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Back to NOLA: Golf, Children and Charity

NEW ORLEANS – The corridor of lights on Orleans Street leads to redemption. Just a perpendicular stray from Bourbon Street and its sinful temptations there stands a statue of Christ, his arms open to all, a light casting a shadow nearly as tall as St. Louis Cathedral.

Today, when church bells ring in New Orleans, they do so with promise and hope. Maybe that’s just the heart interpreting for the mind, but the sound is different from that of five, six years ago. Then, there was an ominous presence. Then, the ringing was a knell.

New Orleans 2011 is not New Orleans 2006, the last time visited the forlorn city. Many suggest it’s not even New Orleans 2005 or ’04, that this is a better New Orleans – or, at least it one day will be.

“What Katrina did was wipe the slate clean,” said Mike Rodrigue, a fourth generation New Orleanian and former chairman of Fore!Kids Foundation. “It allowed us to address some things that would have taken generations, if ever, to address – our education system, our levee system, public housing. In a 24-hour period we were starting with a blank piece of paper, basically, and given the chance to not to go back to what we had, but learn from our mistakes and build things better.”

The improvement of life doesn’t readily come to mind when you think of New Orleans, but that’s what many have set out to do. There’s the St. Bernard Project, which has rebuilt 343 homes, to date, in the eponymous parish after Katrina decimated everything tangible. There’s the St. Michael Special School, which serves and educates students with special needs in New Orleans. And there’s Blessings in a Backpack, a program also involving Justin and Kate Rose, which provides weekend nutrition for students in need throughout the country.

All three charitable organizations were highlighted at this year’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

That’s the true identity of this PGA Tour event. We see four days of golf, a champion crowned, millions of dollars doled out to those with millions of dollars already in the bank. We see that which is the case with any and all tournaments contested on Tour – another television showcase, one stop of 49 on a yearlong schedule.

Then there is what we don’t see, what lies beneath the surface: charity and children.

When Bubba Watson sank a 3-footer on the second hole of sudden death, the 2011 Zurich Classic of New Orleans was officially over. Onward to Quail Hollow.

But for those who stuck around and those invested in the tournament – the event officials, the charitable organizations, the people of Zurich Financial Services, the people of New Orleans – the totality of the tournament was still to be witnessed.

“In our 52 years, we’ve been able to raise more than $20 million for local children’s charities,” Tommy Fonseca, Zurich Classic of New Orleans tournament director, said prior to the start of the event. “In post-Katrina, we’re about $8.5 million.”

Fonseca has been heading up the annual NOLA stop since after the 2006 event. He’s also president of the aforementioned Fore!Kids Foundation, which produces the tournament and raises money to fund children’s service organizations.

“This tournament is extremely important to this area, with all of the financial assistance that it provides to charities,” Fonseca said. “But, perhaps most importantly, post-Katrina, this event helps us showcase to the world that New Orleans is back.”

That effort began after Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005 – as soon as everyone could fully digest what had happened and comprehend what needed to be done.

Just 10 days after the storm wrecked the Gulf Coast region, Rodrigue, then the chairman of the board for Fore!Kids, led a group to PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. They discussed the possibility of moving the event to the east coast for one year, as the intended host site, TPC Louisiana, was inundated by Katrina – holes left under water for weeks, 3,200 trees gone.

There was a safety net, however. English Turn Golf and Country Club, which hosted the tournament for 16 years, had minimal damage in comparison and was able to fill the void. Meanwhile, Zurich Financial not only stuck by the tournament, but eventually extended its sponsorship agreement through 2014.

“Zurich did an incredible thing,” Rodrigue said just prior to this year’s event. “They really did make a statement. If I was a board member in Switzerland, hosting a golf tournament might not have been atop my priority list.”

Added Fonseca, “With what they did, that allowed us to focus on the details, the small things and not worry about the big things, like finding a title sponsor or a preferred date on the PGA Tour schedule.”

This year’s event nestled in three weeks after the Masters Tournament and two weeks before The Players Championship. It attracted one of its best-ever international fields, including first-time participants Luke Donald, the No. 3 player in the world at the time, and Graeme McDowell, the reigning U.S. Open champion.

The Zurich Classic prides itself on charity, but it doesn’t shy away from spectacle – there was a 120-foot, three-section Bacchus float – the Baccagator – to the right of the 17th tee box, to go along with 27 culinary stands located throughout the TPC Louisiana layout.

“We were really well looked after,” McDowell said during his Wednesday news conference. “I was going to come in here and talk to the media and then go for lunch, but I reminded myself of the 2000 calories I’ve had this morning already.”

“Man, I had an awesome meal last night,' said defending champion Jason Bohn on the eve of the tournament. 'It’s one of my favorite things about coming here. The food is phenomenal.”

Food, music, culture and sports are always on offer in New Orleans, coexisting in harmony. The week of the Zurich Classic, the NBA Hornets were locked in a battle with the Los Angeles Lakers, with a home game Thursday night. Jazz Fest began Friday morning. According to Fonseca, the tournament didn’t have to compete against these or any other events for public attention. In fact, he said, the extra activities helped draw a better field.

“That’s the great things about New Orleans,” Fonseca said, “the more the merrier.”

On April 27, 2006, the Zurich Classic became the first nationally televised sporting event in New Orleans, post-Katrina. The tournament, a fixture on Tour since 1938, featuring winners like Jimmy Demaret, Lloyd Mangrum, Byron Nelson, Billy Casper, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson, was alive – but in peril.

“Right after Katrina hit, the question was: Is New Orleans still a PGA Tour destination? With the loss of infrastructure, the relocation of the playing,” Fonseca said. “One thing you never have to worry about is the resilience, the strength of the people of New Orleans. Our culture and our heritage is something you can’t flood. “

That resiliency has been much needed, not just for the people of New Orleans but for the entire Gulf Coast region. After Katrina, there was Hurricane Gustav. After Gustav, there was the BP oil spill. After the BP oil spill, there was the flooding of the Mississippi River.

You can’t help but wonder what’s next: the Rapture?

Fortunately, the billboard along Highway U.S. 90 citing May 21 as Judgment Day proved inaccurate. New Orleans survived one apocalyptic scene; it could do without another.

Truth is, where New Orleans sits on the map, with nearly half the city below sea level, it’s always in Mother Nature’s crosshairs. But those who choose to live there, those who have stayed there throughout it all, can’t live under scenarios of doom and gloom.

“Our future looks very bright,” Fonseca said. “In 2012, we have the Men's and Women’s Final Four and the BCS National Championship game. We have the Super Bowl in line for 2013. Along with our NBA and NFL teams, we appreciate the synergy and what it will provide to our city – the exposure, the economic aspect, to where we can increase and better fund local projects.”

Fortunately for the New Orleans community, the Zurich Classic is still in existence. Fonseca said the event has more than a $30 million impact annually to area. He added that while many tournaments have seen sales decrease during an ever staggering economy, his event – New Orleans’ event – has increased sales four years running.

“Doing that in this recession that we’ve had for a while, post-Katrina, post-BP oil spill, to continue to increase our sales during that time makes a big statement about what this tournament means to the city,” Fonseca said.

It also says quite a bit about the people of New Orleans.

“We pride ourselves on resiliency,” Fonseca said. “It’s in our DNA.”