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Katrina Aftermath a Reminder of What Matters

2006 Zurich ClassicNEW ORLEANS -- Scott Verplank walked past a long row of shiny courtesy cars and stepped into an office to register for the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a routine he follows just about every time he plays on the PGA Tour.
Once inside, however, it didn't take long to realize the focus this week goes far beyond golf.
Behind him on a wall was a bright orange poster with photos showing the destruction from Hurricane Katrina -- a house that had been gutted, water nearly reaching the eaves of another house, a river running through Canal Street, where players stayed in hotels only a year ago. On a table next to him was a photo album showing more damage, including black-and-blue splotches of mold in the home of Sammy Culotta, who handles the computer operations at the tournament.
And on the desk in front of him was a green sheet of paper allowing players to donate a portion of their earnings from the $6 million tournament to Katrina charities, or to any other charity the player chooses.
Once he signed in, Verplank headed to the practice range at English Turn to hit balls.
No, this isn't just another stop on the PGA Tour.
'It has a different feel to it,' Verplank said. 'It has a different attitude about it. These people have been devastated by an unbelievable act of nature. And yet they want to get the word out that things are moving forward.'
Olin Browne didn't need to look at any pictures.
He went fishing Monday with Paul Azinger, and they took a detour through some of the hardest-hit sections of New Orleans. Browne said he saw a boat in the middle of a field, and countless slabs of concrete where houses had been destroyed.
Browne is staying in the same downtown hotel he was in last year, which he considers a minor miracle.
'They've done a pretty heroic job putting it back together,' he said.
Once the tournament starts Thursday morning, the goal is still to shoot the lowest score. That hasn't changed.
But there is a feeling among players that it's time to give back to a tournament renowned for treating them like royalty.
One reason New Orleans was a favorite stop for so many players was all the charm the Big Easy had to offer, and the hospitality shown by the tournament staff. There were organized fishing trips. There was no shortage of the finest restaurants.

'It's like we shouldn't be here because of all the things that have gone on,' Steve Stricker said. 'We're having a golf tournament with a big purse. We're able to donate money back, which is good. But it almost feels like there are more important things to do. They showed us these pictures at registration, these homes ... and here we are playing golf for all that money.'
No one holds that against them.
No one seems to mind that the winner goes home with $1.08 million, minus whatever he gives back.
Most folks are simply glad to see the PGA Tour in town. The Zurich Classic is the first major sporting event in New Orleans since Katrina, and perhaps another step toward returning the city to some small degree of normalcy.
'It's getting us out of the daily thought of what we're living in,' said Anne Barnes, who's in charge of player services this week.
If there were any questions how much it meant having a PGA Tour event this year amid such chaos and tragedy, look no further than the volunteers, without whom any tournament could not run.
Tournament director John Subers began contacting last year's volunteers soon after the hurricane, not only to see if they were OK, but if they were still around. He wound up with a volunteer force approaching 1,000.
'A tremendous outpouring of support,' he said.
But then, Subers never had a doubt that golf would return.
He was at the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston when the Category 5 arrived in New Orleans, and each update was more horrifying. The TPC of Louisiana, where the tournament moved last year, lost nearly 4,000 trees and some holes were submerged by flooding for more than two weeks. It will not open until September at the earliest.
That meant a move to English Turn, which hosted the tournament the previous 16 years. Through it all, Subers never had a doubt that the PGA Tour would -- or should -- return.
And he's even more convinced now, ticking off a number of reasons why.
'This will bring some normalcy back to New Orleans,' he said. 'It's invaluable to what we do in raising money for Fore Kids Foundation, a children's charity that now, more than ever, needs the funds we raise. And it's invaluable for the national exposure.'
The message New Orleans wants to send this week is that it is still around and getting better.
The 156 players at English Turn are doing their part simply by showing up.
'We're here to support this area,' Browne said. 'If you have an opportunity to help out, you should. I think there are guys here who came back for this very reason. We want to see how it is. We want to feel how it is. And we want to help establish a normalcy.'
The field includes Phil Mickelson, making his first appearance since winning the Masters, and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen. The Zurich Classic has four of the top 10 players from the PGA Tour money list.
Why does golf matter this week?
'It gives them their escape,' Verplank said. 'They can dream about other things.'
Related Links:
  • Golf Chronicles: After Katrina
  • Full Coverage ' Zurich Classic of New Orleans
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