Fractured Fairways

Hurricane Katrina--ravaged New Orleans will celebrate the return of the PGA Tour next week, but the city will need much more time to overcome the obstacles to resuscitating its golf industry and courses
April 23, 2006

With the settingsun at his back and a cool, gentle breeze in his face, Terry Casanova goesthrough his preshot routine. Down both sides of the fairway, magnificent oaktrees cast their twisted shadows. Casanova doesn't have a caddie or a yardagebook, but he thinks he has about 165 yards to the rusted barrel. ¶ "Thisused to be one of my favorite holes," the 48-year-old securities brokersays. "A short par-4. A driver and a little sand wedge." That wasbefore Hurricane Katrina roared ashore last August and put New Orleans's BayouOaks Golf Club under millions of gallons of contaminated floodwater. Now theonly golfers you see at City Park are a few sad souls like Casanova, who comeout to hit balls on the unkempt meadow where Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and SamSnead once roamed. "I've been playing out here since I was 10," hesays. "It's terrible to see it like this." ¶ Thirteen miles south, onthe other side of the muddy Mississippi River, Etienne and Mildred Songy aren'tmuch happier with the view. A retired couple, the Songys have lived in theLouisiana Pines subdivision of Algiers for 22 years, the principal attractionbeing their unobstructed view of the fairways and greens of Lakewood CountryClub, site of the New Orleans Open from 1963 through 1988. But now thevista--even with hundreds of fallen trees cut up and hauled away--is less thanpristine. "It's not nice to look at anymore," says Mildred, an avidgardener. "The grass hasn't been touched since Katrina. It's like moths ateit."

Out west onAirline Highway, the grass at the St. Rose Driving Range is mostlygone--parched by drought, smothered by ranks of trailers and RVs, and trampledby the boots of relief workers who have made it their campground. "There'sprobably 20,000 golf balls out there," says range owner Bruce Bourgeois,referring to the dirt-caked orbs that litter his property like cow patties."We tried to pick them up, but we were too busy taking care of the reliefworkers." He sighs. "I want this to be a driving range again."

On the east side,where abandoned malls, churches and schools give the landscape the appearanceof nuclear winter, the two ruined courses at Eastover Country Club simply bakein the sun.

It's not all badnews. When viewers tune in to next week's Zurich Classic, they will get theusual blimp shots of emerald fairways, sparkling water and white-sand bunkers.English Turn Golf and Country Club sits on relatively high ground near theriver and suffered only minor freshwater flooding from Katrina. The flower bedswill be bursting with pansies. The grandstands will be filled with fans.

But if religiousbroadcaster Pat Robertson were to look at New Orleans eight months after thestorm, he might decide that golfers, and not libertines, were the targets ofGod's wrath. Golf equipment discounters Nevada Bob's and Edwin Watts have lefttown. The University of New Orleans will disband its women's golf team at theend of the season because of storm-related budget cuts, and men's coach ChrisMcCarter and his wife live in a FEMA trailer. Tulane has shut down its men'sand women's programs. At upscale Metairie Country Club, members are ponderingwhether to restore a portion of their flood-battered, 66,000-square-footclubhouse or simply raze it and start over. To make matters worse, Congressapproved nearly $8 billion in tax breaks for Gulf Coast businesses lastDecember but specifically excluded casinos, racetracks, liquor stores, massageparlors ... and golf courses. The beleaguered Federal Emergency ManagementAgency, swamped by aid applications from the South, has given little or nothingto public parks and golf courses. As one harried bureaucrat put it, "FEMAdoesn't buy grass."

Twenty miles westof English Turn, the Tournament Players Club of Louisiana--the club thatdebuted a year ago as the Tour's New Orleans venue--lies in sleepy repose.Behind the big front doors, in a shadowy vestibule, the guest book is stillopen to the date it was last used, Aug. 25, 2005. "We had only a fewgolfers on the morning of the 26th," recalls marketing director PamelaVitrano-Buie, one of three PGA Tour employees house-sitting the clubhouse whilethe course is rebuilt. "People had already started evacuating."

The hum of airconditioning and the piped-in voice of James Taylor confirm the Tour's plans toreopen the three-year-old TPC by September, but a quick tour of the propertyreveals extensive turf damage and thinned-out tree lines. "We had thousandsof trees that were down or snapped in two," says course superintendent JimMoore. "All the bunkers were bathtubs, and we couldn't even get to holes 2through 6 for a couple of weeks. That was all underwater." And then camethe army worms--voracious turf eaters that can devour a fairway in a matter ofdays. "They had two solid weeks, just out there eating," Mooresays.

Fortunately, thePGA Tour does buy grass. Moore's crews recently began resodding, and there's noreason to think they won't have the Pete Dye--designed layout in tournamentshape by next spring. The tree lines will need a little more time to fillin--say, a couple of decades.

Nature, we don'thave to be told, is capricious. The Audubon Park Golf Course, an elegantexecutive layout in the New Orleans Garden District, looks as if it got amanicure and a pedicure from Katrina. Meanwhile, the city-run Joseph M.Bartholomew course, on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, took on up to 20feet of chemically contaminated saltwater and a top dressing of dead sharks andredfish. Why did Audubon survive and Bartholomew perish? Hydrologists will tellyou it's because Audubon is on high ground near the Mississippi levee, whileBartholomew occupies the precarious low land behind the lakefront barrier.Refugees from the late, lamented Lower Ninth Ward will claim there's more toit. The posh park course, a beloved track for in-line skaters, joggers andleashed dogs, is named for a 19th-century wildlife artist. The lakefront muni,a favorite of black golfers and home to the First Tee of New Orleans, is namedfor its designer, thought to be the first professionally trainedAfrican-American golf architect.

Well, nobody saidhurricanes were fair. Besides, the Big Easy's rich and powerful golferscouldn't dodge the storm. New Orleans Country Club lost 55 carts, all itsmaintenance vehicles and the entire first floor of its clubhouse. At MetairieCountry Club, where an estimated half of the members suffered the loss of homesand cars, the course took on anywhere from four to 12 feet of water. "I wasone of the first to set foot on it, post-Katrina," says golf shop managerJoe Schick. "When I went out on the putting green it was basically blackand crunching under my feet." Both clubs had insurance and a roster ofdeep-pocketed members. On a recent weekend New Orleans Country Club sparkled,its tennis courts, fairways and rebuilt clubhouse teeming with happy members.Metairie's infrastructure will take longer to repair--the clubhouse doorsremain padlocked and the shop is in a trailer--but the course itself is greenand inviting thanks to the efforts of staffers who towed a 500-gallon tankthrough the mire to hand-water greens battered first by flood and then bydrought. Says Schick, "Now that we have the old guys playing golf again,it's almost normal."

The operativeword is almost. At Professional Custom Club and Repair, in a strip mall onVeterans Boulevard, a thigh-high sheet of unfinished drywall marks the floodline. "It's not completely dead," Dale Baker says of his business, buthe concedes that most of his work is replacing rusted shafts--rust being one ofKatrina's enduring legacies. Another is frustration, particularly amongdispossessed residents who spend their days word-wrestling with insuranceadjusters, contractors, public officials and FEMA. Baker's sister and co-owner,Connie Whalen, says, "We get four or five guys a day who come in, hit 10balls and leave. They say, 'Man, I had to hit something.'"

Across the streetat the Golf Zone--where business is strong, says owner Joe Campo, thanks to theexodus of the chain stores--golfers try out three-ball putters and waggletitanium drivers with devotional intensity. "To deal with this type ofdisaster, you need an outlet," says Campo. "For one person, it'schurch. For another, it's golf."

Peter Carew wouldagree with that. "People can't spend the whole day doing Sheetrock," hesays, driving a utility cart across the hard, bumpy fairways of the BrechtelMemorial Park Municipal Golf Course. "They have to haverecreation."

Carew, 52, is thecourse superintendent for the New Orleans Parks and Parkways Department. BeforeKatrina, he and a full-time staff of 14 took care of two courses: BrechtelPark, across the river from downtown New Orleans, and the flagship Bartholomewlayout in Pontchartrain Park. The city had just finished a $1 million upgradeto Bartholomew, and another half million was slated for Brechtel.

These days Carewoperates on a budget better suited for a teenager with a lawn-mowingbusiness--except that the kid probably has better equipment. The flooddestroyed everything at Bartholomew, and both courses suffered the after-whammyof looting. Carew now has a staff of three. Roderick Rick, who lived in theLower Ninth, and Bill Elliott, who was named the parks department's employee ofthe decade two years ago, waited a week for rescue on the second floor of theparks building before wading out in chest-deep water. "There's a lot ofpent-up anger and frustration," Carew says. "I've seen grown men breakdown and cry."

Against all odds,Brechtel reopened on Dec. 1. To say it's not in tip-top shape would be anunderstatement. The tees are hardpan. The fairways are close-cropped weeds. Thegreens, mostly sand and brown thatch, are puttable, but only because Carewdrags them with a broom attached to a utility vehicle donated by the ToroCompany. "But I haven't heard one complaint, not one whiner," he says,momentarily assuming the guise of world's luckiest greenkeeper. "The peoplewho come out to play are happy. Everybody smiles." Brechtel is so busy, infact, that revenue is up from 2005.

Unfortunately,the course may soon choke on a surfeit of--get this--turfgrass. "As soon asthe nights reach 70 degrees, the bermuda jumps," Carew says. "You standin one place too long, it'll grow over your feet." Normally this wouldn'tbe a problem, but Carew's jerry-built equipment already buckles under therigors of twice-a-week mowing. The prospect of 100 acres of Tifton 328 andcommon bermuda growing an inch a day gives him the willies. "Sometimes whenI go to staff meetings, it feels hopeless," Carew says. "There's nomoney. There's no equipment. They're telling me to hang on for a year. I say,'Hang on with what?'"

The grass bomb isalso a looming concern over at Bayou Oaks, where City Park ImprovementAssociation CEO Bob Becker has seen a staff of 220 full- and part-time workersslashed to 22. "There's nothing we can do about it," he says. "Wehave no golf staff. No electricity. Our equipment claims to FEMA have not beenprocessed. We're at a standstill."

A nonprofitentity operating on city-owned land, the CPIA gets no general tax revenue torun the 1,300-acre park, which cuts through the devastated Lakeview andFillmore neighborhoods. The courses were profit centers, generating roughly 30%of park revenue, but now they are thirsty, weedy liabilities. Private donationswould help--the U.S. Tennis Association recently gave $150,000 to help restorethe City Park Tennis Center--but no such help has been offered by the golfcommunity.

"The responsehas been pretty disappointing," says Becker. "We'd like to get our Westcourse open, but we can't do anything without equipment, and we need somebodyto subsidize some operating costs so we can hire staff." Meanwhile, thecity's golfers shouldn't expect to tee it up anytime soon on the park's East orNorth courses, where an unsuspecting hiker will still come across the oddbowling ball or junked car. "The other two courses, I don't see anyway," Becker says with a sigh. "We'll simply have to let them go backto nature."

There are otherplaces a dead golf course can go. At Eastover, where Katrina demolished 36holes and $2 million worth of golf carts and maintenance vehicles, developerDonnie Pate intends to bulldoze the weaker 18 and build houses. At Lakewood,now owned by the New Orleans Fireman's Credit Union, plans to build a resorthotel, condo development and retirement community are on hold.

Where thedisplaced golfers will wind up is another question. A healthy number of rangerats turned out in early March when City Park reopened the Bayou Oaks drivingrange. The pro shop was an empty shell, but park policeman Bill Bayle sold $5buckets of dirty range balls from an outdoor table. "We tried to wash offthe balls with the hose," said Bayle, "but somebody stole thehose."

It's another dayin City Park, another setting sun, another cool breeze. Cleveland Harris, 78,is practicing short pitches with a wedge to what used to be the Bayou OaksNorth course putting green. The balls at his feet spill out of an unzipped shagbag.

Harris is aretired schoolteacher living on a pension. His house on Harrison Street, justeast of the park, was flooded, so he's renting an apartment on Cadiz Street.Before that he spent months as FEMA's guest at a hotel in Baton Rouge."This is my town," he says. "I plan to restore my house." Butfirst he has to persuade authorities to remove the teetering pine tree in frontof his gutted home. A gentle man with a sweet smile and soothing voice, Harristakes an easy swing and lobs a shot onto the overgrown green.

"I've beenplaying golf my whole life," he continues. "I was playing golf out herewhen it was against the law for black folks to play." In fact, Harrishelped finance the 1950s lawsuit that gained blacks access to the park courses,first on Tuesdays and Fridays and later on an unrestricted basis. He rakes aball from the pile. "It's very important that they get the golf coursesgoing again because we need recreation," he says. "We needexercise."

The old man hitsanother nice high wedge, watching the ball drop to the ground with obviouspleasure. "I'm no fluke," he says. "I play the game."

It would be cruelto point out to Harris that New Orleans's nighttime temperatures will soon hit70.

Congress approved nearly $8 billion in tax breaks forGulf Coast businesses but excluded golf courses. As one harried bureaucrat putit, "FEMA DOESN'T BUY GRASS."

"We get four or five guys a day who come in, hit10 balls and leave," says Whalen, the co-owner of a custom club shop."They say, 'MAN, I HAD TO HIT SOMETHING.'"

"I HAVEN'T HEARD ONE COMPLAINT, NOT ONEWHINER," says Brechtel greenkeeper Carew. "The people who come out toplay are happy. Everybody smiles."

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Penny De Los Santos; JOHN DAVID MERCER/US PRESSWIRE HELLAND BACK
While Eastover Country Club may never fully recover, the TPC of Louisiana isbeing restored to its 2005 glory (opposite).
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Penny De Los Santos GIMMESHELTER
A tent city sprang up near the City Park courses, and Chris and Gloria McCarterlive in a FEMA trailer.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Penny De Los Santos RESCUERS
St. Rose became a trailer park, but Brechtel was saved by (from left) Carew,Raymond Joseph and Rick.
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Penny De Los Santos CRUNCHTIME
Rounds are up at Brechtel, but Ninth Warders such as Harris (above) could losetwo of the three 18s at City Park.

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)