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Puerto Rico Open returns as island stands strong once again

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Like most houses in Puerto Rico, Jason Matos’ home is built low to the ground and with cinderblocks, an aesthetic concession to the architectural necessities of life inside of a hurricane corridor. Having been born and raised in Puerto Rico, Matos also is accustomed to the periodic storms that batter the island.

But on Sept. 20, 2017, as the winds intensified and the rain lashed his sturdy home, he started to worry.

“I put my wife and daughter and three dogs in the bathroom until the winds died down," Matos recalled. "They were in there for about four or five hours.”

By the time Hurricane Maria passed over Puerto Rico, the Category-4 storm and its 155-mph winds left a swath of destruction that still lingers. The numbers are overwhelming. The storm was the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, knocked out power to the entire island and left a recovery bill that is $90 billion and counting.

For Matos, the cost of the storm was immediately evident. While his family survived the storm, and his cinder block house adjacent to Coco Beach Golf Club, where he’s the course superintendent, was relatively intact, the same couldn’t be said for the course that annually hosts the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open.

The scene that awaited Matos at Coco Beach the morning after Hurricane Maria washed over the island was a microcosm of the storm’s devastation.

“When we drove out there were just hundreds of palm trees all over the course and the road. The course was underwater. The hurricane was so strong that it ripped off the storm shutters on the clubhouse,” Matos remembered. “The first thing that goes through your mind is where did all that water come from? How long is it going to be on my grass? This is how a superintendent thinks.”

Between Maria and Hurricane Irma, which skirted Puerto Rico just a week earlier, more than 30 inches of rain saturated the island, leaving 75 percent of the championship course at Coco Beach underwater and destroying the facility’s pump station.

Matos said the storm down about half of the trees on property, and sand in the layout’s bunkers almost entirely washed away.

In the aftermath of the two storms, the island’s supply chain was quickly stretched past its limits. An aging power grid was decimated, and to this day there are some isolated areas of the island still without power. Fuel and water shortages became part of everyday life. But for Matos and his efforts to restore Coco Beach, it was sand that became a precious commodity.

“Getting sand on the island was a real headache,” Matos laughed before immediately recognizing the irony of his dilemma.

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A Puerto Rican flag is pictured still waving in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Despite being left shorthanded when a dozen members of his maintenance crew fled to the mainland in the storm’s aftermath, Matos begged, borrowed and browbeat the championship course back to tournament shape.

“The course should be in acceptable condition for the tournament,” a recent memo from the Tour to players read.

Considering how much Matos and his crew had to overcome, players will discover much better than “acceptable” conditions this week when the Tour returns to the island.

In the most trying times of the recovery, Matos negotiated to buy fuel, initially bound for a FEMA compound, for Coco Beach to keep its generators running. “We had to stop the truck headed to the hotel (which doubled as a FEMA staging area and temporary housing during the recovery) and pay in cash,” he admitted.

The challenges for Matos, however, went well beyond professional pride. For his employees who remained in Puerto Rico, the requirements of work had to be heavily balanced with the demands of everyday life in a disaster area.

“It was really hard on the guys to get to work. They had to stand in line for fuel for 18 hours and were only allowed to buy 10 gallons at a time. We had no power,” Matos said. “We tried to help our employees as much as we could. They had to come to work but they also had it in their minds they had to take care of their families.”

Matos installed a washer and dryer in the maintenance facility so his employees could do laundry for their families and gave them each a bag of ice per day. 

It took 10 months following Maria before power was restored at Coco Beach and nearly a year before the neighborhoods in the hills above the posh resort were back on the grid. When the Tour descends on the island this week for the first time since 2017, the goal is business as usual.

But it’s clear that the recovery has been anything but normal.

Rafael Campos, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and still lives just outside of San Juan, was playing in the Tour Finals when Hurricane Maria hit the island. He spent the days after the storm staying with a friend in Miami and waiting for sporadic updates from his family.

“I can’t possibly imagine what everyone went through back home. When I saw my dad, he had white hair. He never had white hair; there was so much stress,” Campos said.

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D.A. Points is a past winner of the Puerto Rico Open, one of the island's biggest tourism draws.

As the island embraced the reality of a long recovery, Puerto Rico Open tournament chairman David Chafey held out hope that the event could be played in 2018. The tournament is the island’s biggest sporting event and a key piece to its tourism strategy, but despite Matos’ best efforts, neither the island nor Coco Beach were ready.

Instead, the Tour hosted a charity pro-am last March that included 20 professionals from the PGA, and LPGA tours. The event raised more than $500,000 for relief efforts.

Though the pro-am was a much-needed break from the day-to-day grind of recovery, it wasn’t the Puerto Rico Open. On an island where community pride is woven into the fabric of every aspect of life, actions matter, and when the event was placed back on the 2019 Tour schedule, it was a symbolic victory for a place that desperately needed a win.

“Those first few months, really, most roads were impassable. You couldn’t go on a road or a fairway. It was a devastating scene,” Chafey explained. “I would use the word pumped for a lot of people that we’re sending a message that the tournament is on. They will see a picture from just a year ago. From devastation to hosting the tournament.”

Jason Matos and staff in Puerto Rico
Jason Matos

Even for those not even associated with the tournament, this week’s event is a celebration of perseverance and indisputable evidence that not even a once-in-a-century storm can break an island’s spirit or resolve.

“In the Puerto Rican culture we are really full of pride. It doesn’t matter where you go on the island you feel at home,” said Campos, who has already won this season on the Tour and is playing this week’s event on a sponsor exemption.

“It’s the one week out of the year that tourism and the course is promoted worldwide. Being able to have the tournament again is awesome.”

Matos can now from his cinderblock home look out over a golf course that has been transformed from a disaster area, flooded and littered with trees and debris, back into a championship course poised to again host the world’s best players.

“It’s been really hard,” Matos said, allowing in a brief moment of reflection. “It’s been a struggle having to get over that year, but Puerto Rico is a resilient island. We are strong and back on our feet.”