Recovery Professional Golf Returns to New Orleans

By Mercer BaggsApril 16, 2006, 4:00 pm
Golf Chronicles: After KatrinaNEW ORLEANS -- They stand wired and strapped in atop the New Orleans Superdome, looking like ants trying to rebuild their hill kicked by man. Only this time, the role of unremorseful man was played by Mother Nature. And the men themselves were ants.
Not far away, there is a billboard. It reads: What if this can help put the groove back in the city?
The sign shows a golfer striking a ball. It is referring to the Zurich Classic, which will be contested at English Turn Golf & Country Club.
The tournament will commence April 27 ' nearly eight months to the day after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast region, resulting in the worst natural disaster in United States history.
On one side of the Superdome, which served as a disheveled and putrid sanctuary for thousands of disenfranchised, there is a sign trumpeting its re-opening, 9-25-2006, for a Monday night football game between the New Orleans Saints and their divisional rival Atlanta Falcons.
But well before then, the PGA TOUR will be in town to host the first professional, nationally televised network sporting event since 8-29-2005.
We want to show the nation that the city is recovering, said Zurich Classic tournament director John Subers. Were vibrant, alive, open for business.
English Turn is hosting the event after a years stay at the TPC of Louisiana. The TPC course was supposed to be the permanent site of the tournament, but that changed, as much did, after Katrina.
According to Subers and English Turn course superintendent Matt Yount, the TPC of Louisiana sustained significant tree damage and, due to poor drainage, significant flooding, making the venue unsuitable for this years event.
In fact, the event itself was in doubt ' but not for long.
We had a group of us go to Ponte Vedra (home to PGA TOUR headquarters in Florida) 10 days after the storm, said Mike Rodrigue, Chairman of the Board and Founder of the Fore!Kids Foundation, the tournaments primary beneficiary. We just didnt know what course was going to be available. There was talk of moving it for 2006 to the east coast. But we had a full commitment from Zurich to play the tournament in town.
Fortunately, they had English Turn to turn to in this time of need. The course, which hosted this tournament from 1989-2004, did not receive any major damage, including no flooding, during The Storm, as the locals refer to Katrina, making it a viable option.
With the TOUR holding a tournament here for so many years, there was pretty much a plan in place, Yount said.
We lost about 300 trees, he added, but were able to stand some back up. We replaced others with groups of younger, smaller trees. Hopefully, the course will play similarly to the way they are used to playing it.
On the final day of March, members and their guests were playing a tournament at English Turn. Semi-erected hospitality tents lined the 18th fairway and encircled the green.
Yount said the course is averaging about 85 rounds a day, almost back to full speed.
Zurich Classic of New Orleans
Tournament officials anticipate crowds of around 30,000 on both Saturday and Sunday this year.
Subers expects to see little fallout in relation to the tournament, as well. According to him, there will be 55 open-air sky boxes on the home hole and 12 more around the 16th green. Corporate tents have long been sold out; though, they were reduced in price, some up to 30 percent.
He anticipates 30,000 fans on both Saturday and Sunday of the tournament, the same numbers they received a year ago.
People will come, Subers said. They want to come.
And they need them to come.
This event normally provides more than $25 million to the local economy. It also raises about $1 million for charity, much of which goes to Fore!Kids, which raises money for various childrens charities through golf events.
This money is desperately desired.
When we were deciding if we needed to continue this event, because of all the uncertainties after the storm, there was no question that the children in our community needed it. We needed to continue our mission to do what we needed to do to hold the event in New Orleans, however we could, Subers said.
This years event features plenty of star power to entice attendees: Masters champion Phil Mickelson; Louisiana native David Toms; Chris DiMarco; past winner Davis Love III; and Retief Goosen, who is making his first appearance in New Orleans.
Subers said that they are working with the PGA TOUR Wives Association to provide guided tours for anyone interested in surveying the many areas of devastation. The wives themselves told Subers that they would like to get their hands dirty and help out however they can prior to the tournament.
Subers, now in his third year as tournament director, was in Boston at the Deutsche Bank Championship for a recruiting trip when Katrina struck last year. Usually, trying to get the worlds best players to come play your event is a beggars job. Not so this time.
Weve gotten a ton of support from the PGA TOUR. They established the U.S. Golf (Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund). And the players have been compassionate to help anyway they can, he said.
Fifty-seven times, dating back to 1938, New Orleans has hosted this event. Past champions include everyone from Bryon Nelson to Jack Nicklaus to Tom Watson to Vijay Singh.
And, thanks to unwavering support and dedication, there will be a 58th occasion.
For Subers and Co., they always believed that this was the right thing to do. It needed to be done for the community ' to be held in the community. That belief was reinforced a few months ago.
We saw a huge success when Mardi Gras came to town, Subers said. That told me personally that this is a great thing; that we are going to have a successful golf tournament.
People do want to get out. They want to get their lives back to normal.
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