There is something deeper to this week’s PGA Tour stopover in New Orleans than a 72-hole sprint to fame, fortune and an oversized paycheck. Always is.
As a general rule, the Tour leaves a place better than they found it via charitable programs, but New Orleans is different. More so than any other slot on the Tour calendar, the “City That Care Forgot” needed help in the post-Hurricane Katrina abyss and – however slowly – golf has delivered.
It’s taken time and there still are no guarantees but if all goes according to script sometime next year crews will break ground on a Rees Jones-designed championship golf course in New Orleans’ City Park and by late 2014 the layout could be open to the public.
What happens after that depends on who you ask. A Tour wonk, like your correspondent, would be curious how the Jones design is viewed by players as a possible replacement venue for the TPC Louisiana.
City Park is just minutes from downtown and the French Quarter and would be a dramatic upgrade over the Zurich Classic’s current home on the wrong side of the Mississippi River on a course few players like.
“One of the courses (in City Park) are going to be designed as a championship venue,” said Joe Ogilvie, who has been involved in the City Park initiative since his days on the Tour Policy Board. “I’m guessing that’s the city’s goal (to host the Zurich Classic at City Park). It would be a big bonus if the Zurich moved to City Park, but the project is going to get done either way.”
In many respects, the plan – at least the truly meaningful parts – are already completed in the image of the East Lake prototype in Atlanta, a mixed-housing initiative with a focus on community involvement and greatly expanded educational initiatives.
At East Lake, the mixture of low- and higher-income housing gave way to a neighborhood school that regularly exceeds state testing standards. The refurbished Donald Ross course and annual Tour Championship have simply become smaller elements of the greater good.
The City Park plan has been mirrored off what East Lake patriarch Tom Cousins & Co. accomplished in Atlanta. “It will truly be an East Lake-type model where the golf course pays for much of the education model,” Ogilvie said.
The mixed housing element around City Park, which was flooded during Hurricane Katrina, has already been completed and the Bayou District Foundation, the fund-raising group behind City Park’s restoration, has already started the educational phase of the plan.
“That was our objective from the beginning to create a model that could be replicated around the country,” Cousins told GolfChannel.com during last year’s Tour Championship. “It’s hard to do. Just talk to the folks in New Orleans. That should have been the easiest place to do it. City Park and all that went on with (Hurricane) Katrina and all the international and federal interest in the area after Katrina.”
But it was anything but easy. At issue are the sometimes competing interests of state, local and parish officials for a complex plan that calls for the Jones-designed championship course where the current East and West courses are, at least one other 18-hole golf course along with a First Tee chapter. There is also a $3 million funding gap that must be bridged.
“The nature of the project certainly presents some hurdles,” said Ogilvie, who pointed out that Jones dramatically reduced his fee to design the City Park course and the Tour also is donating resources to the project. “(But) it’s going to happen.”
The truth is nothing is ever easy in the Big Easy. But the City Park initiative sure was worth it.