NEW ORLEANS – When Golf Channel visited New Orleans seven months after Hurricane Katrina struck, there was an overriding, three-part theme that the region had adopted: Recovery, Rebuild, Rebirth.
We used that mantra to sculpt three stories, one on Recovery, the communal benefits of professional golf returning to New Orleans; one on Rebuilding, resurrecting Metairie Country Club; and one on Rebirth, the effort to revive City Park.
Sandwiched between Recovery and Rebirth was one motif with two very important narratives.
The rebuilding of Metairie Country Club wasn’t just about the golf property in the affluent neighborhood, but the man who went to great lengths – those both obvious at the time and those not fully revealed until years later – to save his club.
“Hurricane Katrina probably affected me more than I realized at the time,” former Metairie head professional Greg Core said from his home on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.
The storm hit Aug. 29, 2005. After evacuating to his wife’s hometown of Jackson, Miss., he returned 10 days after Katrina struck. He used a breathing mask and a canoe to row out to the club, over parts of the course that were in a mucky burial for weeks.
“It was bad,” Core said when we talked to him in March 2006. “I cried a lot … I didn’t think we would ever be able to come back.”
With the help of greens superintendent Andy Alexander and friend Mike Drury of Delta States Turf, Inc., who loaned the pair some equipment since all of theirs was lost, Core set out to begin the rebuilding process. It took weeks of 15-hour work days, but on Dec. 1, 2005, the club was reopened for business. It wasn’t until January 2009 that the club was fully optimized.
Today, Metairie Country Club is thriving. David Marchand is the director of golf. He was an assistant pro there from 1995-97, left to ply his trade as a head pro, and returned in July 2007. Even when he was away, he was never far from Metairie and saw the devastation first hand.
“It looked like an image of Chernobyl,” Marchand said. “It was bizarre. You didn’t hear a bird, didn’t see a squirrel. All that was green was dead.”
Added current general manager Ken Hamrick, who once was a 15-year-old dishwasher at Metairie, “It looked like someone dropped a bomb of Round-Up.
“For 21 years driving in and around the area and then coming back four weeks after Katrina, it was numbing, impossible to describe.”
The people of Metairie shared the attitude of many in post-Katrina New Orleans – they envisioned a chance to make things better. The golf course had previously been renovated in 2003, but not everyone was satisfied with the modernization.
“This gave us a chance to redo the course and go back to the original Seth Raynor design,” Marchand said of the course, which was first opened in 1922.
The total project was $19 million. Insurance proceeds covered $11 million and members came up with the difference. Construction began in July 2007.
In March of that year, Core left for Colorado Springs, Colo., to take a job as the director of golf at Pine Creek Golf Club.
“My wife, my ex-wife, wanted to get away, put the hurricane behind us,” Core said.
Martha, however, wasn’t keen on Colorado, according to Greg.
“The day before we went to close on our house, I had seven lessons that day. First, it started raining like you can’t imagine. Then it started hailing like you can’t imagine. Then it started to snow. This was in May. She didn’t want to close,” Core said.
“That was the only day she was ever in Colorado.”
Greg returned to New Orleans in July 2007, around the same time the renovation project began at Metairie. He got a job with Ormond Country Club, but was forced to evacuate the area again when Hurricane Gustav threaten the Gulf Coast in August 2008.
“I got into a car wreck and was laid up,” he said. “They couldn’t afford to keep me. Two hurricanes got me.”
After being let go in September, Core decided to get the necessary licenses needed to work for Mass Mutual Financial Group. That job ended in July 2010. The dissolution of his marriage was finalized Feb. 17, 2011.
“Going through divorce is probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Core said. “I was working so much, I just didn’t realize … I had so much focus on rebuilding the country club that I didn’t pay attention to everything else.
“Now, I’m teaching kids the game, trying to get back into the golf business. It’s tough out there. The golf economy got hit really hard and never really recovered.”
Metairie Country Club did.
When the club re-opened in late 2005, a double-wide trailer was used as the golf shop/storage facility. A portable tent with air conditioning pumped in served as the clubhouse.
Today’s clubhouse is grandiose. It includes multiple rooms for meetings and parties, gorgeous dark-wood floors, pristine locker rooms and even a barber shop, which existed pre-Katrina and has been run by Nick Randizzo for decades.
There's also a sports complex which features clay tennis courts, an exercise facility, a child-friendly pool with zero entry and an Olympic-sized lap pool.
For all the updates and additions, the club still has a classic, old-time feel. Black-and-white photos of the original course layout decorate the walls. Hamrick spent one day going through some of the old pictures that were not damaged and saw one of former President Gerald Ford playing the course.
“He was here, on the course, when he got the call that he would be president, that Nixon was resigning,” Hamrick said.
The course is in stellar shape, thanks in large part to Alexander, who remained the greens superintendent, and membership is on the rise. There were 1242 members before Katrina, according to Hamrick. That number dropped to 836 around early 2007 and currently stands at 964.
“Members who haven’t been to the club since Katrina are still members today out of loyalty,” Hamrick said.
Added Marchand, “This is an extension of family, a great atmosphere. It’s rare in this business that you find membership who not only cares so deeply about their club but about its employees as well.”
Core still has a fondness for Metairie Country Club. You can hear it in his voice when he says, 'Oh yeah, I've been back there on a number of occasions. It's in great shape. They are doing a fantastic job.'
Yet there seems to be a tinge of remorse in his tone, perhaps a wondering of what life might have been like had he never left in the first place, had there never been a Katrina. Core turns 50 in July. He's unemployed, save for the lessons he gives to juniors.
Five years ago, Core and then wife Martha, who was newly pregnant, talked about the pangs of the recent past and their desire for a more pleasant future. Near the end of that day, Martha offered up something keen: “If God intends for something to happen, it’s going to happen – no matter how prepared you are,” she said. “It’s just how you handle the aftermath.”
In that, Greg Core has no regrets.
“I was the club pro. It was my job,” he said. “It’s the only option I had and I’d do the same thing again.”