News & Opinion

East Lake evades Irma ahead of Tour finale

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Mother Nature remains the Greatest Show on Earth. Or were you not mesmerized and maybe even a little afraid of those colorful, spinning storm graphics during the past week as Hurricane Irma terrorized Florida, creating a corridor of chaos?

Irma was downgraded to a tropical storm as it headed north into Georgia. That made for an anxious situation in Atlanta, which received its first-ever tropical-storm warning and shut down schools, local government and mass transit in response. 

It also made for a tense situation at East Lake Golf Club, which will host next week’s Tour Championship, the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup finale. Atlanta was supposed to take a substantial hit from Irma, forecasters said.

The good news is, Irma’s strength was less than advertised in Georgia. The storm killed at least 17 in the U.S., resulted in widespread flooding and left 6.5 million Florida customers powerless and nearly 1 million dark in Georgia and South Carolina. East Lake fared much better than much of the Southeast.

“It’s a hurricane, so you can track it and be prepared, and we were totally prepared, said Tom Clark, the Tour Championship’s tournament director. “We didn’t get hit nearly as hard as we thought. Obviously, there are branches and debris all over the course, but that’s easy cleanup.”

A few trees also came down, but all were out of play. Only one hospitality unit sustained wind damage, and it had been repaired by noon Tuesday.

“We were lucky,” Clark said. “So, we’re very pleased with the outcome.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the city was “pummeled by rain and wind on Monday that sent stately tulip poplars and oak trees careening into houses.” Winds gusted into the 40-mph range, and up to 4 inches of rain fell.

The East Lake staff’s preventive measures made a big difference, Clark said. Those actions included removing the roofs from 20-30 smaller structures. Larger ones with glass windows were boarded up.

“We boarded them up like this was a home and this was a regular hurricane,” Clark said. “We worked closely with the PGA Tour, the East Lake staff and our vendors to figure out what was the best and safest way to get the job done and still get our people out of here in time Monday because once the storm starts, we can’t do much about it. We sent our team home, came back out early Tuesday morning and got right to work.”

The grounds crew performed bunker reshaping, which is typical after a hard, quick rain, and the bunkers were as good as new by Tuesday afternoon.

“We’ve got a large crew, probably 60 to 80 workers, and a phenomenal superintendent [Ralph Kepple], and they were on top of it,” Clark said. “This wasn’t a surprise, like having a tornado touch down in the Midwest. We were ready.”

Finally, one last very important question about Irma’s bombardment of East Lake: Did Bobby Jones get wet?

Clark laughed. “I assume so,” he said.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle