The Little Tournament That Could

Having weathered two hurricanes and a four-week delay, the battered and beleaguered Southern Farm Bureau Classic is again up and running, and ready to welcome the PGA Tour
October 31, 2005

On a bright Saturday in August, someone in the office asked Mary Katherine Rice, the tournament coordinator for the PGA Tour's Southern Farm Bureau Classic, if a media outing scheduled for the coming Monday should be canceled. A major storm, she was told, was headed their way. "No way," she remembers saying. "It's so sunny out." ¶ That Monday the media did not hit the links at Annandale Golf Club in Madison, Miss., a suburb north of Jackson, the state capital. But Hurricane Katrina did, and despite being downgraded to a Category 3 storm after her pulverizing swipe across New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, she was still packing heavy rain and 100-mph winds. ¶ Rice and some others on the tournament team came to work anyway that Monday because with the tournament only five weeks away there was plenty to do. The Classic's office is nestled in a grove of oak and hickory trees across the street from a scenic pond called Whisper Lake. "By the afternoon we could see whitecaps on that little lake," Rice says. "That's when I thought, This would be a good time to leave." So it came to pass that the only Tour event sponsored by an insurance company was almost wiped out by the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history.

Overnight the Classic, set to be played Oct. 6-9 opposite the American Express Championship, was confronted with a smorgasbord of obstacles-the residue of six inches of rain, downed trees, a power outage, a gas shortage and a lack of hotel rooms, plus a heat wave that threatened to scorch Annandale's greens. To top things off, about a month later the area was visited by Hurricane Rita, which piled on five more inches of rain.

On Sept. 7 the tournament and the Tour decided that there was no way the Classic could go on as scheduled, but instead of canceling for the first time in the event's 38-year history, the tournament was pushed back a month, to next week, concurrent with the Tour Championship.

Robert Morgan, the longtime executive director of the Classic, has white hair, a sincere smile, a slow gait and a smooth, easy voice. The very portrait of a Southern gentleman, Morgan is 74 years old but looks as if he's in his 50s. He lives about 90 miles south of Madison, near Hattiesburg, where he endured Hurricane Camille in 1969. "We had a big oak tree split in half in front of our house," Morgan says, "but Camille was nothing like the devastation this time. You can't go anywhere in Hattiesburg without seeing downed trees and blown-up houses." His first thought about the Classic after Katrina, he says, was, "I don't know about the rest of the folks, but I won't be ready for a golf tournament in 30 days."

He's ready now. "We're dedicating this year's tournament to Katrina relief and recovery," says Morgan, who has set $500,000 as a goal. "We're donating all the gate receipts and ticket sales to a storm fund."

Near the end of September, a few days after Rita added more broken tree limbs to Annandale's to-do list, Ed McEnroe, who had been the director of corporate partnerships at the Ford Championship before taking over as tournament director at the Classic about a month before Katrina, drove around the course with a reporter checking the damage. The good news: The cleanup went so well that one had to look closely to see the circular scars where workers had sawed off tree limbs. Annandale lost about 40 mature trees and had 200 others that were severely damaged. There's not much wreckage to see now, thanks to the work of course superintendent Al Osteen and his crew.

Osteen made a crucial decision that, in retrospect, may have saved this year's Classic: He ensured that Annandale's 1,000-gallon gas and diesel tanks, plus the tanks of every tractor and utility vehicle on the premises, were filled in advance of Katrina. "We may have been the only course in the area not to run out of gas," Osteen says. "There was nowhere to fill up. I had to ration gas from my stock so my crew could get to work."

Like everywhere else in the area, Annandale was without power for almost five days. (Workers used a hand pump to refuel their vehicles.) The lack of electricity meant that the course's irrigation system was useless, and with temperatures soaring into the upper 90s, Annandale's tender bent-grass greens were at risk. Osteen's 25-man crew hand-watered the greens to keep them alive. "Even though we had just gotten six inches of rain, the greens needed syringing immediately," says Osteen. "Our guys went green to green, starting early in the morning, all day long. By three or four o'clock in the afternoon the greens were still getting pretty hot." The power came back on just in time to save the stressed-out putting surfaces. "Everybody worked hard all day and then went home to a hot house, a refrigerator with spoiled food and no gas," Osteen says. "My hat's off to our guys."

Life is far from back to normal in Jackson. Area hotels are filled with displaced people as well as insurance adjusters, utility workers and FEMA personnel. The Classic's contracts with vendors and concessionaires had to be rescheduled after the date change. Staples like portable toilets were scarce because they were needed for recovery workers. Trailers, usually used at tournament sites as offices, were also in short supply.

Although the tickets and the programs haven't been reprinted and carry the tournament's October dates, the rest of the Classic looks ready to go. "It's always a good feeling when you work all year and the tournament is a success," says Courtney Caldwell, the tournament's sales coordinator. "But this year will be special."

"Everybody worked hard all day," says Osteen, "then went home to a HOT HOUSE, A REFRIGERATOR WITH SPOILED FOOD AND NO GAS. My hat's off to our guys."

PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE SOUTHERN FARM BUREAU CLASSIC PHOTOPhotographs by Darren Carroll   TREE-MENDOUS SHAPE
More than a month after Katrina and Rita, Annandale has been cleared of debris (opposite) and is in prime condition for the Classic.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Darren Carroll  HOE DOWN
Osteen (above, far right) and crew, and McEnroe (inset, right) and Morgan never lost faith.
PHOTOPhotographs by Darren Carroll

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)