News & Opinion

From Katrina wreckage, New Orleans public golf shines again

NEW ORLEANS – Mike Rodrigue doesn't need to be told that his description of Hurricane Katrina as "the perfect storm" could be deemed insensitive. After all, he lived through the 2005 catastrophe that arguably is the worst natural disaster to hit the United States.

Rodrigue owns the famed Acme Oyster House restaurant chain and in 1998-2006 served as board chairman of the Fore!Kids Foundation, the longtime charitable arm of the Zurich Classic. If not for Katrina, he says, public golf in New Orleans never would have gotten the shot in the arm that it so long deserved.

On April 21, Bayou Oaks City Park South Course opened a half-mile from where Rodrigue grew up and on the ground where as a youth he learned the game. 

From where Rodrigue stood near the freshly-painted clubhouse, he could see the city's skyline in the distance. "I always dreamed of having a championship golf course here, but we didn't have the money to do it," he said.

The $24 million project, Rodrigue mused, never could have existed without Katrina and the resulting aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We couldn't have done it without the FEMA money," he said. 

Kelly Gibson, a 15-year veteran of the PGA Tour, agrees. He retired from professional golf to help with the relief effort in his hometown and never has looked back, with projects from Florida to Ireland. But his role in renovating Joseph Bartholomew Golf Course and the rebirth of Pontchartrain Park gives him the most pride.

"If it wasn't for Katrina, you'd have had boards involved with non-golfers making decisions. And quite honestly, we faced a lot of that, but we were able to overcome it," Gibson said. "We took the most decimated (municipal) course after Katrina and made it the best."

It's hard for Gibson to express the damage that Katrina, which laid waste to dozens of courses in the region, did to Bartholomew. The course called Pontchartrain Park when it was built in the 1950s by Bartholomew, a black course architect who died in 1971, was renamed for him in 1979. The flood ruined a renovation project that was nearing completion. Located on Lake Pontchartrain, the layout was submerged under 8 feet of water for two months. Four cars were found in the lakes. Gibson and architect Garrett Gill built nine new lakes and rerouted the course. A city official told The Times Picayune of New Orleans in 2010 that the cost of construction had been $9.9 million and was funded through FEMA and other sources through a community-development block grant. Joseph Bartholomew re-opened in fall 2010, and it is doing 30,000-plus rounds annually.

But the course will face stiff competition from Bayou Oaks. Golf always has been an afterthought for travelers coming to New Orleans for good food, good times and good music. Could that change with the opening of a championship-caliber course designed by Rees Jones, who has worked on Torrey Pines in San Diego and Bethpage Black in Long Island, two of the country’s most prominent municipal courses? The priority at Bayou Oaks is for the course to be the economic engine for the rebirth of the surrounding Gentilly community. 

In November 2005, Rodrigue and two other businessmen went to Atlanta to see the revitalization of the East Lake Golf Club community and its efforts to end the cycle of poverty there. Rodrigue and his associates took the concept back home and formed the nonprofit Bayou District Foundation. They raised $9 million to go with $15 million in FEMA and state funds, and entered a revenue-sharing partnership with City Park that will help fund the gaps in the community programming.

"When you play golf, you're really funding education," said Jacob Peters development and project assistant for the Bayou District Foundation.

A little more than a driver-5-iron from the third green stands 685 units of mixed-income housing spanning 13 city blocks complete with schools, recreation and support services on the site of the former St. Bernard public housing development. Columbia Parc is the first community after the East Lake Foundation to implement what is now called the Purpose Built Communities model of neighborhood transformation that has expanded to 16 other communities. At Columbia Parc, there is a 26-month waiting list to live there.

The goal for the City Park golf facility is to provide a sustaining funding mechanism. Rodrigue said they took a conservative business model and will break even at 24,000 rounds a year, which should be a slam dunk with 54,000 residents within a mile of the course.

"It's going to be a money-maker," Rodrigue said.

With two public golf facilities now reborn, the game in New Orleans wasn't forgotten after Katrina. Instead, at two city courses, it has bounced back better than ever.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak