Finding golf again in New Orleans

Updated: May 3, 2006, 8:28 AM ET
By Jim Moriarty | Golf World

"So we see that even when Fortuna spins us downward, the wheel sometimes halts for a moment and we find ourselves in a good, small cycle within the larger bad cycle. The universe, of course, is based upon the principle of the circle within the circle. At the moment, I am in an inner circle. Of course, smaller circles within this circle are also possible."

-- From the writings of Ignatius Reilly, the central character in the farcical New Orleans novel "A Confederacy of Dunces"

It seems the circle of fortune, in the form of Hurricane Katrina, has thrown New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi for quite a loop. In these places the tears have largely been shed already, but if you scratch the surface of a memory, mist comes easily to the eyes of even the toughest soul. In the Crescent City, it's sometimes hard to find a cycle of good within the downward spiral, though the very fact the Zurich Classic is being played at all this week is a sign of faith in the future. To the east, on the Mississippi coast, the promise of tomorrow seems as real as a wrecking ball. In both cases, golf may have a crucial role in the recovery.

Saving a Louisiana course was one man's mission
When golf professional James Leitz returned to Pinewood CC in Slidell, La., the day after Katrina struck, he says he felt like he was "in the middle of hell." More than 650 trees were down and everything was destroyed in the maintenance barn. It appeared that the course and the club were on the brink of closure.

But Leitz wouldn't hear of it. "We were knocked down, but not knocked out," he says. "I decided to get back into the ring and fight."

He enlisted the aid of his college-aged sons -- Ross, Stephen and Phillip -- and schoolteacher Scott King. The five rolled up their sleeves and went to work, from dawn to dusk for 55 straight days. "I couldn't find another person [to help]," says Leitz, one of the area's best instructors. "There were times when I didn't know if we were going to make it. All you saw was destruction and devastation. It felt like we had gone through a nuclear war. There was no food, water or electricity. I went a week without seeing another human being."

Leitz arose several days a week at 2 a.m. and drove approximately 90 miles to Baton Rouge to purchase gas for generators. "That's the only times the lines were short, and it still took me 30 minutes," he says. "And after I got the gas, I was looking around to see if anyone was going to steal it from me. I had to do it so the [water] pumps [at the golf course] would keep moving water."

At times, his work seemed dwarfed by the task. And after Ross and Stephen went back to college and King returned to his classroom, Leitz questioned his motivation. "There were people dying in the city, and here I was trying to keep a golf green alive," Leitz says. Although his efforts meant neglecting repairs to his own damaged home, he was determined to "hand this club back to the members. I knew when they came back, they needed something to keep them sane. Golf could provide the outlet."

Pinewood may not be as pretty as it once was or will be, but it is open. Leitz is proud of the effort he put forth, wary of another hurricane season but committed to seeing better days.

"There's just something about this place and New Orleans," he says. "It's like your drunk uncle. It's imperfect and flawed, but I love it."

-- Dave Lagarde

The historic cemeteries of New Orleans, the above-ground cities of the dead, are tourist attractions. Now, it's as if these cities have spread like a plague through whole neighborhoods; blocks and blocks in every direction there are thousands upon thousands of mausoleums, skeletons of 2x4s, spray-painted not with gang graffiti but with the search-and-rescue "X." The utility poles are festooned with colorful placards. Mildew Removal. Gutting. Quick Cash for Houses. Before Katrina, the elevated I-10 interstate was a parking lot at rush hour. Now, in the shadows underneath it, thousands of drowned vehicles remain immovable objects, waiting to be crushed and buried. Before Aug. 29, 2005, Orleans Parish alone had close to 500,000 people. Now, it's less than half that.

For a lucky few, golf is as normal as golf in a wasteland can be. New Orleans CC and Metairie CC were under 6 to 12 feet of water. At Metairie, more than 300 bags of clubs stayed underwater for the duration of the flood. "I've refinished and regripped more than 200 sets of clubs," Metairie assistant professional Tommy Mayne says. "I never want to regrip another set again."

For others, the wasteland remains all too real. Destroyed and desolate, like most of the houses in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood surrounding it, Joseph Bartholomew Memorial GC still gets play, of a sort. Around lunchtime, a fivesome from Fluor Corporation was on the tee. They had found a metal 3-wood and a handful of dirty balls and were taking big, ugly swings in old work boots and laughing. Glenn Madison, a policeman, was on one of the tees along Congress Drive with a red shag bag and floppy hat that dangled a neck shade to protect against the sun, digging his game out of the dirt and weeds. Eric St. Julian, a guy with 20 years in at UPS and one of the adult supervisors of New Orleans' First Tee program, was in a corner of the driving range. He brought a chipped and dented small wire bucket filled with scruffy looking balls to hit in pretty much any direction he wanted with his strong, smooth motion.

"What I enjoyed when I first started playing golf was going by in the evening, like right now," Julian says, "and the old-timers are hanging around telling stories. They talk about life, they talk about golf. And the young guys are just hanging around, and you go out on the driving range and they give you a little lesson. It was just a beautiful feeling. That's what I miss about it, that community feeling. There's rarely in our society [a place] where young people and old people mix in a comfortable environment. That is one place. A golf place."

In a city struggling to provide even the barest medical services, a game can seem insignificant. New Orleans hosted a mini-Mardi Gras to let the world know it was open for business. And, in fact, tourist areas like the French Quarter are largely up and running, if somewhat lacking in their usual quota of street performers, mimes, urchins, artists and the usual assortment of heavily inked freaks. But the rubble of the Lower Ninth Ward stubbornly refuses to budge and, after Fat Tuesday, cadaver-sniffing dogs still were searching for bodies.

Down there, a landmark isn't a street sign, grocery or neighborhood bar; it's the crumpled house sitting on top of an upside-down car, like Dorothy's house on the Wicked Witch of the East, a point of reference for the tours that take the curious through the devastation as if they were going on a safari through misery. One imagines the driver's amplified voice, "On your left is where Anderson Cooper did his show. On your right..."

Everyone, especially New Orleans' citizens, wonders why so much remains undone. Seven months after Fats Domino was hauled by boat off the roof of his house, minuscule figures can be seen crawling like industrious insects across the roof of the Super Dome. The picture of progress, however, can seem as distant as the workmen appear.

While the desire to rebuild is ingrained, automatic, a knee-jerk reflex of the species, another hurricane season looms. You'll have to pardon the residents of New Orleans if they don't have a lot of confidence at the moment in the Army Corps of Engineers. It was "improved" sections of the levees that failed. And there are ongoing controversies about the materials being used in their reconstruction.

The flood maps, released April 12, will help inform New Orleanians what parts of their city are destined to become green space, what parts will require houses built on stilts and what the insurance implications for all of this will be. Every destroyed house on every destroyed block represents a pending decision by an individual homeowner regarding what makes the most sense for them. The city -- with an income based almost entirely on sales-tax revenue (another reason Mardi Gras had to happen) -- is effectively bankrupt. What kind of services, garbage pickup, police and fire protection, will these neighborhoods get?

In the midst of all this, the role of golf can seem superfluous. But, in fact, in some neighborhoods, it could prove pivotal if given half a chance.

Once just a down-and-out municipal course, Bartholomew GC is named after the man who built it. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bartholomew learned the game as a caddie at Audubon GC. He became an accomplished player and clubmaker and learned course design from Seth Raynor. He helped build Metairie CC, two City Park courses and the Pontchartrain Park track that now bears his name, among others. And, while Bartholomew built the courses, he could not play them because he was black.

Bartholomew GC is surrounded by a mostly middle-class, mostly black neighborhood. It gets just as much play from white golfers as from black. The clubhouse porch, little more than a concrete slab with a roof, was the gathering place for cards, lies and jokes. It was the host course of New Orleans' nascent First Tee, an undertaking so successful -- 209 children enrolled -- that the city of New Orleans intended to incorporate the First Tee's life-skills instruction into its summer camps and Boys and Girls Clubs. The course had just undergone a $1 million tee, fairway and irrigation renovation project and had not yet reopened on Aug. 29.

The day before Katrina hit, 30 First Tee children were on the driving range as the word came to evacuate. The program's kids, like the city itself, were scattered to the winds. After the hurricane, when the canals breached, Bartholomew was under as much as 20 feet of water, 9 feet deep at the course's highest point.

While there are several other public courses in New Orleans, Bartholomew and Brechtel Memorial Park GC are the only two municipally owned courses, and they are in particularly dire straits given the fiscal realities of the city. Pete Carew is the superintendent for both. He came back the Sunday after the storm to bring supplies to a friend who had stayed throughout. "He actually drank his ice chest, all the water in his coolers and was working on his hot tub," says Carew. "He was halfway down."

The entire city smelled like rotten meat. The odor latched onto everything, even people, as if it was able to form a chemical bond. The trip back in was a scene Carew will never forget. "I got into the city wearing a city shirt and city hat saying 'First Responder.' It was unruly. There was gunfire everywhere. I carried a .357 over my chest and a shotgun behind my seat. I drew my gun six times on people trying to get to the supplies in the back of my pickup. It was a place that you didn't want to be."

Six weeks later, after all the water was pumped back into the canal, Bartholomew remained a place you didn't want to be. "When I first came back, I had dead [sea] trout along the clubhouse. On the golf course we had sharks, redfish, drum, all the saltwater fish were out here," Carew says. The sheer weight of the water compacted the earth, irreparably damaging the irrigation system. The salt water destroyed the turf, the machinery, the switch boxes, pretty much everything. The wind and water had toppled hundreds of oak trees. In front of the newly sodded first tee was the hulk of a Ford Taurus, settled there like just another dead fish. One green may not have had a cup, but it sported a leather Queen Anne chair.

After this summer's hurricane season, as more schools open and more kids come back to the city, the First Tee program will begin to reconstitute itself, likely with a different set of children, probably at ravaged Brechtel on the other side of the Mississippi River. Four sources have pledged almost $100,000 to help get the program up and running, when the time comes. The prognosis for the public courses of New Orleans that once charged $8 on a weekday is not as good. The engineering company that did the renovations at Bartholomew estimates the cost of rebuilding there at $5 million. The damage at Brechtel was close to $3 million. And FEMA doesn't pay for grass.

From its place in the racial history of golf to the more mundane consideration of its location on a bus line, Bartholomew proved an ideal site to host the First Tee. In a city with so many needs and so little money, a golf course is a low priority, even one in a middle-class neighborhood near two universities that could function as a catalyst for the rebirth of a community.

"I just wish, somehow," says Ann Macdonald, the city's director of parks and parkways, "we could get a benefactor, get Joe Bartholomew Course back up and running. Folks will come back. This is their life. If we could just beat the drums and have people realize how important this course is to our city, to that community, to the children."

Even those who appreciate its value, such as PGA Tour player and New Orleans native Kelly Gibson, wonder if anything can happen soon. "I'm very positive about New Orleans," Gibson says, "but you've got to pick your battles right now." While "benefactor" might be too much to hope for, perhaps "partner" is not.

With the flood maps out, New Orleans is going to be colored a lot more green. Golf could be a neighborhood magnet. The danger is, like the first Battle of New Orleans, this one could be fought after the war is over. Unlike the original, it might be lost.

If the flooding of New Orleans was the disaster within the disaster, Mississippi's antebellum mansions, floating casinos and beach towns absorbed the full fury of Katrina's right-handed uppercut. Almost as the storm surge receded, the cleanup commenced in the area once derisively called the Redneck Riviera -- often aided by the corporate dollars that are turning the Gulf Coast into a first-class golf destination ... the good cycle within the bad.

Fifty miles or so northeast of New Orleans is The Bridges GC, the Arnold Palmer course at Casino Magic. One of the starters at the course, an old riverboat pilot they called Captain Fox, died in the storm. The casino had a giant entertainment barge where people such as Hootie and the Blowfish, the Neville Brothers and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill had performed. Smokey Robinson was scheduled to appear the week Katrina hit. The Bridges loaded its golf carts on the barge, and the casino put all its liquor on it, too, and the entire load wound up across the Bay of St. Louis in Diamondhead. Though the course is closed now for resodding, it initially reopened Dec. 15 just to get something in the community up and running. Immediately after the storm, the ground was so slippery a person couldn't stand up straight on it. They hosed the mud off the greens and cleaned the fairways with shovels and Bobcats and played golf using 6-inch cups.

Across the bay, Diamondhead got the Pine Course open by Oct. 16 and its other course, the Cardinal, open by Feb. 1. By Jan. 1, the number of Gulf Coast courses open was in double figures, most in surprisingly good condition considering their ordeal. After a while, the sheer number of downed trees becomes a meaningless statistic. A thousand here, two thousand there. Grand Bear, a Nicklaus course on the safe side of I-10 away from the Gulf and next to the DeSoto National Forest, put its estimate in excess of 4,000.

Gulf Hills GC, built in 1927 by Jack Daray, who is best known as the professional and architect of Olympia Fields in Chicago, is one of the Gulf Coast's two venerable courses. As it turns out, this sandy slice of Mississippi was tethered to Chicago by the Illinois Central railroad and the tales of the old days and its old ways run from Al Capone to Sam Giancana and the New Orleans boss, Carlos Marcello, who used to meet there in a rented party house. The Mob and the hurricanes leave plenty of stories behind. After Katrina, the members of Gulf Hills instituted a local rule allowing a free drop out of the sailboat in the fourth fairway.

Jimmy McAnnally, who was nearly killed in his squad car during Hurricane Camille while working for the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and who now does public relations for Gulf Hills, came back the morning after Katrina left. "It looked sort of like a picture of a war zone where the ships had been offshore bombarding the coastline," he says. "We were in shock. I didn't think we'd ever reopen. I really didn't. We were standing there. We just didn't know which way to go. You didn't know where to start." But start they did, and they opened Oct. 1.

The other grand dame of the coast, Great Southern GC, which had nine holes designed by Donald Ross, likely won't make a full recovery. The vintage 1920s clubhouse was little more than a pile of sticks, the final resting place of their collection of old photographs of Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones playing an exhibition there, of the visits of Hogan, Snead, Nelson and Zaharias. The decision on the course's fate will be driven more by business than catastrophe, however. The green and tee sites directly abutting the Gulf of Mexico are just too valuable as real estate, and it seems likely the course, open for the time being with a couple of temporary greens, will reappear in some altered state.

Davis Love III's Shell Landing course was only minimally damaged, and Grand Bear picked up its pieces so thoroughly that both appear untouched by Katrina. They are part of the Gulf's unabated invasion of "name" architects. The Beau Rivage's casino, with 1,740 rooms, is set to reopen on the first anniversary of the hurricane, Aug. 29, and its new Tom Fazio layout, Fallen Oak, is slated to open in November. Jerry Pate's new course, The Preserve, is scheduled to open in early June. The Oaks GC has a new owner, Pacific Life, and a new lease on its financial life, and it reopens in August. One course that has gone completely offline is President Broadwater GC, next door to Great Southern. Both courses were built on land originally owned by Jefferson Davis. The new Broadwater will be part of yet another casino master plan. Virtually all the Gulf's courses are coming back better than they were before Katrina had a name.

None of this in any way minimizes the damage done that day. Twisted bridges sit toppled in the Bay of St. Louis. In the tiny beach town there, a church steeple lays on the ground with a sign that says, "Do Not Remove." The houses of Pass Christian are gone. Old neighborhoods in Biloxi, like The Point, don't exist anymore. Every structure in Waveland was under water. There once were 18,000 hotel rooms along the coast; now there are 5,000, many filled by construction workers and residual emergency responders.

In the golf-course community at Diamondhead, during the storm one man shared the roof of his house with a deer. As he sat there, a small boat came floating by. He got in the boat and was surprised when he pulled the cord and the motor started right up. He began going from rooftop to rooftop, collecting people and ferrying them to higher ground.

Up the coast in Gulf Hills, where they lost 177 houses and nine lives, two men rescued an incapacitated woman from the wreckage of her house by carrying her out in the top of a Weber grill.

The father-in-law of one golf pro stood in his house with water up to his armpits, holding up a glass of sweet tea in one hand and his pack of cigarettes in the other. When a Tupperware bowl floated by, it gave him a dry place to put his drink and his smokes so he could devote both hands to keeping his living room furniture from floating out of the living room and his dining room furniture from floating out of the dining room. When his wife found out about it, she said, "Since when was it all right to smoke in the house?"

One pro didn't know for three days whether or not his brother was alive. Later, his brother told him what surprised him most was how cold the water was. Katrina was a huge storm that raged for half a day. He said sometimes, as you stood in the water, you had to urinate on yourself just to keep warm.

One man said the best advice he could give people preparing for a hurricane would be to fill their cars with as much ice and beer as they could stuff in it because, as it turns out, you can buy anything with ice and beer.

Another pro told his friends not to worry about their clubs. They would be able to find their irons because irons sink, but they could forget about their woods. Oversized heads float.

These are the grillroom stories being told along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. All the people have names, but mostly they get left out in the telling. Every story is repeated as if it happened to everyone because, mostly, it did.

But the twin engines of the casinos and the courses are lifting Mississippi up, spinning the wheel in a good direction. If you really want to help -- and they still need plenty of it -- throw your clubs in the trunk of the car and play golf there. The rooms are expensive and hard to come by, but the casinos are open and the courses in amazingly fine shape. Be sure to leave a little cash behind.

Would that it could be that easy in the Big Easy.

With additional reporting by Dave Lagarde.