casino and Lake of Isles Golf Club

Dating back to 1986, Foxwoods has grown in 32 years the way cities tend to grow in 100. It started as a federally-permitted bingo hall on Mashantucket Pequot reservation land, and now it comprises six casinos and more than 300,000 square feet of gaming space, plus millions more of shopping (including a three-year-old Tanger Outlet Mall), dining, conference space and more than 2,200 hotel rooms.

Oh, and Lake of Isles Golf Club.

This two-course facility houses 36 holes designed by Rees Jones. I teed it up at the private South Course first. Though primarily designed for the modest membership (it’s a second club for many), you may be able to get on the South if you have your own home private club pro call and make arrangements on your behalf.

The course starts off on a bold note – the back tee for the opening hole sits atop a 20-foot-high boulder, and though you probably won’t want to play from those tees all the way around, it’s worth at least standing up there and checking out the view.

Opened alongside its sister North Course in 2005, The South Course fairly epitomizes pre-Recession modern course design. It’s big and difficult, with considerable elevation change befitting the nature of the site on which it was built. The fairways are generous, but missing them means recovery from deep rough or the prospect of a lost ball in deep woods. There are some long forced carries, which will quickly indicate whether you’ve chosen the right set of tees.

The holes that involve the eponymous lake stand out as highlights of the round, starting with the par-3 11th, “Lily Pad,” whose green juts out into the lake and is lined by a stone wall. As island green holes go, the setting for this one is prettier than most, but it doesn’t blunt the fear inherent in the tee shot. If you mess up on 11, though, you have a chance at redemption when the 16th comes around. It’s a longer par three but it plays downhill, with the lake intruding on the right. There are some kick-slope possibilities left of the green, though, which make it one of the most fun approaches on the property.

I found the North Course, which is the resort guest- and public-accessible Lake of Isles course, to be the superior layout. While it doesn’t have the mystique that comes with being private, it occupies slightly better land and I thought Rees Jones fashioned more memorable holes here than at the South. An uphill climb to the par-5 first green followed by a 50-foot drop from tee to par-3 second green introduces the player to the up-and-down nature of the course. The photogenic 11th, which plays down into the middle of the lake, is something of an all-or-nothing proposition: a miss left will go in the water, while a miss right will go in the water if it isn’t snagged by a deep bunker.

My favorite holes at the North Course tended to be the shorter ones, as the birdie chances they offered made for a welcome reprieve on a tough track. The saddle-like tee shot on the shortish par-4 third leads to an interesting pedestal green that reminds a bit of another Connecticut gem: the “Knoll” 14th hole at Yale. The 17th at Lake of Isles North kicks off a scenic finish to the round, requiring a big carry off the elevated tee over a corner of the lake. It’s a beautiful scene up until you settle into the shot. If you can manage it, you’ll be left with a short iron or wedge up to the green, and a legitimate birdie opportunity.

Lake Of Isles is managed by Troon, which speaks positively toward its management and the condition of the courses, which are excellent. Matches Tavern in the lower floor of the clubhouse is a good spot for a post-round drink and/or bite to eat.

I enjoyed my overnight in The Fox Tower, Foxwoods newest hotel, which opened in 2006. It’s the most upscale of the resort’s accommodations, and situated at a slight remove from the main gaming area, it works well for golf-oriented guests. From the lobby, the main casino area is about a 10-minute walk, but if you’re in a hurry, you can take the HighFlyer zipline off the 38th-floor roof of the Fox Tower down to the more centrally located Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The walk was more my speed.

The restaurant scene at Foxwoods is understandably diverse, given the place’s size. I opted for dinner at the two-month-old Caputo Trattoria, a modern upscale Italian concept eatery whose pasta carbonara was up to snuff. Other one-off restaurants accompany a slate of known chains, from Dunkin Donuts and Ben & Jerry’s to California Pizza Kitchen and Phillips Seafood. Brooklyn diner-style Juniors, just off the lobby of the Fox Tower, was a solid breakfast option before departure.

Mohegan Sun Casino and Mohegan Sun Golf Club

From Foxwoods, I headed about 20 miles northwest to Mohegan Sun Golf Club at Pautipaug. The course, which was known as Pautipaug Country Club until the Mohegan tribe purchased it a decade ago, is about 15 miles north of the resort proper.

The Geoffrey Cornish-designed Pautipaug Country Club was solid if relatively standard fare, so architect Robert McNeil was brought in to renovate it, which was something of a hybrid job. Most of the original holes remained intact but received new, rugged bunkering, while a few other holes were turned into new ones, most notably the par-5 sixth and par-4 seventh. The former features a bit of misdirection, as there are bunkers on the inside of a nearly 90-degree dogleg that seem to be begging for a heroic carry. But that turns out to be a bad idea, as the fairway on the far side of that complex slopes down and into an unseen pond. The following hole is a bit awkward as well, with a fairway that slopes hard right to left and is difficult to hold.

If you can play conservatively and make it through these two holes, though, you’ll find Mohegan Sun Golf Club a lot of fun. In fact, I rate the course slightly above Lake of Isles North on my own personal Connecticut top 10, largely owing to the more open, country-club feel of Mohegan Sun that limits lost-ball possibilities.

In terms of style and layout of the resort proper, Mohegan Sun has the edge over Foxwoods. It’s a little smaller (relatively speaking – it still offers huge gaming spaces and tons of shopping and dining), but the décor is more expressive and the lighting is moodier. Walking around Foxwoods is interesting in its own right, but doing the same at Mohegan Sun feels more like wandering through an environment. Being a fan of the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly, I enjoyed spending a couple moments looking at Mohegan Sun’s own purple piece of his.

The 34-story Sky Tower at Mohegan Sun offered top-notch accommodations as well. The rainfall shower was a welcome respite from my labors on the course. For dinner, I opted for some Cantonese barbecue at Phantasia, whose mostly Chinese menu is more authentic than you’ll find outside of big cities, owing to the large Asian and Asian-American clientele the casino (Foxwoods, too) attracts. In keeping with the general feel, Mohegan Sun’s restaurants skew a little more upscale, with Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain, Todd English’s Tuscany and Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse lending some celebrity heft to the scene. There are some more casual options, too, including an outpost of famous New Haven-style pizza palace Frank Pepe’s.

Foxwoods vs. Mohegan Sun: some quick comparisons

- First off, either Mohegan Sun or Foxwoods will give you what you want in a golf-included gaming trip. Which resort you’d prefer comes down to priorities. If access to golf is your main motivation, Foxwoods gets the edge due to Lake of Isles being a two-minute drive from the resort, against the 15 to 20 it takes from resort to golf at Mohegan Sun. Also, if you have private club juice, Foxwoods has two courses to Mohegan’s one.

- If atmosphere and feel are of particular importance – particularly if you have non-golfers in tow – Mohegan Sun is probably the superior base of operations. Both resorts more budget-oriented accommodations are broadly comparable, but I’d rate Mohegan Sun’s Sky Tower a half-step higher than Foxwoods’ Fox Tower.

- If you want to get some shopping in, Foxwoods’ Tanger Outlet Center is a big attraction.

- Both resorts are entertainment hubs. Bands, comics and other acts book shows at both, and venues are plentiful due to sheer size.

- Mohegan Sun is smaller, but its trump card is the Connecticut Sun, the WNBA team that plays its home games in Uncasville and draws strong crowds most nights. Having grown up in the Nutmeg State and witnessing the dominance of the University of Connecticut Huskies’ women’s basketball team since 1995, I have to give the edge here to Mohegan Sun, but reasonable people can disagree.

Bottom line, both these resorts have much to offer golfers, gamblers and travelers seeking the bright lights and sense of excitement that permeates casino resorts. Connecticut’s duo is tough to beat in this regard, and if your trip is going to be longer than a day or two, you’ll be best off getting a sample of each mega-resort. Once you have, leave your own thoughts on how they stack up in the comments below.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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Trip dispatch: golf and gaming rules southeastern Connecticut