On a warm fall morning a few years back it was the menu at Bayou Oaks’ well-worn grill room that was the most telling sign that this place was a little different. For under $7 lunch included a roast beef po’ boy, bag of Zapp’s crawtator chips and a Barq’s root beer. Not Commander’s Palace, but not bad.
At the time the throwback clubhouse at Bayou Oaks, the official name for what locals simply call City Park, was underused, understated and underestimated as a historical focal point. The kind of place where Stanley Kowalski of “A Streetcar Named Desire” fame would have pinched 5 cent skins off his buddies and two blocks from where Mike Rodrigue grew up.
Less than 12 months later that clubhouse and every inch of swampy turf that made up City Park was, like much of New Orleans, underwater, the victim of inadequate levies and a storm named Katrina. Yet unlike the bleak picture that has faced the rest of the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that, in many circles, is still not referred to by name, the loss of City Park presented a unique opportunity for Rodrigue and his group of golf visionaries.
For Rodrigue – whose duties as chairman of the Fore!Kids Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs New Orleans’ PGA Tour stop, had taken him to Atlanta’s famed East Lake on numerous occasions – the vision started when Charlie Yates Jr., an executive with Zurich, which sponsors the New Orleans event, invited him to visit East Lake.
Yates introduced Rodrigue to Tom Cousins, who transformed East Lake from a dangerous inner-city neighborhood into a Tour model, a mixture of high- and low-income housing built around a centerpiece golf course.
“I never realized the true meaning of East Lake until after the storm,” Rodrigue said. “That phone call from Charlie Yates, it was as if the stars were aligned.”
In short Rodrigue hopes to adapt the East Lake model to City Park, complete with a high-end golf course, a layout famed architect Rees Jones has already started routing, and a revival of the neighborhoods around the park.
But if all life is political, then life in New Orleans is about political deadlock. Particularly post-Katrina politics.
The process has been slow and contentious. Rodrigue’s Fore!Kids Foundation recently was picked to spearhead the project and he says the next step is the “due diligence” phase. He also sounds a tad optimistic when he says he hopes to break ground on the new championship course in January which would set the table for an opening in the fall of 2013.
“When you’re dealing with a public-private partnership it takes some time,” Rodrigue admits. “But we know that whatever we do there it will last for generations.”
The two current proposals on the board call for a 36-hole complex, the 18-hole, high-end Jones design (which would likely be built on the land that used to be the site of the old East and West courses) along with a more moderately-priced course; and a 45-hole facility which would include a nine-hole par-3 course.
Rodrigue estimates the project will cost about $24.5 million, of which $15.5 million would come from a City Park fund and the remainder would be raised by his foundation via donations and the like.
The golf, however, is just a part of the puzzle. On Wednesday Rodrigue took a tour of one of the neighborhoods surrounding City Park with Joe Ogilvie, a member of the Fore!Kids advisory board and a current member of the Tour’s Player Advisory Council who has become an outspoken advocate of the project.
“It’s so much bigger than golf,” Rodrigue said. “We’re dealing with early education. There is a perception that, ‘What is golf doing in this picture?’ But it’s allowing us to bring resources to the neighborhood.”
Along with Rodrigue’s push to revitalize City Park in the East Lake image is the notion that a championship-quality course closer to the city center would be an attractive fit for New Orleans’ Tour stop, which is currently played on an unpopular TPC course on the wrong side of the Mississippi River.
“Our home is TPC Louisiana,” Rodrigue said flatly. “We’re just building a quality golf course that can host a championship event, whether that’s a professional event or an amateur event.”
Perhaps, but know this, there is nothing wrong with the Zurich Classic – which has one of the weakest fields on the FedEx Cup schedule – that a better course and more appealing zip code can’t fix. Players want the Big Easy, not the Big Avondale.
For a city that cherishes its history as much as New Orleans, holding a Tour event in Avondale is akin to dinning at Popeye’s because Galatoire’s is too far of a drive, bunking at the Best Western because parking for the Hotel Monteleone is a nightmare, calling it an early night because Preservation Hall is too hard to find.
You get the idea. And Rodrigue has the right recipe, the byproduct of one too many roast beef po’ boys in the old Bayou Oaks clubhouse one would expect.
“I’ve never seen a collection of oak trees like we have at City Park,” Rodrigue said. “It’s a diamond in the rough.”
Thanks to Rodrigue & Co., it’s a diamond that has the potential to shine like few others.