Damage Control Swamped by a freak storm, the Florida project suffers a setback but not a disaster

October 07, 2001

It was drizzling when teaching pro Scott Hampton went to the
movies at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22. It was still
drizzling at 9:15 p.m. when he came out. "I didn't know there
had been a heavy storm while I was in the theater," Hampton said
a few days later, standing outside his office at the University
of Florida Golf Course. "I opened the paper the next morning and
was shocked to read that parts of Gainesville had been flooded."

At about the same time that Hampton was learning that four inches
of rain had fallen on the Florida campus in less than two hours,
course superintendent Mark Birdsell was driving around the layout
in his Club Car Carryall surveying the damage. Swaths of the 9th
and 18th fairways had disappeared, having been replaced by sandy
washes and fissures two feet deep. Bunkers at the 17th green were
topped off with an ugly gray-black silt. The practice range,
which serves as a holding area for excess storm water, had become
a practice lake. Earthen banks along the rim of the range had
collapsed, leaving cliffs as high as a man's waist. A serpentine
deposit of sand and clay meandered through the range's
bermuda-grass plugs, the grass smothered underneath.

"It was disheartening," says Birdsell, slumped over a table in
the grill room on the Wednesday after the storm. "When we
finished work on Saturday, the grass was growing well and we
thought we were over the hump in the renovation of the course.
Then this oddball storm balloons up in the middle of the state
and parks right here." He shakes his head. "A month's worth of
work washed away in two hours."

The worst part for everyone involved in the five-month-old
construction project is the knowledge that another big rain will
only magnify the damage. A newly grassed course is as vulnerable
to severe weather as a house getting a new roof, and for pretty
much the same reasons. Water rushing down steep grades washes out
the dirt between grass plugs and then carries off the plugs
themselves. New sod floats away or rolls up like wallpaper,
losing the soil around its roots. "It's a mess," says Scot
Sherman, the senior associate designer for Weed Golf Course
Design, who toured the layout on Sept. 24 to assess the damage.
"It's nothing we can't fix, but every hole was affected."

Actually, the eye-catching damage gives a false picture of the
course's overall condition. The greens and tees are undamaged,
thanks to their gentle grades and new drainage systems, and most
of the sodded areas have held and look splendid. Even the major
washouts can be repaired relatively quickly with a tractor and a
box blade. "You grab the dirt that's been washed away and drag it
back up," says Ben Taylor of MacCurrach Golf Construction Inc.,
the company handling the renovation. "Then you sod it as fast as
possible and pray it doesn't rain until the sod takes root."

The praying part is important. That became apparent when a repair
crew who regraded and resodded a 60-yard-long gully in front of
the 18th tee on Sept. 24 came back the next morning to find that
overnight rains had washed away all the new work. "We're getting
hammered," says Taylor. "It's depressing. It's painful for
everybody."

The fellow hurting the most is assistant athletic director Chip
Howard, who can only bite his lip as Mother Nature demands a
bigger and bigger share of his $4 million course budget. "Last
week we put $20,000 into extra sod, and this week it's another
15 or 20," he says, putting a mental dipstick into the project's
dwindling contingency fund of $120,000. "We're giving Mark an
additional crew of six from a local labor contractor to help
repair washouts." Howard laughs nervously. "The budget can
handle a little more trouble but not a lot. Hopefully it will
stop raining."

In the meantime Howard continues to make arrangements for the
course's reopening, which has already been penciled in and
crossed out several times. The current plan, written in sand, is
to dedicate the first nine on Saturday, Nov. 17, with a skins
game among four yet-to-be-named touring pros who are Florida
alumni. That would be followed two weeks later by Gator Golf Day,
the University Athletic Association's annual 18-hole fund-raiser
for the golf program.

Out on the course Birdsell is on the run again and viewing
matters a bit more optimistically. It's important, he tells me,
to note the damage that didn't take place. There's very little
bunker erosion--a pleasant contrast to the recent past, when
storms left patches of bunker sand all over the property. There
are no flooded bunkers, either, which means that Birdsell's crew
won't have to haul out the portable pumps every time it rains.
Best of all, the tees and greens look great. No puddles, no storm
debris, no need for squeegeeing. "If there's a silver lining,"
says Birdsell, "it's knowing that [had the course been grown in]
we could have played golf on Sunday morning. I'm not going to
face the maintenance nightmares I faced before."

Does that mean that Birdsell still thinks he can get all 18
holes ready for the Nov. 30 Golf Day? "Oh, yeah, yeah," he says.
However, he then looks up at the dull sky, and the parameters of
doubt can be seen in his eyes. "You need three months of growing
weather to get a course grown in," says Birdsell, "and a day
like this is not a good growing day. Bermuda grass needs full
sunlight."

A front loader rumbles by, its forklift piled high with
bahia-grass sod. The clumpy, wide-bladed grass is headed for the
rough between the 3rd and the 17th fairways, where a crew of
seven workers is filling bare patches. "What's the forecast for
the weekend?" Birdsell is asked as dark clouds build to the west.

He answers over his shoulder as he walks away: "Rain."

Nothing is duller than watching grass grow, right? Think again.
Next time, This Old Course will follow Birdsell and his crew as
they grow in 80 acres of turf grass in a race against the
calendar.

For previous installments of This Old Course go to
golfplus.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG An added task for assistant super John Drouse: Prioritize repairs needed after the storm. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Fixing glitches in the drainage system was part of the punch list.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)