Let’s play this backward.
How about we talk about New Orleans 10 years before? And then we’ll get to the meat of the matter. That would be now, which, by the way, is 10 years after.
Remember our city as it was in August of 2005? Humming along, pulsating with its fair share of good vibrations. It can be said New Orleans was in the midst of a renaissance in August 2005, on many fronts, including one much more pastoral than cultural. That would be golf. The game of a lifetime was experiencing a growth spurt unlike any other in the game’s history in the Crescent City.
• New Orleans Country Club completed an extensive re-design by architect Bobby Weed.
• Metairie Country Club was restored to the way it looked when Seth Raynor first moved its suburban soil just after 1910.
• The new Pete Dye-designed Tournament Players Club of Louisiana had played host to its first Zurich Classic of New Orleans and expected to stage many more.
• The Links at Stonebridge, a 27-hole complex, had just completed a $12-million renovation.
• Audubon Park Golf Club went from a rundown open space to a pristine executive gem in the heart of the city’s thriving Uptown area.
• Plans were on the drawing board to create a Bobby Weed-designed championship layout, using the East Course at picturesque Bayou Oaks in sprawling City Park, just an eight-minute drive from downtown.
• Lakewood Country Club, scene of more than 25 PGA TOUR events, contracted with Ron Garl to bring its course into the 21st century.
• City-owned Joe Bartholomew Memorial Golf Course was undergoing renovations to turn the rundown facility into a First Tee operation.
And on and on it went. Oak Harbor in Slidell had new greens. Timberlane Country Club was kicking around the idea of an overhaul of its Robert Trent Jones design. Colonial Country Club spent $5 million to rework its track.
Consequently tourists were packing more than suitcases when heading to New Orleans. Finally golf clubs were coming along for the ride as the game was slowly but surely becoming a much larger part of the Big Easy’s recreational fabric.
This was all before a massive sledgehammer of horrific wind and deadly water would form in the warm, nurturing waters of the Gulf of Mexico late in the month. Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 monster, blindsided New Orleans. And just as quickly as you could say “levee breaches,’’ the city’s boom quickly went bust. The new game, one of cruel risk, was survival as 80% of New Orleans was inundated with flood water. Like the future of New Orleans, the future of golf had about as much clarity as U.S. Open broadcast on Fox Network.
Golf became a microcosm of New Orleans’ struggle to survive in those sad and soggy days that marched on in the wake of the floodwaters’ extensive damage. Many of the city’s courses drowned in the sea of debilitating saltwater. Ferocious winds that downed innumerable trees, many of them over 100 years old, were the culprits at others as devastation became a word that forced its way into everyday conversation.
At the same time cries arose around the U.S. to allow New Orleans to stew in Katrina’s juices; that it would be folly to attempt to resurrect a metropolitan area built several feet below sea level. What those naysayers failed to comprehend was the enormous spirit and will of one of America’s grand old dames and its resilient residents.
That was then.
This is now.
New Orleans, despite its warts, has become a 21st century phoenix, is rising from deadly floodwaters rather than ashes. But it hasn’t happened over night. The city still struggles with crime, blight and infrastructure. Golf courses were not immune.
Eastover never came back. Sadly, Colonial’s green space is scheduled to become a combination of a shopping center and a housing development. Bayou Oaks’ once huge golf footprint of four courses remains one-fourth its size, with only the sub-standard North Course up and running for an operation that once ran approximately 250,000 rounds per year through its constantly humming cash registers.
New Orleans residents, including its dedicated golfers, began searching for respites from the storm’s monumental clean-up when the calendar kindly turned to 2006. Weary of battling insurance companies, roof replacements, extensive renovations, mold remediation and the like, golfers were forced to travel. You could say “tee it up’’ with also calling for a road trip.
Golfers went east, west and north looking for manicured grass escape. I know. I was one of them.
Rounds of golf required road trips to here, there and everywhere.
Slowly but surely the resurrection is underway. Audubon Golf Course opened quickly, causing cart traffic jams as players lined up on the first tee. New Orleans Country Club and Metairie Country Club relied on assessments and lots of hard work to plant flags in cups once again.
English Turn Golf and Country Club sustained minimal damage and played host to the Zurich Classic in 2006 until The Tournament Players Club got its house in order. The Lakewood redesign by Garl came to fruition in 2009 as did the David Toms-designed LaTour Golf Club in Mathews, Louisiana, a 40-minute drive from downtown New Orleans. In 2011, the renovated Joe Bartholomew golf course re-opened.
Plus there is finally good news emanating from Bayou Oaks in City Park. After nine maddening years of fits and starts, ground was finally broken in February of this year on a $24.5 million golf complex that provides a Rees Jones-designed championship layout that will combine land from the old East and West Course new clubhouse, driving range and practice facility. A much-needed upgrade to the North also is part of the plan. The hope is the return to “The Park’’ will be a boon for the city and the golf community.
Nationally, rounds of golf continue to decline according to the National Golf Foundation, which tracks them annually. New Orleans also has experienced this decline, but it had the hardest road imaginable for the last 10 years to poke its head out of the water. There is cause for optimism and no need for any more road trips. And that, folks, is a blessing.